It may be a Southern staple, but okra is catching on with gardeners in other areas of the country, too. This heat-loving vegetable can be quite productive when conditions are right — and you have a lot more control of those conditions when growing okra in containers.
Why Grow Okra in Containers
While you can grow okra in the garden, container gardening allows you to maximize your growing space if you don't have room for a large vegetable garden. When you grow okra in containers, you can:
- Move pots around to take advantage of the sunniest spots in the yard.
- Extend the growing season by taking containers to shelter when the weather gets cold.
- Customize the soil to promote peak growth.
- Have more control over the amount of moisture and fertilizer plants receive.
- Diminish the need for weeding.
- Avoid problems with root-knot nematode pests, which can be found in some garden soil.
How to Start Okra From Seed
Okra is easily grown from seed. If the growing season is long, you can start okra seeds directly in the container where they'll spend the summer. Otherwise, start seeds indoors to give them a jump on the season, then transplant them outdoors when nighttime temperatures are reliably above 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
Use biodegradable peat pots so garden-ready plants can later be transplanted outside — pot and all — without disturbing the roots. Start okra indoors three to four weeks before the last average frost date. For the planting medium, use a seed-starting mix and keep it constantly moist until seeds germinate — usually in a week to 10 days. Warmer soil temperatures will hasten germination, so consider placing a seed-starting heat mat under the seed trays. Use supplemental lighting, kept within 4 inches of seedlings, to make sure the seedlings get enough light as they grow.
Growing Okra in Containers
How deep do okra roots grow? Okra is known for developing a long taproot several feet deep in the ground. However, the vegetable can make do with a pot that's 12 to 15 inches deep. Only one plant is needed for pollination, so you can grow a single okra plant in a 5-gallon pot. If you have a larger pot — say 10 or 15 gallons — you can grow several plants together. You may be able to obtain used large nursery pots for free from landscape companies or the recycling rack at a big-box store.
Varieties That Grow Best in Pots
For container gardening, look for a dwarf variety. 'Baby Bubba Hybrid' is a good candidate for containers, as it grows just 3 to 4 feet tall and 1 to 2 feet wide, and it matures in 53 days. Compare that to the more garden-friendly 'Go Big' okra, which reaches 5 to 7 feet tall and 5 feet wide and takes 65 days to mature. If you live where summers are short, the shorter the maturity date, the better.
What Soil Mix to Use
When it comes to growing okra in containers, an organic potting mix works best. Okra grows well in soil with a pH of 6.5 (slightly acid) to 7.5 (slightly alkaline). Some gardeners use a mix containing moisture-holding crystals to reduce the need for watering.
Light and Water Needs
Okra likes full sun for a minimum of six to eight hours a day and thrives in temperatures between 75 and 95 F. To ensure the best productivity, keep the soil moist but well drained, especially when plants are flowering.
For easy maintenance, use a potting mix that contains a slow-release fertilizer. Or add an organic granular vegetable fertilizer, scratching it into the soil at the time of planting. A shot of water-soluble fertilizer once or twice early on in the season can also give plants a boost. Avoid nitrogen-heavy fertilizers because they can cause more foliage to grow at the expense of flowers and fruit.
Pests to Look Out For
Keep a sharp eye out for aphids, which are attracted to okra plants. Colonies of these tiny sap-sucking insects cluster on plants, leaving yellowing foliage, distorted shoots and the telltale sign of honeydew on leaves, which results in a black sooty mold. Treat the plant with insecticidal soap or hose the aphids off the plant with a stream of water.
Okra Harvesting Tips
Okra is a cut-and-come-again vegetable, so harvest regularly. Leaves and stems have small spines, so you might want to wear gloves and long sleeves when harvesting. Use pruners or a sharp knife to snip young pods from the stem when they're 3 to 4 inches long, about five to six days after flowering. If you wait too long to harvest, okra becomes tough and stringy. Keep the vegetable in a sealed plastic bag in the refrigerator for several days — or blanch and freeze it. Among other uses, okra is tasty steamed, fried, or added to soups or stews.
If you haven't grown okra in a container before, give it a try and see what you've been missing!
For more information on container gardening, check out the Burpee blog.