There are few things that can survive the Northeast Florida summer gauntlet of hurricanes, torrential downpours, luxuriant pests and high night and day temperatures. the weather knuckles down so hard, in fact, that The University of Florida agricultural college suggests just growing a few things: Sweet potatoes (post here), Southern ‘peas’ aka cowpeas (post here) and okra.
Okra has to be our favorite. It’s not just the creamy flowers that look like hibiscus, or the way the red varieties develop ruby-veined leaves that could compete with your average umbrella. It’s the whole package: The beauty of the plant plus the versatility of the pods. You can cook them with field peas, pickle them, boil them, fry them, put them in Jambalaya or rice dishes or soups, and stew them into a thick okra-tomato gravy. (I know, I know. We should probably open up a Bubba Gump Okra Co.)
And then, there’s just the general feeling of ‘Deep South summer’ you get when you caress the fuzzy pods in the few hours before they turn, like a woman scorned, hard as nails.
A brief history
Like many of our favorite Southern vegetables, okra originated in Africa. Many sources say it specifically grew to fame after its discovery in Ethiopia, on the Western shore of Africa, right across from the Middle East, 2,000 years ago. It then spread east to Asia and west to South America.
And, like many of our favorite foods, this plant traveled to the New World with the slaves to make sure they had a steady and familiar food supply when they reached foreign shores. (The name for one of the U.S.’s quintessential Southern dishes, gumbo, derives from the KiMbundu for the food.)
The pods helped keep the slaves healthy and full. It is replete with several key nutrients, is low-calorie, high-fiber and is suspected to help with Type I and Type II diabetes. The seeds might even have a calming effect.
Northeast Florida varieties to grow
As far as okra goes: It may grow well here, but in order to grow it successfully, it’s important to pick the right variety (preferably heirloom).
From past experience, I knew that Clemson Spineless, a heirloom, produces extremely well and that heirloom Burgundy Okra, while less productive, is equally tasty and ornamental to boot. In the gallery below, you can see the difference between the Clemson Spineless, top left, and the Burgundy, two top right pictures.
We started our seeds inside in May, brought them out in June, and had beautiful, full pods by the end of July. Note: The Burgundy Okra is fun to cook with your kids. It starts out red, but by the time it’s cooked, it’s color changed to green.
How to grow okra
Plant one to two plants in a five-gallon bucket or grow bag. Make sure the soil is fertile and well-drained. I mixed in some slow-release fertilizer into the pots before I transplanted ours and they grew like crazy in the Florida heat.
You could also soak the seeds and plant directly into the pots. Soaking the seeds speeds germination and direct-sowing outdoors means you don’t have to harden off (or acclimatize) the seedlings over several days. To buy seedlings, grown just for you, click here.
Once they are transplanted, give them a deep, soaking watering once a week, being sure to water only the roots, not the leaves! Overhead watering invites all kinds of pests and disease for vegetable plants in Northeast Florida.
When they begin to fruit, don’t let the okra get longer than three inches or it will get hard and woody, quickly. This is great for saving seeds, but terrible for cooking for company.
Within two weeks of being transplanted outside, our okra had attracted dreaded black aphids, helped along by our native ants. Ants ‘farm’ the aphids because when the aphids eat your plants, they release sweet ‘poo’ called ‘honeydew’ that the ants love.
Unfortunately, infestations can kill your plants. (Here are some helpers that would love to fix this problem for you).
We tried Neem Oil (organic, biodegradable) and used a whole $10 bottle on our plants. The problem? Neem breaks down in water and it rains a lot. It was very effective in the short term, killing them on contact, but not in the long term due to the fat Florida rain drops washing it away.
So, we followed old farmers’ advice and buried 2-inch piece of banana peel around the plants and put down aluminum foil ‘mulch.’ The pests don’t like the light or the smell of the degrading banana peels and are starting to move on. As of late July, this seems to have worked.
Besides are plenty of other pests you might spot on your okra. The key is to examine the big beautiful leaves – top and bottom – every day to see what’s eating your okra besides you!
Need more help with the bugs?
Here’s a helpful list of pests you might encounter and how to deal with the nasties. Or, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll see what advice I can offer.