Okra, a plant native to Africa, is the perfect summer crop for Central Texas vegetable gardens. It is drought- and heat-tolerant, and while it can grow in milder climates with limited success, it loves the south’s hot temperatures. It is actually one of the most heat-tolerant vegetable species in the world and tolerates heavy, clay soils and intermittent water.
Many northern gardeners are envious of our okra-growing superpowers, and with its gorgeous hibiscuslike flowers blooming on 6-foot stalks, it practically begs to be grown in a southern garden.
Ladies’ fingers, gombo and bhindi are all names for okra, which is a member of the mallow family. It’s a close relative of cotton, cacao and hibiscus.
In Texas, okra can be planted in late spring when the soil has warmed to at least 70 degrees and again in summer for a fall crop. Okra has a long taproot and needs to be grown in deep, loose soil. Before planting seeds, loosen the soil with a turning fork or shovel and add compost to the area. Plant seeds about 4 inches apart in rows that are 3 feet apart. The seedlings need ample water to germinate.
Once the seedlings emerge, thin the plants to every 12 inches. These plants grow tall stalks with large leaves that really take off in warm weather. The flower blooms about 60 days after planting, and a few days later the fruit (pods) appear.
As for pests and diseases of okra, the biggest threat is cool weather. Even a slight frost will knock out a crop. But make sure you don’t plant your seeds too late into summer. You will probably notice small black ants climbing up the plants to get to the nectar in the flower, which is usually not a problem, but fire ants can damage flowers, causing them to abort fruiting. Once the flowers develop fruit, check the size of the fruit daily and harvest when the pods are about 3 inches long. Any larger and they begin to get too tough to eat.
The more you harvest, the more fruit the plant will set. At this point, the plant is quite drought-tolerant, but more frequent watering will yield more fruit.
To harvest, either snap the pods off at their tender stems or use a harvest knife to remove them from the stalk. Most okra varieties have fuzzy spines on the pods that can cause skin irritation when harvesting, so wear a glove and long sleeves. The most widely planted variety is Clemson Spineless and features a spine-free pod.
Another interesting variety is Burgundy, which produces a pod with a dark red hue. The pod, however, turns green when heated during cooking.
Saving the seeds for planting next year is very easy with okra as long as you are growing plants of the same variety. At the end of the season, simply leave some of the pods of the most drought-tolerant plant on the plant until they get very large. Remove them and let them dry (they may even dry while still on the plant). Once dry, the seeds will easily come out of the pod. Save them in a cool, dry place, and plant next year.
There are many ways to cook okra, but for many of the kids I have worked with in gardens, eating it raw is actually their favorite way.
Maybe all things just taste better standing in a garden eating the fruits of your labor, but try some raw this summer.
If you are not a fan of the slimy okra, cooking it with acidic tomatoes reduces the mucilage. Of course, you can always fry it too.
Another technique that produces a slime-free okra is whole roasting it. Since it is not cut, it doesn’t produce the mucilage. This simple way also highlights the flavor of the okra.
The following roasted okra recipe with accompanying dipping sauce is from Mackenzie Smith Kelley, a photographer, recipe developer and creative consultant. Her work focuses on the stories that connect and sustain us, especially through food. Mackenzie is also the editor and co-founder of the World in a Pocket, an online project dedicated to exploring the world through the lens of a dumpling and other pockets, or food inside of food.
Garlic Chive and Kale Sauce With Yogurt and Tahini
I keep some form of green sauce made of blended herbs and greens in our kitchen at all times. It’s great for dipping, dressings and a savory drizzle of brightness on eggs, pasta or fish. Right now our herb garden is overflowing with garlic chives, aka Asian or Chinese chives, perennials that grow in abundance year-round here in Texas.
We have a robust dill plant for a few more weeks, so this week’s creamy green sauce is made with garlic chives, dill, yogurt, lemon and tahini. If you don’t have garlic chives on hand, use a clove of garlic and ¾ cup of parsley or cilantro instead. This zippy, creamy dip is the perfect pairing for crispy roasted okra.
1 cup plain full-fat yogurt
4 tablespoons tahini
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon honey
¾ cup garlic chives, roughly chopped
¼ cup dill, roughly chopped
1 teaspoon salt (more to taste)
Add all ingredients to the blender, in the order listed above — adding liquid first will make for an easier blend. Salt to taste.
Crispy Roasted Okra
I love okra any way it comes (so long as the slime isn’t a factor), but roasting it to a crisp with a generous drizzle of olive oil and salt is my favorite way to enjoy this vegetable. This recipe works best with young okra no longer than 3 inches, maybe 4 inches — any bigger and the husk is too fibrous to eat comfortably.
1 pound okra, trimmed
4 tablespoons olive oil
½ teaspoon sea salt
Preheat oven to 450.
Wash and dry okra on a towel. Make sure okra is completely dry before trimming, as any excess moisture will slow the browning process. If okra is more than a few days old, trim the stems, removing the part that looks like it has dried. If okra is just picked, you won’t need to trim the stems, as they are fresh enough to crisp in the oven without getting tough.
Cut okra lengthwise, and add to a large mixing bowl. Toss with olive oil and salt. Place okra on a sheet pan, leaving about 1/2 inch of breathing room between each slice, which allows okra to crisp as it cooks (you’ll need at least 2 sheet pans for 1 pound of okra).
Place in the oven and roast for about 15 minutes, then open the oven and stir the okra. Roast for another 15 minutes, then check in. If the okra is golden brown and crispy, it’s ready. If it has started to brown but isn’t crispy, place back in the oven for another 5 minutes. Cook until crisp.
Liz Cardinal is the founder of Austin Edible Gardens, austinediblegardens.com.