Consider growing okra as an ornamental, too.

Whereas the beginning and the present experience have turned out to be beyond expectation in our very first attempt to grow vegetables in raised beds, the events that took place in the middle, though now behind us, caused us a fair amount of heartache. After having great success in raising spring veggies, we gained confidence to move on to growing summer ones such as okra, cucumber and several varieties of squashes. To our delight, the plants grew vigorously, perhaps because the soil used to fill the raised beds was fresh, thus had plenty of available nutrients, in addition to the regular bouts of rain we had, generally in time when moisture was needed. But unfortunately, right when the squash and cucumber were at the peak, came the mildew, to which one by one our plants succumbed. It was a sad sight.   

Nevertheless, the okra plants stood tall, literally, providing us with ample supply for daily consumption;  the plants are still continuing to grow this late in the season, at the same time producing more flowers, hence plentiful of pods.  True, while beauty lies indeed in the eyes of the beholder, I find okra plants very ornamental: tall yet upright, with large lobed leaves and lovely pale yellow flowers, each petal marked with a reddish spot at the base.

Okra belongs to the mallow family of which hibiscus, the popular summer-bloomer, is also a member hence a likeness in the appearance of flowers. One can grow okra from seeds or get seedlings from garden centers to plant in the garden. I opted to start from seeds since it gave me a chance to choose from a wider selection of varieties; in fact,  I found a compact type called “Jambalaya” suitable for container gardens, therefore perfect for our raised beds, in this year’s catalog of Pinetree Garden Seeds.         

Being a heat-lover, one really needs to wait to plant okra until the soil has warmed up. Plants have a slow start, but take off quickly as warm season progresses; being drought-tolerant, not much care is necessary. Once pods start forming, they grow in just a matter of days. So, for best flavor and texture, pick them when they are still young and tender.
But, don’t fret if you discover large mature fruits hanging on branches, which is bound to happen due to oversight. Though too tough to eat, dried okra pods are much sought-after for adding to holiday wreaths and decorations made with natural material; in fact, since there are quite a few of such fruits on our plants, I will let them dry on their own and explore ideas to use them along with the long hot peppers we have in our garden, once they turn red.

Overall, okra is a versatile summer annual and worth a try: carefree plants that are pretty to look at and provide fresh produce for our dinner table. By the way, handling okra plants can cause itching in some people; so use gloves, or let someone else in the family do the picking!


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