Okra – also known as ladies’ fingers or bhindi – is best grown in a greenhouse in the UK, although it may be worth trying outdoors on a hot, sunny patio. The calcium-rich pods are used in soups, stews and curries.
Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) is a tender crop that needs plenty of heat and sun, so in the UK it grows more successfully in a greenhouse or polytunnel, although plants may also fruit outdoors in a long hot summer. Okra likes similar conditions to aubergines.
Growing up to 120cm (4ft) tall, okra plants have attractive lobed leaves and hibiscus-like flowers that are followed by long, tapering pods. These are ready to harvest from mid-summer to autumn.
When sliced, the pods produce a sticky liquid during cooking, ideal for thickening stews and curries. They can also be cooked whole in stir-fries, or steamed or sautéed as a side dish. The pods have a mild flavour and are best harvested when young and tender.
Month by Month
There are several varieties of okra to choose from, with plants varying in size. The pods are usually green, but there are varieties with red, pink or white pods.
What and where to buy
Okra seeds are available in garden centres and from online seed suppliers. Young plants may occasionally be available in late spring and early summer from the same sources.
Sow okra seeds in March or April – soak the seeds for two hours in warm water beforehand, then sow individually into small pots or modular trays.
Place in a propagator or cover with a clear polythene bag and keep above 16°C (60°F). An airing cupboard is ideal for germination.
Once seedlings appear, remove the covering and place in good light and keep warm, watering regularly. Transfer into gradually larger pots as they grow.
Four or five plants should produce enough okra for most families.
Once young okra plants are 10–15cm (4–6in) tall, in late May or June, transfer them to their final growing position. In the UK, it’s best to keep okra plants in a greenhouse, either in large pots, growing bags or a greenhouse border.
To plant in a container, choose a pot that’s at least 30cm (1ft) wide and deep, and fill with multi-purpose compost. Position one okra plant in the centre, at the same level it was previously growing, firm in and water well. You can also plant two per growing bag.
To plant in a greenhouse border, enrich the soil with garden compost or well-rotted manure, and space plants 30–90cm (1–3ft) apart.
In warmer areas, okra can be planted outside in a sunny, sheltered spot, in containers or in rich, fertile, well-drained soil. But they will need a hot summer to crop well. From late May or early June, dig lots of garden compost or well-rotted manure into your planting site, then warm the soil for a couple of weeks with cloches or black polythene – see our guide to warming soil.
Meanwhile, gradually acclimatise your young okra plants to outdoor conditions for 10–14 days – see our guide to hardening off. Then plant them 30–90cm (1–3ft) apart and water well. Cover with cloches or fleece for a further two weeks until acclimatised.
To fruit well, okra plants need plenty of heat, as well as regular watering and feeding once flowering starts.
Water okra plants regularly using tepid water, to keep the potting compost or soil consistently moist.
Plants in containers need watering more frequently than those in the ground – check them twice a day during warm weather. An automated drip irrigation system may be useful to ensure consistent watering.
When growing okra in a greenhouse border, apply a thick layer of mulch, such as well-rotted manure or garden compost, to help hold moisture in the soil and deter weeds.
Once the first flowers appear, feed okra plants once a week with a high potassium liquid fertiliser.
Keep plants weed-free, to reduce competition for light, water and nutrients.
Pinching out shoot tips
Once okra plants are 60cm (2ft) tall, pinch out the shoot tips to encourage side-shoots to form, which should result in more pods.
Okra plants can grow tall – 90–120cm/3–4ft, depending on the variety – so provide canes for support.
Okra plants produce pods from mid-summer until temperatures drop in autumn, often up to the first frost. Regular picking encourages more pods to form.
Harvest the pods when tender and immature, about 5–10cm (2–4in) long. Handle them gently as the skin is easily marked. Large mature pods become tough and stringy.
Okra plants are covered in short hairs that may irritate bare skin, so wear gloves and long sleeves when harvesting or touching them.
The pods can be cooked straight away or frozen for later use.
Okra needs plenty of heat to crop well – so with plants growing outdoors, even in a warm sunny spot, expect fewer fruits than on plants growing in a greenhouse.
Look out for red spider mites and whitefly, and take action at the first sign – biological controls are available. To deter them, improve air circulation in the greenhouse by opening doors and vents, and raise humidity by damping down (pouring water on) the floor.
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