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Okra: A Southern summer treat

Beautiful hibiscus flowers, tall strong stalks, large prickly leaves and elongated green fruit are all a part of this Southern staple.

Growing up, I watched my grandfather and father grow and pick Louisiana Green Velvet okra.  They would wear long sleeves while walking through the jungle of stalks and leaves picking buckets of this velvety smooth vegetable.  I begged to help, but when I was finished, I ran inside and washed off my arms because they were itching from contact with the leaves.  That night, my mother would stir fry this delicious treat and we would eat until there were no leftovers.  As an adult, I went to every feed store I could find searching for Louisiana Green Velvet okra seeds, but could find none.  I asked my father if he had any extra because I knew that he and my grandfather saved their seeds from year to year.  Thankfully he did, so I planted some and continue the tradition.

Okra is in the hibiscus family and is very easy to grow in our area.  Okra grows three to six feet tall depending on the variety.  Before planting, choose an area that receives full sun and has well-drained, fertile soil.   Okra seeds should be planted in the ground one inch deep and three to five inches apart in rows that are 36 to 48 inches apart.  Planting dates are flexible depending on the weather but usually occur from April 1 – July 15.   If the seeds do not germinate well, they can be soaked overnight.  I usually plant mine in wet soil.  Seedlings should be thinned to 15 to 24 inches apart.  When I thin my seedlings, I dig them up and transplant them to places where seeds did not germinate.   Okra is sensitive to being moved, so as much dirt as possible should be kept around the roots, and they should be watered well.  The transplants will look wilted for a day or two, but they should perk up and grow nicely.  According to the Texas A& M AgriLife Extension Service, the best varieties for our area are Clemson Spineless, Louisiana Green Velvet, Dwarf Green, Emerald and Long Horn.

When harvesting okra, the smaller pods, less than five inches, are the tenderest.  If the pods are allowed to grow too large, they will be harder to pick and too tough to eat.  If the plants begin to slow in their production, one-third of the plant can be pruned.  This allows side shoots to form and produce more okra.  My grandfather used to prune his okra back every year in order to get a second crop.  To save seeds, a few pods should be left on the stalk until they turn brown.

Okra can be prepared many different ways.  Some people put it in gumbo and other soups, others fry it or cook it with tomatoes.  My favorite preparation is stir fried.  To stir fry okra, cut it up into small (quarter-inch) size rounds and shake it in a plastic bag with cornmeal and the seasoning of your choice.  Then stir fry it in a skillet with several tablespoons of hot oil until it is browned and tender.

Reach Jefferson County Master Gardener Melissa Starr at melynstarr@hotmail.com or call the Texas A&M  AgriLife Extension Office at 409-835-8461.