Okra (also known as Ladies’ Fingers or bhindi) is one of my favourite Indian vegetables. The origin of okra is contested, but it comes from Africa and South East Asia. While a little more challenging to grow in New Zealand’s more temperate climate, it is nonetheless possible to grow okra successfully, at least in the Auckland region and further north.
Okra is traditionally green, but it is also possible to find the seeds for burgundy and orange okra in New Zealand. Homegrown okra tastes so much more tender and fresher than imported okra, which can sometimes be quite tough, not to mention expensive. Okra is a very versatile vegetable. It is highly prized in Asian cuisine and makes a wonderful addition to curries. It is also used in gumbo (a type of stew) in the southern states of the USA. We enjoy it cooked in a pot with a little onion, chilli and turmeric. It doesn’t take long to cook and is so delicious! We like having okra as an accompaniment to dahl and curries.
The main trick is to not sow okra too early in the season. My other tip is to try growing okra in containers if like me, you don’t have luck growing okra in the ground. I hope that with the help of information in this guide, you’ll be able to grow some of your own successfully this season.
In my experience, okra should be started undercover in mid-November and no earlier. Don’t forget that okra is a subtropical vegetable that performs best in really hot weather. While it’s natural to want a head start on the season, my advice is to not be in a rush to sow okra seeds and plant out seedlings. There is often a dramatic difference between day and night time temperatures at this time of the year and the weather can still be quite temperamental. Young seedlings are particularly tender. Once they’ve been hit by a sudden cold snap or exposed to consistently low temperatures, they never really recover. It’s therefore a good idea to wait until mid November to start sowing okra seeds, when temperatures are warmer. This way, the seedlings you plant out in December will be a bit more established and strong enough to survive any setbacks along the way. This might seem very late and many people are simply too impatient to wait, but in my experience okra started any earlier almost always ends up dying at some point simply due to the temperatures being too cool.
Whether you can grow okra successfully or not does depend on where you live. New Zealand’s climate varies dramatically from region to region and I do have to remember that not all of my audience lives in Auckland or even New Zealand for that matter. My personal gardening experiences are limited to our urban homestead in the Auckland region, so please take this into account when considering my advice. On the same token, what grows well in my environment may not necessarily thrive in your own microclimate. In my opinion, it is possible to grow okra successfully in Auckland and north of Auckland. It may be possible to grow okra successfully in other parts of New Zealand, in certain parts with the help of a glasshouse.
Sowing okra from seed
Now is the perfect time to sow okra. It can be hard to find okra seedlings at the garden centre, so why not try growing okra from seed? It’s very easy, provided you sow seeds when it’s warmer. Okra germinates relatively quickly, so it will only take about 10 days to two weeks until your plants reach a stage where they’re large enough to transplant outside, either in the ground or in pots.
As okra seeds have a very hard coat, I find it helpful to soak seeds for a few hours prior to sowing. This improves the rate of germination.
Even in November, I still raise okra seedlings undercover to protect them from fluctuating night time temperatures. Okra seeds need warmth in order to germinate. I germinate seeds in punnets filled with seed raising mix from Gardn Gro. I like Gardn Gro’s seed raising mix as it is very fine in texture, enabling seeds to push through the mixture easily as they rise to the surface. I place the punnets inside plastic incubators which you can purchase from garden centres. I then place the incubators on a heat pad indoors and spray plants with water once daily or twice if the seed raising mixture is very dry. If you don’t have a heat pad you can also use your hot water cupboard which will also provide seedlings with a warm environment so they can germinate successfully.
If you’re planning to grow okra from seed, you’ll find that they come in range of colours. Egmont Seeds have two varieties, Burgundy and Emerald Green. I’ve grown both of them in the past, with great results. To order seeds from the very extensive Egmont Seeds range, visit http://www.egmontseeds.co.nz/.
I have green okra in my nursery at present and am selling punnets of six seedlings for just $2 each.
How to care for okra plants
Being sub-tropical, okra needs at least 6 hours of sunshine per day, so be sure to plant seedlings in the sunniest spot in your garden. Before planting okra seedlings, take the time to prepare the bed properly so plants receive adequate nutrition. Dig the area over that you wish to plant your seedlings in. Mix plenty of compost and some sheep pellets into the ground. I highly recommend Gardn Gro’s Wonder Nuggets, which are 100% organic and function as an excellent fertiliser. Rake the ground so that it is nice and level. Add some tomato fertiliser to each plant’s hole at the time of planting, to give plants a strong start to life and encourage fruiting.
Alternatively, you can grow okra in pots. We grew okra in both the ground and in containers one summer. We found that plants grown in pots were bigger and more fruitful than their counterparts in the ground. The soil temperature in containers is warmer than the ground and black pots will radiate the heat. Pots are also prefect if you’re short on ground space or want to devote the area to crops that need room to spread, such as pumpkins and melons or root crops such as potatoes and kumara, which require depth in order to grow successfully.
Be sure to water plants every day, preferably early in the morning or in the evening. In December, plants are in their most active growing phase. Liquid feed okra plants weekly to encourage the growth of healthy leaves and the formation of flowers, which will develop into fruit.
Pollination of okra
Okra are self-pollinating and do not require the assistance of insects or the wind for pollination, unlike a lot of other summer vegetables.
Harvesting your okra
It can take what seems like forever for your first okra to be ready for picking but be patient! In early summer, it will usually be cooler so it might take awhile for them to grow to full size. You can pick okra at any stage. I prefer to pick them when they are smaller because they are tender and you can stay on top of your harvest. If left on the plant for too long, okra can become tough to chew. Got a glut of okra that you can’t get through all at once? This is quite a nice problem to have! Okra can be stored in the fridge for up to 2 weeks prior to consumption, or you can give some away to family, friends and neighbours.