Growing Okra for Gumbo and Beyond
If you’ve ever made a gumbo before (or you’re feeling adventurous this Mardi Gras season), you’ve faced a decision near the end: how to thicken it. Contrary to popular belief, the roux – a mix of flour and fat that forms the base of the stew – does not contribute much at all to thickening the dish. While light roux does indeed thicken, gumbo calls for the roux to be cooked until it reaches the color of dark chocolate, which contributes a ton of flavor but still leaves the soup needing something more at the finish to reach the right consistency. While there are as many gumbo recipes as there are people who make it, the job of thickening the dish generally comes down to two options: file powder – which is dried powdered sassafras – and that Southern summer staple crop: okra.
In Central Florida, the planting Season for okra runs from February through August as it can thrive in hot summer conditions. Plants should be spaced 4-10 inches apart with a seeding depth of 0.5-1.0 inches. Most varieties take between 60-70 days to mature from seed. Okra grows tall and each plant will yield multiple pods. It can be mowed and rejuvenated two to three times with good production. Its heat tolerance makes it a popular second crop to plant immediately following termination of spring crops such as tomatoes and cucumbers. With commercial row spacing of 36-60 inches depending on equipment requirements, you can expect a plant population of about 43,560 plants per acre yielding between 600-1,000 bushels per acre.
Major pests include melon thrips, aphids, and both root-knot and sting nematodes. Okra is very attractive to whitefly, and while the plant can compensate for the feeding damage, they do provide a base of operations for whitefly to spread to more susceptible neighboring crops like tomatoes so regular scouting is key. Major disease stressors include anthracnose, bacterial and cercospora leaf spot, powdery mildew, and phytophthora root rot.
Okra can be marketed fresh or processed into value-added products through canning, freezing, and pickling. Okra contains a mucilage that can be a strength and a weakness when marketing. If cooked for too long at lower temperatures, the okra can turn soft and runny and this has given okra a bit of a reputation. When added to soups like gumbo, this mucilage is beneficial because it thickens the broth while contributing a green vegetative flavor that balances the richness of the dish. Instruct customers new to okra to cook it quickly over high heat, whether sautéing in oil before adding to a soup, or frying, or even grilling whole with butter and cajun spices. Doing so will keep the okra from becoming slimy and preserves its snap, providing a good introduction to this versatile crop that thrives in the field while everything else has been baked into oblivion by the Florida sun.
2020-2021 Florida Vegetable Production Handbook Chapter 10. Minor Vegetable Crop Production. https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/cv294
Okra Production in Miami-Dade County, Florida. https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/tr009
Nematode Management in Okra. https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/ng027