I love to eat okra, but it’s not a love we all share — and that’s okay. Okra is a vegetable you either like or you don’t, though we can all agree it provides great ornamental value to any landscape. In flower, the plant is striking as an attractive backdrop. And if the flower looks familiar, that’s because okra is related to the hibiscus. If you want to grow okra in your garden, here’s everything you need to know.
You can also download my How Do I Grow Okra? one-sheet and keep the free resource handy for your reference.
Okra seeds pods are great roasted, grilled, braised, sauteed or fried and can also be used in a number of dishes, including stew and gumbo. Okra can also be blanched then served chilled. Pods can even be pickled for long-term storage. The list of ways to enjoy okra is endless.
The pods are generally green but there are numerous red varieties as well. The colors of the flowers vary as well.
When, Where and How to Plant Okra
Okra is a plant that’s all about summer. Although it grows over a wide range — from zone 4 to 11 — don’t sow seeds outdoors or plant out seedlings until all risk of spring frost has passed.
Okra can be started from seed indoors four to six weeks between the last possible frost date. Soak the seeds overnight in warm water to hasten germination then plant the seeds three-quarters of an inch deep in sterile seed starting mix. In soil that is between 70º and 95º Fahrenheit, the seeds should germinate in 5 to 14 days. Ensure the seed starting mix is warm enough by using a seedling heat mat with a thermostat. Also, keep the seedlings under a grow light for eight hours a day so the plants don’t stretch out as they reach for light.
Before okra seedlings are planted outdoors, they should be gradually introduced to the sun in a process known as “hardening off.” Put seedlings out for a short time on the first day — a half hour — and increase the time spent outdoors each day for a week to 10 days. By the end of this period the plants will be ready to receive a full day of direct sun.
In southern climates, okra may be direct sown after the last possible frost date. Whether planting seeds, store-bought seedlings or home-grown seedlings, space them 12 inches apart in soil that is well-draining and amended with lots of compost or organic matter.
Okra requires full sun and will grow best in soil with a pH that is close to neutral, which is 7.0, so anything from 6.0 to 8.0 will work. Okra also has moderate nutrient needs, so don’t go overboard on fertilizer. To check the soil’s pH and fertility, get an inexpensive soil test. The test results will give you an idea of what soil amendments to add, if any.
Okra seedlings enjoy a soil temperature that is at least 70º. Northern growers can raise the soil temperature by laying black plastic over the planting location a month before planting out the seedlings. Once planted, okra prefers the temperature to be over 60º consistently. If a cool night is coming, cover the crop with floating row cover during the day to retain heat.
Be extra careful while placing seedlings in the ground. Okra has a taproot. If it breaks, the plant will not thrive.
Water immediately upon planting and cover the ground with a layer of two to three inches of organic mulch. Mulch will retain moisture between waterings and will keep the soil warm on cool nights. It also has the benefit of creating a barrier between the plant foliage and pathogens in the soil
Varieties of Okra
All varieties of okra — also known as okro, ochro and ladies’ fingers — are the same species, Abelmoschus esculentus. In the North, it’s wise to choose varieties that are intended for a short growing season. In the South, long-season varieties will get the best results.
Burgundy is an All-America Selection winner that grows 3 to 5 feet tall with red pods that can grow 6 to 8 inches long. The flowers are yellow cream. This variety matures within 55 to 60 days of transplanting. The pods are ready to pick when 3 inches long.
Cajun Delight is a green-podded hybrid variety that was an All-American Selections winner. It is high yielding and matures early, making it a great choice for cooler climates. The pods are five sided and spineless. The plants mature in 50 to 55 days of transplanting.
Candle Fire is a hybrid okra with smooth, round red pods that mature in just 30 days from transplanting. This variety is disease resistant and highly productive.
Carmine Splendor is a hybrid with deep red five-pointed pods that fade to light red or pink when allowed to grow larger. It matures in 51 days from transplanting. The pink-tinted flowers are also edible.
Clemson Spineless is an open-pollinated variety with light green pods that have between five and eight points, and cream-colored edible flowers. It’s the gold standard for “painless picking.” These are better for the South, since they take 60 days to mature from transplanting.
Jambalaya is a green hybrid okra that thrives in shorter growing seasons, maturing in 50 days from transplanting. It has five-ridged meaty pods on compact plants.
Red Velvet grows 4 to 5 feet tall with pods that are slightly ribbed and best enjoyed when 3 to 6 inches long. It matures in 55 to 60 days.
Simpson is an okra variety that matures in 50 days from transplanting. It is open-pollinated with green, 5-inch-long ribbed pods.
Okra has low water needs and doesn’t like wet feet, so only apply water during a dry spell. If it hasn’t rained all week or has only rained very lightly, apply supplemental water — but no more than an inch of water in a week between rain and irrigation.
Always water under the foliage, right at ground level, to avoid getting the leaves and pods wet, as wet leaves invite disease. It’s best to water in the morning so any water on leaves will evaporate during the day. Watering late in the day can create undesirable conditions overnight.
Adding finished compost or organic matter at planting time will give okra much of the fertility it needs to get through the season, but a light monthly application of organic fertilizer will increase yield. A balanced natural fertilizer like a 3-4-4 is best. I also like fish emulsion or seaweed-based fertilizer.
Never apply more fertilizer than the manufacturer’s instructions. More does not equal better, as over-fertilizing can cause more harm than good.
Okra Pests & Diseases
A few pests and a few diseases affect okra but they are usually manageable. The best natural defense from pests is to cover your plants from the moment you put them in the ground with row cover. For diseases, practice crop rotation if a pathogen becomes a recurring problem.
Aphids are soft-bodied sucking insects that are vectors for plant diseases. They may be found on the underside of okra leaves or on the stems. As they eat plant leaves they excrete honeydew, which attracts ants and other insects. They are easily controlled by knocking them off plants with a sharp stream of water.
Armyworms are moth larvae that attack okra seedlings or munch the leaves of mature okra plants. Handpick eggs on stems and under leaves, and pick off any caterpillars, which may be green or black and gray. Bt is an organic control for moth and butterfly larvae that is safe around humans and pets and will not harm other wildlife. Just be sure not to apply it around butterfly larvae host plants such as milkweed and fennel.
Blossom blight may occur when temperatures are high and there has been a lot of rain. Remove the affected blossoms and any pods that have begun to go soft.
Fusarium wilt and verticillium wilt are caused by soil-borne fungi. Starting off with compost-rich soil in the ground or premium-potting mix in containers is the best proactive defense against wilt.
Cucumber beetles are chewing insects that damage leaves. There are a few species of cucumber beetles with different ranges, but all have the same effect on okra. Floating row cover can keep them off, and they can be hand-picked.
Powdery mildew is a fungal disease that can affect okra. Proper spacing of plants to provide air circulation can stop powdery mildew from becoming an issue. A solution of baking soda or diluted milk can slow the spread or be used as a preventative measure. (Read my comprehensive guide to powdery mildew control for more.)
Root knot nematode is a tiny worm that parasitizes okra. Nematodes can stunt a plant’s growth, and once the plants are pulled up, galls on the roots will be evident. Marigolds interplanted with food crops are said to repel nematodes.
Most varieties are intended to be picked when the pods are no more than 3 inches long — and the pods grow fast. Picking frequently and picking pods before they grow larger will encourage the plant to produce more pods. The larger the pods are, the woodier and less tasty they become.
To harvest, cut the stem of the pod, just above the pod’s cap. Once picked, okra pods are quickly perishable. They can be stored in the fridge for two to three days, but no longer.
What are your secrets to successfully growing okra? Let us know in the comments below.
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Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
Episode 094: How to Start and Care for Seedlings Indoors: My Steps for Success
Episode 167: Managing Plant Diseases Organically, with Jeff Gillman
Episode 195: Identifying and Controlling Garden Pests Organically
Episode 204: Hardening Off and Setting Plants Up for Success in Spring
joegardener blog: How Do I Grow Artichokes?
joegardener blog: How Do I Grow Brussels Sprouts?
joegardener blog: How Do I Grow Cabbage?
joegardener blog: How Do I Grow Eggplant?
joegardener blog: How Do I Grow Herbs?
joegardener blog: How Do I Grow Onions?
joegardener blog: How Do I Grow Peas?
joegardener blog: How Do I Grow Peppers?
joegardener blog: How Do I Grow Spinach?
joegardener blog: How Do I Grow Strawberries?
joegardener blog: Powdery Mildew Prevention & Control
joegardenerTV YouTube: Best Mulch for a Vegetable Garden
joegardenerTV YouTube: How to Design Your Vegetable Garden
joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Three popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; and seed starting!
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Seed Starting: Everything you need to know to start your own plants from seed — indoors and out.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Growing Epic Tomatoes: Tomato expert Craig LeHoullier joins me in leading this course on how to grow healthier, productive tomato plants and how to overcome tomato-growing challenges.
Seedling heat mat with thermostat
Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we would get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us. None of the items included in this list have any bearing on any compensation being an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Rain Bird, Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Exmark, Greenhouse Megastore, High Mowing Organic Seeds, Territorial Seed Company, Wild Alaskan Seafood Box and TerraThrive. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.