My biggest garden turnaround these past two years at Belly Acre Farm has been okra. As I remember, it was a pretty reliable performer when Dad grew it years ago, but I’ve had one lean year and one fat year, to borrow terminology from the Old Testament.
Last year I had high hopes. I remembered to soak the Clemson Spineless seeds overnight to improve germination. I planted just at the recommended time. I sprinkled organic fertilizer into the furrow. The weather seemed reasonably favorable, with a warm, wet spring to get the plants going, then plenty of hot, sunny days and the right amount of water. Still, a lot of the seeds didn’t sprout, so that even though I barely thinned the plants, there were still large gaps in the rows.
Even the plants that made it appeared stunted. None grew more than two feet tall, and blooms came late and remained sparse. From two good sized rows, I harvested just a few meals’ worth of okra. I tried adding more organic fertilizer to one row, but it didn’t seem to make any difference.
This year, I rotated the crop to another area of my small garden and doubled my planting to four rows, but did everything else the same.
Almost every seed seemed to sprout. I had to thin the rows several times. There was just one small gap near the tomatoes, and it was soon covered by the spreading leaves of the surrounding okra plants.
No stunting this year. The shortest plants were soon over four feet tall, the tallest over six feet. Leaves were so large they shaded out the rows, so I barely had to weed the okra section of my garden.
The okra still seemed to take a long time to blossom, though.
My mother, who still lives in the house I grew up in,(and who I’ve written before resists giving advice because she doesn’t understand my odd methods of farming) didn’t say anything, but she was watching.
Finally, she said one day, “You’ve got to whip your okra.”
“Excuse me?” I said.
“Well, it’s not bearing any. Mama used to take a switch to the leaves to make them bloom,” she said.
This was news to me. If I had ever heard of this before, much less witnessed it, I’m sure I would have remembered.
But the switch part sounded right. It was the same method Grandma Estie (“Mama” to my mother) used to keep children performing as expected, I recalled with a slight nostalgic stinging on the backs of my legs.
“You can cut some of the leaves off, if you don’t want to whip them,” Mom explained. “You just need to stress the plants to get them to bloom.”
So, I took my knife and waded into the sea of okra leaves, hacking off a few leaves from each plant. Sure enough, within a few days blossoms began unfolding all over the okra patch, and soon pods were growing on each stalk.
Since then, we’ve been inundated with more okra than we can eat, give away, or freeze.
So, call it okra abuse if you like, but I’m already planning where I can cut my switches for next year.