There are many reasons to add okra plants to your garden. Okra flowers are beautiful and attract pollinators. While okra flowers are self-pollinating, the attraction of pollinators to your garden can benefit plants nearby. The pods are a staple in southern cooking. Can you even call it gumbo without the inclusion of okra pods?
They actually thrive in hot weather, which makes them great producers in the summer garden across warmer climates. There is a catch, however. Since okra can be such a prolific producer, it’s important to know when to pick okra from its stems. Waiting too long can result in a tough and inedible pod.
Another benefit of knowing when to harvest okra is that the more often that you harvest, the more your plant will produce. Okra plants reach maturity within 50-75 days after transplant. The plants can keep producing pods for at least 10-12 weeks. It is possible to keep okra plants flowering and producing fruit long into the growing season.
If you prune okra plants back after the summer harvest slows, this will result in a second fall crop. At this point, you could leave some pods to fully mature and almost dry out on the plant if you wish to save seeds for the following year. You could also harvest okra again in the fall.
Since you’ll likely have an abundance of okra, in addition to knowing when to pick okra, you’ll also need to know how to harvest okra properly. Picking okra can be a pain due to their stiff hairs that have been known to cause skin irritation. Lastly, you’ll need to know the best way to store okra to maximize your harvest. Read on as we cover all of these topics!
When to Pick Okra
As mentioned above, okra plants mature in about 50-65 days. When the plants reach maturity, they will then begin flowering. Okra flowers are beautiful, teacup-shaped, and resemble hibiscus flowers because they are related to hibiscus.
Okra flowers are edible too. If you find yourself with more okra than you can handle, you may want to begin harvesting okra flowers before they turn into pods and eat those too!
Each flower lasts for about a day on the okra plant before it begins to die back and turn into an okra pod. These flowers are self-pollinating, so they don’t require the assistance of pollinators to produce quality pods, but they still attract them all the same.
This can benefit nearby plants that do need pollinators to produce. Pods will appear approximately 4-5 days after the flowers.
Once the pods reach 2-3 inches long and are vibrant in color, then it’s time to harvest okra! Picking okra pods at this young stage will ensure that they remain tender. The color can vary depending on which cultivar you’ve chosen to grow. An okra plant can come in different shades of green, purple, and even red.
It’s important to harvest okra pods every few days to encourage the plant to continue to produce throughout the growing season. Once pods grow too large, they become tough and inedible. These larger pods can be left on the plant to dry if you’d like to save seeds for the following season.
As the summer winds down and the harvest begins to slow, you can prune the okra plant back to a height of between 6-12 inches. This will encourage new growth and a second fall crop.
How to Harvest Okra
On the surface, harvesting okra may seem like a simple task, but there is some caution to be had. Okra plants have stiff hairs known as setulose, which can cause skin irritation. These fine protrusions can be found on pods, stems, and even okra leaves. For this reason, always wear gloves and long sleeves or a long sleeved-shirt while harvesting okra to avoid direct contact with the skin.
Not only is it good to wear gloves when you’re harvesting okra, it’s also a good idea to bring a basket with you to transport your harvest so that you can handle the pods as little as possible. There are spineless varieties, but even those may have some setulose growth.
When picking okra, be sure to utilize a sharp knife or pruning shears to cut the stem just above the cap in one smooth motion. This sharp knife will also help limit your contact with the setulose.
How to Store Okra
After you’re done harvesting okra pods, it’s time to decide how you’d like to consume it. This will inform you which of the preservation methods will suit you best. If you intend to eat it shortly after harvesting okra, it’s best to store it dry in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator. The pods will last a few days this way but should be consumed fairly quickly.
After picking okra, the pods are prone to mold and rot, so don’t wash them until just before cooking them. Those who eat okra pods know their slimy texture. While this can be off-putting to some, the pods are a key ingredient in gumbo as they act as a thickening agent. These pods can be used to thicken other soups and stews in the same way.
Okra’s pods are often left whole and eaten breaded and deep-fried. They are also sometimes pickled to extend the shelf life of a harvest even further. Pickled okra pods make a tasty addition to a charcuterie plate! Some choose to smoke the okra pods before pickling to give them another layer of flavor.
If you intend to store okra pods for the long haul, consider freezing them. When you freeze okra, it will not have the same texture once it thaws. However, the pods will still have the same thickening properties and can be used in soups and stews like fresh okra pods. For the best quality, consume okra from the freezer within one year.
Types of Okra
Now, we’ll cover some of the most common types of okra you can include in your summer garden. These are both spiny and spineless varieties, as well as those adapted to different climates.
Clemson Spineless Okra
This okra was developed at Clemson University in 1980. Clemson spineless is an okra that can handle cooler temperatures than others and generally produces earlier.
It does appreciate hot weather, as all okra does as well. Clemson okra leaves are green, and when you harvest okra from this plant, you’ll have semi-spineless green pods.
Red Burgundy Okra
If you want to add a splash of color to your garden, try planting Red Burgundy Okra seed in the ground this summer. All parts of this plant are deep crimson – stem, fruit, and leaves.
Other red varieties may not continue producing through multiple seasons, but Red Burgundy Okra is very productive, with the flavor and slimy texture typical to okra.
Cow Horn Okra
Maybe you want only the most interesting plants in your garden. If you want to try producing Cow Horn okra, you’ll have a harvest of tender pods that curl from the stem.
Cow Horn has fruit that curls and can grow up to 14 inches long. They have spines, so remember to harvest your crop with care and a sharp knife!
Emerald Heirloom Okra
The tender pods of Emerald were cultivated in 1950 by Campbell’s Soup Company. Each plant grows a stem that can reach 8 feet in height, shading parts of the garden that can’t handle the heat.
The straight but ribboned fruit you harvest from the plant is excellent for cooking, as that is what it was developed for! Seeds of this plant aren’t hard to find online too.
Silver Queen Okra
If you’re on the hunt for seeds that you can grow in the ground through a long summer season, Silver Queen is a great crop for you.
The plant’s fruit grows to a few inches in about 80 days, perfect for long warm seasons. The pods are creamy white at their tops; you can freeze these just as you could other varieties.
Go Big Okra
Let’s say you want to harvest okra within a couple of months, and when you do harvest okra, you want it to be big.
Go Big seeds will help you produce a crop of okra with up to 7-inch long pods. They’re just as delicious as other okras and work both in ornamental and culinary settings.
Jing Orange Okra
While the seed of this plant is touted as rare, it’s easy to find! This Chinese heirloom is not actually orange; instead, it’s a bright red pod that is ready in about 60 days. When you harvest okra from one of these plants, the pods will be roughly 3 to 4 inches long.
Although some red varieties are dwarf plants, this one can reach 6 feet.
Star of David Okra
When you harvest okra, do you want big, fat pods? Try Star of David! This Mediterranean plant grows purplish leaves on stems that grow 7 feet or more. The pods are over an inch in diameter and form within 75 days.
The plant is better for long-season okra gardeners; extra care should be taken when harvesting these. They are extra spiny but quite delicious. Seed for this plant is available at varying seed-saving distributors.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: How big should okra get before picking?
A: Okra pods should be picked when they reach between 2-3 inches long.
Q: What to do with okra after picking?
A: Okra pods can be eaten fresh, pickled, or frozen for future use. After harvesting okra pods, they do not last very long in the refrigerator. It’s best to consume the pods shortly after picking or otherwise preserve them.
Q: What color should okra be when picked?
A: That all depends on the variety! Some okra cultivars are green when mature, some pods are purple, and some are even red.
Q: How do you know if okra is too big?
A: When okra pods grow too big, they will become tough with a woody texture.
Q: What does ripe okra look like?
A: Ripe okra pods are about 2-3 inches long and will be vibrant in color. The color will depend on which variety you are growing. Okra pods generally reach maturity about 5 days after the flowers bloom.
Q: Do you freeze fresh okra?
A: Okra pods handle freezing exceptionally well. Especially if you’re going to use pods later in a stew or gumbo, pods can be frozen whole or chopped into rounds.
Q: How many times can okra be harvested?
A: Pods form quickly during peak season and can be harvested every 2-3 days.
Q: Do you wash okra after picking?
A: Storing wet okra pods leaves them susceptible to mold and rot. For this reason, only wash each okra pod right before you’re going to eat it. Otherwise, your okra pod harvest should be stored dry.