Okra may not be on your weekly shopping list, but it’s widely enjoyed in Africa, the Middle East, India, Greece, Turkey, the Caribbean and, of course, the southern U.S., where it’s glorified in Cajun and Creole cooking and is used to thicken mouth-watering gumbos. Okra can also be eaten raw: slice thinly crosswise and add them to salads.
Native to Africa, okra (Abelmoschus esculentus syn. Hibiscus esculentus) is a relative of hibiscus, hollyhock and cotton; the beautiful pale yellow, hibiscus-like flowers it produces are a bonus. Its need for a long, hot growing season previously meant that it was something Canadian gardeners could only dream about growing. However, with the development of short-season varieties, anyone who can grow good sweet corn can grow good okra.
Plants will grow to around one metre tall, with dwarf varieties reaching about 75 centimetres. While there are other cultivars, these three are best suited for Canadian gardens.
- ‘Cajun Delight’: A 1997 All-America Selections winner and the most dependable cultivar for Canadian gardeners
- ‘Annie Oakley II’: Very similar to ‘Cajun Delight’, also performs well in northern gardens; an improvement on the original ‘Annie Oakley’, which was the first hybrid short-season variety
- ‘Lee’: A compact variety suitable for growing in small gardens or containers
Start seeds indoors four to five weeks before transplanting outside (figure on three to six plants per person, depending on your enthusiasm). Okra stops growing and can even die in cool weather, so it’s important not to move seedlings outside too soon. Wait until all danger of frost is past, the night temperature is at least 13°C and the soil temperature is 18 to 21°C.
Generally speaking, seedlings are commonly started in flats, then gently “pricked out” (dug out) and put into another container or into the garden. This method disturbs the roots, which doesn’t work well with okra since it doesn’t transplant well. By starting okra in small (five-centimetre) pots or cell packs, seedlings can be eased out with their root balls intact, thus leaving their roots undisturbed. Soak the seeds overnight in tepid water; then plant three seeds, five millimetres deep, in each container. Maintain a soil temperature of 27°C during germination, which takes five to eight days.
Once seeds germinate, use a grow light left on for, ideally, 14 to 16 hours. If you don’t have one, move the seedlings to a warm place (at least 18°C) with lots of light. They will grow very slowly at first, but once they’re about five centimetres tall, keep the healthiest one in each pot; use scissors to snip off the others at soil level. When the plants reach 10 centimetres, gently transfer to 7.5-centimetre pots, being careful not to disturb the roots. Feed every other week with liquid fertilizer (10-10-10) diluted to half strength. Gradually expose seedlings to direct sunlight and outside temperatures before planting out.