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Growing and Seed Saving: Okra
- Breeding a Nova Scotia Okra! -
We in the Maritimes may be many miles away from traditional okra country (places like Virginia or the Gulf Coast) but we do indeed have the climate here to grow certain short season strains. I had attempted to grow okra probably a half dozen times over the years, always without much success. I realized recently that those early okra struggles were mostly the result of not growing the right varieties.
In August 2013 I visited Southern Exposure Seeds, based out of the Acorn Community in central Virginia. Exploring their beautiful gardens was my first experience seeing happy okra in it's natural habitat. Both at Acorn and at neighbouring Twin Oaks they grew huge, leafy okra plants 4-5 feet tall with perhaps a dozen pods on each stem. At the time I was comparing in my mind these plants to the spindly little things I had grown back home, and wished out loud that we could grow okra like Virginia can. I was then told that there are growers in Maine having success with certain types of okra, and if Maine has the right climate then so do we! Before leaving Acorn I picked up the five earliest maturing varieties from Southern Exposure's collection, with visions of future okra experiments dancing in my head.
(Okra in it's natural habitat, at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Virginia) - (The Annapolis Valley grown descendants of those okra!)
Upon returning home I decided to plant all my new short season okra seeds in a single large planting, to compare which ones like the Annapolis Valley the best. The rules of the experiment were no plastic or row covers after transplanting (we started them in the greenhouse), and no special coddling… I wanted them to actually prove themselves. To my surprise, all five varieties did great! Not as large and leafy as their southern relatives, but still thriving. We ate some okra meals and saved lots of seed from those plants, selecting the healthiest and happiest parent plants to pass on their NS adapted genes. Because okra is a cross pollinator the seeds from that planting are almost certainly crossed, but that's okay. My goal at this point is to continue selecting those seeds for earliness and vigour over the coming years until they've really adapted themselves to our place… then we'll have the first Nova Scotia bred okra!
We have limited amounts of two okras for now: the Field Mix (which is the beginnings of our breeding project) and Cajun Jewel (a particularly early variety we grew in isolation last year).
- Growing Okra in the Maritimes -
Okra is frost sensitive, and definitely a heat lover. Growers in most of the warmer parts on the Maritimes should have a relatively easy time getting nice green okra pods, but to fully mature the pods into seeds takes either a particularly long season (like we have in the valley) or a greenhouse. Start seeds indoors to give them a head start on the season, about six weeks before transplanting. I like to start mine mid-April and transplant out in early June, after any risk of frost and the garden has warmed up a bit.
Choose a full sun, fertile spot, similar to where you'd plant tomatoes or squash. I space mine about 24" apart. By mid summer plants will be bushing out and producing their first blossoms, surprisingly large and beautiful blossoms at that. Flowers are then followed by the pods, usually appearing by August. Pick them when they're small and tender, they get fibrous as they grow.
- Saving Okra Seed -
Okra flowers are self-fertile, meaning they will produce pods and seeds even without pollen from another flower. They do however cross pollinate readily with other okra plants, mainly by way of bees who find the flowers even more attractive than humans do. Isolation of 1 km or more is recommended for purity, but lucky for NS seed savers it's pretty uncommon to have a neighbour growing okra around these parts. If you want to save seed from more than one variety in your garden, flowers can be bagged with any kind of insect-proof barrier before they open, and because they're self fertile they will still produce seed pods.
Allow the pods to fully mature on the plant, until they're brown and starting to split open. Pods will split on their own to release their large round seeds, so once cracks begin to appear in the pod they're ready to pick. I was harvesting lots of dry pods from the garden in mid-September, and later in the season after the first frost knocked back the leaves I cut and hung the whole stalk so the remaining pods could finish maturing inside. Just crack apart the dry pods and shake the seeds into a bowl!
(Mature pods, ready to pick for seed) - (Perfectly dry okra pods, after a few weeks spread to dry in the greenhouse)