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Gardener's Dirt: Tips, guidelines aid in growing okra

By James E. Denman
April 21, 2011 at midnight
Updated April 20, 2011 at 11:21 p.m.

These okra plants are shown before being thinned out in Master Gardener Jim Henke's garden.  They can be at least 4- to 5-feet tall and 5 feet in diameter when fully grown.

When spending time with my grandparents in Cheapside, I helped in their garden and learned a lot about gardening from them. The last thing they would plant in April would be okra, as soon as the danger of frost was over.

PLANTING TIPS

Plant your okra where it will be in full sun. Okra will grow in ordinary garden soil, but does best in fertile soil, particularly in a location where early peas grew previously. You may want to do a soil test on the area where you will be planting your garden to determine the soil content. Your local Texas AgriLife Extension Office will be happy to help you with this.

Prepare your ground in an area that drains well. Use stakes made of wood or metal, and tie a string to one end and attach to other sticks. This allows you to make your rows straight. We were visiting my father-in-law, Raymond Huck, in Nordheim at the time he was planting his garden. I made the remark that his rows looked a little crooked. He replied, "I can get more plants on a crooked row than on a straight row." I never commented on his crooked rows again.

As with all gardening, mixing compost in the area you will plant is beneficial. Soak your seeds overnight to hasten germination. Plant your seeds when the soil temperature is at least 60 degrees. Sow seeds -inch deep in sandy soil and 1-inch deep in clay soil. Space your seeds 3 inches apart, in rows 3 feet apart. Thin seedlings 12 to 24 inches apart, leaving the strongest of young plants.

GROWING GUIDELINES

Mulch with grass clippings or shredded leaves when your okra is 4-inches tall. Mulching tends to keep out weeds and helps conserve moisture. Be sure to water during dry spells. Drip irrigation or soaker hoses provide the most efficient water use, and don't wet the foliage, which may increase disease possibilities. Do this and your okra stalks continue to grow and produce. About mid-summer when the weather is very hot and production has waned, cut the plants back to half their height and fertilize to produce a second crop. The plants will continue to produce until frost.

PROBLEMS, SOLUTIONS

Okra is seldom bothered by pests or diseases. Hand pick any stinkbugs that may appear, as they tend to cause misshapen pods. There is also a soil-borne disease, which causes leaves to yellow and wilt. This is called fusarium wilt. If this happens, pull and destroy the affected plants. The best preventive measure is to rotate your crops. Nematodes in the soil plugging okra root pores and causing the plants to wilt is typically the biggest problem though. Off season, solarize the soil or plant cereal rye in the fall to help kill nematodes.

HARVESTING

Okra will have yellow, hibiscus-like flowers with a touch of color in the center. Edible pods will start appearing 50 to 60 days after planting. They will be ready to cut a few days after the flower falls off. Harvest daily to prevent pods from getting too hard. Harvest with a sharp knife when they are about finger size or a little longer. You want the stems tender and easy to cut.

If you are sensitive to okra's prickly spines, wear long sleeves and gloves. There is a spineless variety called "Clemson Spineless," which I like because it doesn't irritate your skin. My wife's grandmother told her to wash the okra in baking soda water, and that cuts back on the itching if allergic. Be sure to cut and compost any over mature pods, or let just a few harden and dry and save them for seed. There are many varieties of okra that work well, but I just can't wait to plant some Hungarian okra that I learned about from my fellow Master Gardeners, Tom Akins and Jim Henke.

COOKING, FREEZING OKRA

To avoid sliminess when cooking, you can briefly stir fry or cook with acidic ingredients like tomatoes, a touch of vinegar or lemon juice. My mother added a little vinegar to her okra. The smaller okra can be pickled and put in jars, as did Master Gardener Lupe Cook in her recipe and photo alongside this article.

My family loves it cooked as a gumbo. You can put this in jars or freeze to use later as a vegetable dish or add shrimp for seafood gumbo. My mother would also put butter in a frying pan, add cut up okra, onions, salt and pepper, touch of vinegar and stir fry. When cooking black-eyed peas, add some of your smaller okra to your pot

It doesn't matter how you fix okra, whether whole, cut up or ready to fry, it freezes well without blanching although blanching is recommended for food safety reasons. Fried okra can be frozen by cutting them the size you want, (preferably blanching - cooling), coating in cornmeal, freezing on a tray and in freezer bags.

Any which way you fix it, enjoy your okra and - bon appetite.

The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or vcmga@vicad.com, or comment on this column at www.VictoriaAdvocate.com.

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