Sunday, September 23, 2012

From Seed to Supper: Growing Okra in Arizona

One of my favorite Arizona gardeners posted some lovely pics of okra on Facebook this week, and they seemed to generate a lot of interest and questions from her followers. It seemed like as good an excuse as any to chronicle my own okra saga, just in case it helps anyone. (Also, I have a lousy memory. If nothing else, I'll have this on hand for next year when it comes time to plant okra.) So here's my process for going from seed to supper with okra in Arizona.

Sprouting...
Some time back in March, I ordered okra seeds from my favorite seed company. Soon after, I eagerly started the seeds inside under grow lights. I found it pretty easy to start the seedlings. I used some organic Miracle Grow potting mix and followed the instructions on the packet. However, I'm wondering if the whole grow lights thing is necessary. I probably did it so I could get a jump start on the season, but I suspect that was a false start. As best as I can tell, okra doesn't really produce a lot until late August or so, regardless of when you get it started. It might be easier to just plant the seeds directly outside, even if it means they get off to a slower start. (Also, if I recall correctly, Summerwinds Nursery had okra seedlings this year, so if starting from seeds seems too hard core, there are other options.)


Okra seedlings. So deceptively small.

Planting...
Sometime around April, it came time to plant the seedlings outside. I probably should have "hardened them off," but I suspect I just stuck 'em in the ground one morning and hoped for the best. I planted mine on the north side of my yard in a 4'x6'x1' raised bed where it would get full sun. Arizona gardeners, this is one of the many charms of okra! Not only can it take full sun during the furnace blast we call summer, it actually likes it! (Crazy, crazy plant!)

Waiting...
This was the hard part for me. Once I planted my little seedlings, then I just watered and waited. Every few weeks I gave it fish emulsion too, but mostly, I just watered and waited. (For watering schedule, I think I started at every other day or so, and kicked it up to every day during the height of summer. Next year, I'm going to try to encourage deeper roots and mulch with hay or something to see if I can get away with watering less.) During this waiting period, I think a few died, so I'm going to take that as a lesson for next year too--plant more than I'll need, because they probably won't all survive.



Okra seedlings do not inspire greatness in the beginning

Harvesting...
Somewhere around August, the okra finally started kicking into gear. By this time, I had 5 plants, and between them, I was probably producing an average of 3-4 pods a day. I've read online that pods are only good for a couple of days, but I would save up my daily haul in a Tupperware container all week and use it to cook something on the weekend. It seemed plenty fresh, so I think that 2 day limit is a little aggressive.

Probably the big things that I learned about harvesting okra are:
  • You've got to hunt for them. The plants are like bushy little trees, and it's easy for okra pods to hide (particularly on the lower branches). If one of those pods slips past your attention for too long (like a day), you're kind of hosed because...
  • You've got to pick them at just the right time. If you let them get too big (over 3-4 inches), they turn into the consistency of tree bark. This transformation from tiny & tender to big & barky can literally happen overnight, so you have to be on your toes!
Right now, we're in late September, and the okra is still going strong.



The ugly duckling turns into a swan

Eating!
I probably get about one really nice meal a week for my husband and I out of our 5 okra plants. Our absolute favorite is bhindi masala, but we've also really enjoyed some gumbo. (The nice thing about the gumbo is that it makes way more than we can eat in one meal, so we have a nice store of easy to reheat leftovers in the freezer when we make a batch.) I tried pickled okra too, but it kind of tasted like mushy cucumber pickles. I think I'll pass on doing those again.



Bhindi Masala. Oh baby.

Composting
Pretty soon here, the okra will probably be done for the season. (Even if it isn't, I plan to pull it up in mid-October when I have some time off from work to garden.) I'll tear them out, compost them, and put something else in their place. So all told, I will have probably gotten about 2 months of good production out of them this season. Not bad!

There you go: Seed to supper. In future years, I might be able to give you a seed to seed saga (where I save the seeds from one year to use the next), but I'm not there yet. Baby steps.


Update (May 24, 2013):
I'm branching out and trying some new okra types this year, and wanted to let you know how it's going. Clemson Spineless, which I planted exclusively last year, continues to be my big winner so far this year. I've got a couple of Burgundy Okra plants too, which are stunning, but boy are they hard to get going (even under indoor grow lights!). I'm not sure if I like the taste as much as Clemson Spineless either. I've planted some Okra Hill Country Heirloom Reds as well. No luck so far, but I might give 'em one more shot. So the season's not over yet, but so far, Clemson's in the lead. Happy gardening! 


8 comments:

Daniel Cox said...

Any insight on why my okra leaves get droopy during the day?

Daniel Cox said...

I'm in Mesa, AZ.

claudette said...

Hi Daniel. How often are you watering it? (In this heat, I've been watering every morning.) Do you fertilize it? (I use fish emulsion every 2-3 weeks.) there are other possibilities, but those are the easiest ones (to start with).

Jaime Vigil said...

Daniel, My okra plants can look droopy mid afternoon but after a few hours of shade they look great again in the evening. I water by drip during the night and that's it. I think as with anything in the sun all day they just get hot but once they get shade they recover. If they arent recovering then you may want to add another evening or morning watering session. Dont water while in direct sunlight though. Good luck! My okra plants are my best producers this year!

TOM said...

how do you keep cats from using your garden as a litter box?

TOM said...

How do you keep cats from using your garden as a litter box?

claudette said...

Hi Tom. I haven't had problems with cats in a while, but I did about a year and a half ago. I wrote about it here: http://cdhobbart.blogspot.com/2012/11/keeping-away-pests.html. Long story short: I put netting over the boxes to keep them out.

TOM said...

I have netting over box now. Thanks for the info, it is good to know that I am on the right track!