Okra: Surprising productivity

Like many traditional southern foods, okra (Hibiscus esculentu) hails from Africa but has become a regular garden vegetable in the South and is heading northwards as gardeners seek out new and healthy crops to grow.  Okra is somewhat of an acquired taste.  It’s a tropical perennial in the mallow family and is very mucilaginous.  In small doses, that’s great for thickening stews, and Creole gumbo often contains okra for that purpose.  (Or, alternately, filé, which is leaves of the sassafras tree.)  People also grill them, stir fry them, bread and deep fry them, eat them raw and soak them in oil for use as a condiment.

I’ll admit I never acquired the taste.  Pickled okra I enjoy in small doses, but otherwise it just tastes slimy to me. So I have ignored it’s garden virtues until I was looking at the list of last years harvest at a local community garden.  600 pounds of red okra?!  Indeed.  Upon pressing them details I learned they harvested that much in about 350′ of row — or about 17 pounds per 10 feet. 17 pounds = approximately 2500 calories, which is more nutrient dense than many garden veggies, but not as productive as tomatoes or squash for the space.  Still, it’s a sturdy upright plant that will not require any support structure.  And while you will certainly get more pounds of tomatoes or squash, a pound of okra goes a long way in the kitchen. Price per pound varies locally from $1-3 for fresh; canned and frozen is much higher in price.

Before growing a crop, I would find a few fresh pods to taste.  There are both green podded varieties and red-podded varieties under various names and slight differences in color; all are green after cooking and taste the same.  There are standard plants (6’+ tall) and dwarf okra (under 3′ tall) and they begin producing in about 60 days.  At peak growth, the plant may require harvesting twice a day.