Vegetable gardeners can't claim to be truly Southern unless they've grown okra. Native to tropical Asia, this vegetable (known botanically as Abelmoschus esculentus) arrived aboard slave ships from Africa in the 1600s and quickly became a regional staple. It's a large, erect, bushy plant to 6 feet or taller, with big, bold, deeply lobed leaves. The edible seedpods are produced in leaf joints and can be pickled, fried in batter, or used in stews, gumbos, and soups.
Okra loves hot weather, so don't plant it until the soil has warmed to at least 75F. To speed germination, soak the hard seeds in water overnight before planting; use only those that are swollen. Work 12 cup of 10-10-10 fertilizer per 10 feet of row into the soil. Sow seeds 121 inches deep and about 2 inches apart in rows 34 feet apart. When seedlings reach 2 inches tall, thin them to 612 inches apart. After the first pods set, apply 14 cup of 10-10-10 fertilizer per 10 feet of row; repeat three to four weeks later.
Allow 48 to 60 days from planting to harvest. Developing pods grow quickly, as much as an inch per day in hot weather; begin harvesting them when they are 24 inches long, and be sure to pick every couple of days (plants stop producing if pods are left to mature fully). Pods longer than 4 inches are typically too tough to eat. Use a sharp knife or pruners to remove the pods from the stemsand wear gloves, since okra pods are usually prickly.
For small gardens, try a dwarf form that reaches only 34 feet tall, such as 'Annie Oakley II' (48 days), 'Baby Bubba' (53 days), 'Cajun Delight' (50 days), or 'Lee' (50 days). Despite their smaller size, these are heavy producers. 'Clemson Spineless' (56 days), the old standby, grows 56 feet tall; its pods lack prickles.
Some selections have pods that remain tender even when they reach large size. 'Burgundy' (49 days) features maroon-red pods (green when cooked) that stay tender to 8 inches long. 'Burmese' (58 days) an heirloom from Burma, produces pods when only 18 inches tall amid oversize foliage and continues until frost. 'Cow Horn' (55 days), a Southern heirloom, grows 78 feet tall and produces tender pods 10 inches long. 'Hill Country Red' (64 days) is a Texas heirloom. Red stems yield red-tipped pods still tender at 6 inches 'Jade' (55 days) grows to 412 feet tall, bears tender pods to 6 inches long.