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One okra pod in an urban farm

Oh to Okra, A Summer Time Vegetable!

In this article, you will find many interesting tidbits to grow a bountiful harvest of summer time okra.

Southern characteristics of okra

Okra’s (Abelmoschus esculentus (L.) Moench.) culinary term is vegetable but we eat its edible fruit, the pod.  In Florida, we typically grow okra on small acreage, from backyards to small farm production.  Commercially, the south Florida region grows okra nearly year-round, with the peak months from March to November.

For those individuals who say the okra flower looks like a hibiscus flower, you are a good detective. Okra is in the Malavaceae, or the hibiscus family. A clue to this family’s flower is the fused stamens in the center of the flower (male part of flower) that extends outward drawing your eye to how unique it is.  However, be aware of okra’s fine hair on the stem, leaves and fruit. The fine  hairs cause skin irritation when working around the crop. It is difficult to get labor to help harvest okra for its known skin irritants.  Wearing long sleeves and rubber gloves does reduce the skin irritation.

Germination to Seasonality
Okra flower

Okra looks like a hibiscus flower because it is in the same family.

From the time the seed is planted to the day the okra is harvested, okra is a fast-growing and high yield crop.  Depending on the cultivar, it can be harvested in as little as 50 days but up to 65 days.  Temperature and soil moisture are driving forces to growth rate.

When okra starts to bloom, harvest will happen within a few days. Okra should be picked several times a week in order harvest tender, young pods.  The pods become fibrous when left on the stalk too long. If this happens, use the elongated pods in flower arrangements; they make an interesting display.

Cultural requirements

To get the best quality and growth rate, it is necessary to follow proper planting time, fertilization and water application, and pest control (weed, insects, & disease).  Okra grows best when the soil temperatures are above 65°F and provided ample water. Dress this formula with fertilizer, and you will harvest in 50 days.  A suitable fertilizer for most vegetable crops grown on small-scale production or in containers is one labeled with equal quantity of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. For example, a fertilizer with 6-6-6 is a good general type vegetable fertilizer.

Pest Pressures

One of okra’s pest pressures that we do not see physical animals are root-knot nematodes.  They are microscopic soil pests.  Typically, we will see the symptoms of stress before determining nematode infestations in the soil.  According to a paper by Wang, et. al. 2005, four cover crops can effectively suppress nematodes when growing okra.  However, of the four, only two significantly suppress root-knot nematodes on okra.  When velvet bean and sunn hemp were utilized as a cover crop prior, to the planting season, yields increased by 33% and 11%, respectively.

Worms” are another category of okra pests. For instance, Florida has beet, southern, fall armyworms, corn earworm and cabbage loopers.  Additionally, these are not true worms but they are caterpillars that feed on the leaves, young stems and or the pods.  The lepidopterans (moths in this case) can be controlled by a bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis, carbaryl, or Spinosad to name a few active ingredients.

More Pests!

We do not stop here for the list of pests’ pressures.  To group together the insects, we have aphids, cucumber beetles, melon thrips, southern green stink bug, whiteflies, and spider mites, which are commonly listed with insects but they are arachnids (spider group). As of 2020, azadirachtin, spinosad, methoxyfenozide, malathion, and bifenazate are labeled for controlling arthropods (“jointed foot insects and mites) on okra crops.

Although I have listed many chemical products to control or kill the pest pressures, I must talk about integrated pest management with this listing.  We do not have to reach for the chemicals first.  In fact, if you are routinely scouting your crop (watching it for pest problems), properly fertilizing and irrigating the okra, and you have planted okra in a fairly sunny location, chemical application can be used more as a preventative application and in conjunction with other pest management techniques.

Disease and weed pests

There are several diseases impacting okra and many are related to the dampening off diseases: healthy seedlings one day and then the next day the seedlings are wilted and on the ground. As a result of many diseases, I include this link to our UF/IFAS publication containing in depth descriptions of many diseases and control measures.  http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/cv294

Weed pressures for okra is an issue since okra has such a long growing season. However, controlling weeds prior to planting is the best approach to reduce competition during okra seed germination.  Later, okra’s mature canopy blocks out most of the sun from hitting the soil surface. This shading helps reduce weed competition.  But do not be fooled, weeds are a problem all season long.  Your job is to scout early and manage the weeds before they are a problem! Once a weed, like pig weed (Amaranthus spp), which produces 10,000 to 100,000 seeds per plant (depending on the species and level of maturity) matures, you now have a large seed bank in the soil.  This future potential of thousands of pig weed plants will compete with okra for many seasons. The UF/IFAS publication thoroughly covering weed control and herbicide application is https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/wg032.

Cultivars

Harvesting okra

Okra harvest in the morning hours

Okra has open pollinated, organic and heirloom cultivars, several burgundy cultivars, and many traditional cultivars.  Some of the more popular cultivars are Clemson Spineless, Cow’s Horn, Emerald, Blondy, Cajun Delight, to name a few.  One suggestion is to look through seed catalogs for okra cultivars and read the descriptions.  Some are heavy producers; some have exceptionally long pods.

In conclusion, no matter which cultivar you chose to grow, soaking the seeds in water for six hours prior to planting. This will boost germination. Remember okra requires warm, moist soils to get the best production. If you are unsure whether to grow okra commercially or not, check and see if you have a market for it.  You should be surprisingly happy with its production.

References:

Brown, S., Treadwell, D., Stephens, J., and Webb, S.  2018.  Florida Vegetable Guide. https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/vh021

Dittmar, P., Boyd, N., and Kanissery, R. 2018. Weed Control in Okrahttps://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/wg032

Li, Y. C., Klassen, W., Lamberts, M., Olczyk, T., and Liu, G. 2017. Okra production in Miami-Dade County, Florida. https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/tr009

Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. 2020. Factsheet on Pigweeds. http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/crops/facts/01-009.htm

Sellers, B. and Ferrell, J. 2018. Spiny Amaranth (Spiny Pigweed) Control in Pastures. http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdffiles/AG/AG29200.pdf

Wang, Q., Klassen, W., Li, Y., Handoo, Z. Olczyk, T, and Codallo, M. 2005. et al. Influence of Cover Crops In Rotation On Improving Okra (Abelmoschus Esculentus L.) Yield And Suppressing Parasitic Nematodes. https://www.ars.usda.gov/ARSUserFiles/2279/j2005-Wang-Influence.pdf