Okra, native to Africa and a beautiful relative of hibiscus, was brought to North America in the 1600s. This tropical plant quickly became popular in the Deep South both as a side dish and as a thickening for gumbo and stews. It can, however, thrive in any climate where corn will grow. Depending on the cultivar, the large-flowered, fast-growing plants reach 2 to 6 feet tall. Varieties with colorful stems and leaves, such as 'Burgundy', make attractive garden borders.
In the South, plant the first crop in the early spring and a second crop in June. In short-season areas, start plants indoors 6 weeks before setting them out (3 to 4 weeks after the last frost date). Sow two seeds per peat pot and clip off the weaker seedling.
When seeding okra directly in the ground, wait until after the soil has warmed and the air temperature is at least 60°F. Use fresh seed, and soak it overnight or nick each seed coat with a file to encourage germination. Sow seed 1/2 inch deep in light soil and 1 inch deep in heavy soil; spacing is 3 inches apart in rows 3 feet apart. Thin seedlings to 18 to 24 inches apart, always leaving the strongest of the young plants.
When okra is 4 inches tall, mulch to keep out weeds and conserve moisture. Water during dry spells. Every 3 to 4 weeks, side-dress with compost or feed with compost tea. Read about making compost tea. In areas with long, hot summers, cut the plants back almost to ground level in midsummer and fertilize to produce a second crop.
Okra seldom succumbs to pests or diseases. Hand pick any stinkbugs that appear; these light green, shield-shaped bugs cause misshapen pods. To control corn earworms, cabbage loopers, aphids, or flea beetles, go to the Top Ten Garden Insect Pests. Fusarium wilt, a soilborne disease, is sometimes a problem in hot regions. If the disease causes leaves to yellow and wilt, pull and destroy affected plants. Crop rotation is the best preventive measure.
About 50 to 60 days after planting, edible pods will start to appear. They are tough when mature, so harvest daily with a sharp knife when they are no more than finger sized and when stems are still tender and easy to cut. Pick frequently and the plants will keep producing until killed by frost. Be sure to remove and compost any mature pods you might have missed earlier.
Many people find their skins are sensitive to the pods' prickly spines, so wear gloves and long sleeves when harvesting, or plant a spineless variety such as 'Clemson Spineless'.