AMES, Iowa -- While typically associated with vegetable gardens in the southern United States, okra is a vegetable that can thrive in hot, humid Iowa summers. In this article, horticulturists with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach answer questions about growing okra in Iowa.
Can okra be grown successfully in Iowa?
Yes. Okra can be successfully grown in Iowa and other Midwestern states. Okra is a member of the Malvaceae or mallow family. This makes it a great vegetable to introduce to the annual rotation schedule in your vegetable garden because it is not closely related to other common vegetables like tomato, sweet corn, onion, squash, beans or leafy greens. Okra has a similar flower to other plants in this family including cotton, hollyhock and hibiscus. The cream-colored flowers are not as large as a hibiscus but just as ornamental.
Okra performs best in well-drained, fertile soils in full sun. Avoid wet, poorly drained sites. Soil pH is generally not a problem as okra grows well in soils that are slightly acidic to slightly alkaline (pH 6.5 to 7.5).
What are some good okra varieties for Iowa?
Several okra varieties are available to home gardeners. These varieties differ in size from 1 to 6 feet tall with most varieties ranging from 3 to 5 feet tall and 2 to 4 feet wide. Fruit varies in color and shape ranging from dark green to purple to almost white with round, smooth, or ridged shapes. Most varieties produce spineless pods.
The best varieties for Iowa are dwarf or early ripening varieties since our growing season is shorter than in the southern US, where okra is more commonly cultivated. Suggested okra varieties for Iowa include ‘Annie Oakley II’, ‘Cajun Delight’, and ‘Clemson Spineless’ all of which have dark green, spineless pods on plants that grow 4 to 5 feet tall. ‘Burgundy’ is a cultivar with burgundy red pods on 4-foot-tall plants.
When should okra be planted in the garden?
Okra can be established by sowing seeds directly into the garden or by setting out transplants. To enhance germination, soak okra seeds in water for several hours or overnight before sowing.
Sow okra seeds outdoors about two weeks after the danger of frost is past. In central Iowa, mid to late May would be an appropriate planting date. Sow seeds 1 inch deep. Space seeds 4 to 6 inches apart within the row. Rows should be spaced 3 feet apart. When seedlings are several inches tall, thin the row so the remaining plants are spaced 1 1/2 to 2 feet apart.
Okra seedlings do not transplant well. When starting plants indoors, sow okra seeds in peat pots. Plant two seeds in each pot. After germination, thin to one plant per pot. Sow okra seeds indoors six to eight weeks before the intended outdoor planting date.
How do I care for okra?
Okra loves hot weather and will quickly grow in the heat of summer. Okra can tolerate dry conditions. However, watering may be necessary during extended dry periods. Moisture is especially important during flowering and pod development. During prolonged dry periods, a deep soaking once every seven to 10 days should be adequate.
Before planting, apply 1 to 2 pounds of an all-purpose garden fertilizer, such as 10-10-10, per 100 square feet. When harvesting begins, sprinkle a small amount of nitrogen around each plant. However, avoid heavy nitrogen applications, which may promote vegetative growth and reduce crop yields.
Scout often for aphids. These pests are attracted to okra in large numbers. Manage aphids as soon as they are noticed on leaves and growing points. Dislodging them with a forceful stream of water or applying insecticidal soap often controls aphid populations to adequate levels.
How do I harvest okra?
Harvest pods when 2 to 4 inches long. This is usually five to six days after flowering. Use a sharp knife or hand shears. Handle the pods carefully, as they bruise easily. Do not allow pods to get too large. Since the pods develop rapidly, it's often necessary to harvest pods every other day in July and August to pick them before they get too big.
Pods that are more than 5 inches in length become tough and stringy. While the larger pods are still edible, their quality is usually considered unacceptable. Pods that have become too large to use should be promptly picked and discarded. Pods that are allowed to mature on the plant will reduce additional flowering and fruiting.
Some individuals are sensitive to the small spines on the okra's leaves and stems and may develop a rash or itch. Sensitive individuals should wear gloves and a long-sleeved shirt when harvesting the pods.
Shared photo: Okra pods. Harvest okra when the pods are small - ranging from 2 to 4 inches in length.