Okra, Abelmoschus esculentus, is one of the hardiest plants in the mallow family. It is thought to have originated in Africa and Asia but today it is grown across the United States, especially in temperate zones and mild seasons. But did you know that there are great okra companion plants that will enhance your garden efforts?
Growing okra plants is not hard if you have full sun and good soil in your garden. They need plenty of space for good vegetable production. Each okra plant will need at least two feet between itself and the next one. And because they are tall, they will create patches of shade. Any full sun needs in your garden should go to the south of your okra crops.
An okra plant’s accompanying blossoms are striking in color and give off an aroma so lovely, it has been used historically as a base in perfumes. Sow some seeds and in a few months tall stalks tower up to 6 or 7 feet over you and the rest of your garden. Okra is defensive and releases spines when harvested into gardeners’ hands. Spines are much smaller than cactus spines and can be irritating to the skin. Still, consuming okra is worth the effort and the slight pain here and there.
If you’ve ever seen a row or two of okra growing in the summer, you know it can withstand the intense heat of even the deep south. But it thrives well in mild climates too. Nutritionally, okra is a great source of protein, fiber, and carbohydrates. It is high in vitamin and nutrient content too. Be sure to harvest the pods at the right time. Overripe pods are often too fibrous to eat.
If you want to grow okra and provide its soil with a healthy system in which to proliferate, try companion planting! Okra is tall and can provide shade for lower-lying greenery that covers the ground when they grow in your garden. Before we talk about which okra companions are best, let’s get into the basics of what companion planting is.
What Is Companion Planting?
Companion planting is an organic gardening practice of sowing seeds or transplanting different fruits, vegetables, flowers, and herbs next to one another for mutual support. The most well-known of all companion planting practices is Three Sisters. This method of growing, which originated in tribal cultures, involves seeding squash, beans, and corn together. As the three grow from seed, they provide a reciprocal system that supports each in a beneficial feedback loop.
In the Three Sisters method, corn is one of those tall plants that provides squash with shade to cover the ground. Okra can stand in for corn, providing vining beans with a stalk to climb and grow. The bean vines provide all three with nitrogen that helps healthy roots develop and in turn the flavor of each plant is enhanced. The bean vine also works to keep pests away from squash plants, and the squash shields corn stalks or okra from pests and weeds too.
Three Sisters is just one example of companion planting. More generally, companions are good neighbors that can repel pest insects in a process called trap cropping. Pests end up in the trap crop, like pepper plants or tomatoes rather than feasting on the okra. Just a few companions can attract beneficial insects to handle pest problems. Inviting lacewings gives lacewing nymphs smaller pests like aphids to prey on.
Some plants may improve the flavor of others or help them to grow via nitrogen-fixing. For example, beans are nitrogen-fixers and can help supply the nitrogen needs of leafy greens. Low-lying plants can act as ground cover and reduce weeds that fight for nutrients. Taller plants like okra provide dappled sun for other plants if necessary. Fast-growing plants can be used as row markers for slow-germinating varieties so you don’t accidentally double-plant an area. This is great especially if you’re working in a high production setting.
So what is okra doing in the soil, and what are the best companion plants for okra?
Good Okra Companion Plants
Although an okra plant can be a bit spiny to human hands, it’s a great companion to many others. Most of your common produce will do well with okra. But which are best? Gardening with okra companions will give your garden a great boost and will also provide you with a way to learn a few tips on how all these systems work together.
Like many aromatic herbs, basil is among the best companion plants for okra. Basil repels dreaded spider mites, flea beetles, and whiteflies due to compounds in basil leaves that are toxic to smaller pests. An added bonus to planting basil among your okra is it will also repel mosquitos. The last thing anyone wants to do when they’re harvesting okra is pay nature’s taxes in the form of many bites! To include basil among your okra plants, plant mature starts about 6 inches apart at the base of okra stalks.
Another great herb for okra is cilantro, which draws in hoverflies that prey upon aphids. Cilantro also deters potato beetles. To garden with cilantro, tuck starts of it under ground cover plants. It doesn’t need a lot of sun to do well and it can be planted early on in the growing season when the weather is cooler. A good garden friend, cilantro is a good companion for many species.
Onions and garlic are beneficial to okra as a pest repellent as well. Like basil, onion and garlic greens deter insect pests like scarab beetles and aphids. They also deter rabbits who prefer lighter tastes than the strong flavors of green onions or garlic scapes. Onions and garlic help to break up the soil and help okra roots find water and nutrients.
Everyone knows there are layers of benefit that come from planting flowers in your garden. Pollination is key in flowering plants and in organic gardening too. Plant sunflowers along the border of your okra garden to attract key pollinators like bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies that move from sunflowers to your okra. This is just one example of companions that are great for attracting pollinators. Zinnias are also beloved by bees, as are calendulas. Nasturtiums are great for deterring insect pests as well. And okra is a good companion for more delicate flowers.
Ground covering plants like melons and cucumber are excellent for preventing the growth of weeds that can sap nutrients from your okra. Okra grows tall providing shade for cucurbits that prefer dappled sun. Planting cucumber and melon plants also adds an extra layer of pollination power to your garden as okra flowers grow before fruits produce. Since these plants are spreaders, it’s best to plant melon or cucumber two to three feet between plants. Give them a large berth to work with.
Lettuce, spinach, and peas are all fast-producing plants that can be harvested while your okra is still maturing. For the same reason that cucurbits like to be with lanky plants in the garden, lettuce, spinach, and peas enjoy living below an okra plant and relish in the shade it provides. More specifically, peas enjoy cooler weather, so plant them with okra in the early stages before the pods have matured enough for harvest. When their life cycle ends for the season, cut down the greens and let the decaying matter fertilize your vegetable growth.
Lettuce does not have an extensive underground system as its roots are not that deep. So they won’t crowd out other companions you plant with your okra. Feel free to plant them near most other companions. Know that lettuces and greens require extra water for crispness and flavor, so gardening with them will require extra care in that area.
Peppers such as bell peppers or jalapenos are great vegetables for okra. Not only do peppers reduce pests like cabbage worms near companions, but okra is also tall enough to protect the more fragile pepper plant from strong winds. Peppers can be planted between okra plants in early spring or summer (depending on how hot it gets where you live). Any pepper variety will do as long as the timing is right.
Eggplant and tomato are other summer plants that you can plant with your okra. If planted with sunflower, expect an extra boost as sunflowers enjoy sharing soil with both plants. Eggplant loves shade and grows smaller than tomatoes, for instance. Eggplants also boost the potassium content in the soil which okra loves. As you water your eggplant, it releases nutrients into the soil that fertilize okra crops. Both are great for deterring stink bugs, providing trap crops.
Other cooler weather crops like radishes tend to enjoy the benefits of being near a crop of okra. Okra also appreciates the way radish breaks up the soil making way for roots to grow as they seek out water in the soil. Radishes are great year-round producers that survive in most soils and last a long time after harvest. They’re a vegetable worth a try if you’ve never grown them before!
What Not To Plant With Okra
On the whole, plant okra and grow okra with any good companion. It’s very friendly to others in the garden and there aren’t many “don’t’s” when it comes to planting with okra. There are a couple of rules of thumb, however.
Squash (both winter squash and summer squash) and sweet potatoes can increase the number of pest nematodes in your garden, so if you plan to garden in a bed where these vegetables and fruits have been growing, wait at least four seasons before planting okra starts or seed. Grow other companion crops that reduce the number of nematodes in your garden before planting okra. Marigolds are a good choice. Following your marigold crop, cover crops of grains like rye or oats will deliver a final blow to nematodes.
Root knot nematodes love the same conditions that okra plants do: full sun and hot weather. They can proliferate in the same conditions and make it so that nutrient absorption is more difficult for okra plants, which not only depletes the plant of nutrients but also make harvest more difficult or impossible.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Can I plant marigolds with okra?
A: Yes! In fact, marigolds will help deter detrimental nematodes that can block nutrient absorption in your okra crop. Okra and marigolds love each other. Give them plenty of sun, and space adequately. Marigolds need about 10 inches of space between plants. Okra needs a lot more space between itself and other okra plants but can have smaller plants nestled between.
Q: Can you plant cucumbers and okra together?
A: Cucumbers and melons are two of okra’s favorite companions. Cucumbers provide ground cover for okra that prevents weed growth and keeps nutrient content funneling into okra stalks. They can also act as an impromptu trap for pests that would otherwise feast on okra leaves.