A gardener who spends all her time among flowers (vegetables are plentiful at farmers’ markets and grocery stores) is planting a vegetable this year. It is the 2017 All- America Selections winner Okra Candle Fire.
This decision was not easy. The seed was not available locally; catalogues were the only source. Price of the packet of seeds was $3.95 (not unreasonable for a new hybrid), but postage for these 20 seeds was $5.95. That’s nearly $10!!! After three weeks of mental debate, I finally bit the bullet and placed the order — fully aware that a packet of 20 seeds can be mailed anywhere in the U.S. with a 49-cent forever stamp. My justification was that I could share these with brother-in-law Charles and a couple of Master Gardener projects.
Described as a departure from the traditional ribbed okra, Candle Fire has unique red pods brighter in color than the reddish burgundy okras currently available.
It will thrive in the heat, and is disease resistant even during the hottest, most humid days of summer. Once the soil (at a depth of four inches) warms to at least 65 degrees, you can transplant seedlings and expect your first harvest in about 30 days — much earlier than most varieties, according to the seed catalogues.
The All-American Selections judges reported Candle Fire received high marks for productivity, taste, texture and tenderness as well as for the ornamental value of red pods on red stems.
One judge noted that Candle Fire was quite maintenance free, except for the frequent harvesting (when is too much okra a problem???).
And even if the okra never reaches my dinner table, the pods on their red stems should look terrific as a kitchen bouquet.
Master Gardener Mary Smith, main vegetable source for this column, is also fascinated with Candle Fire — and is the recipient of some of my seeds. A bona fide veggie gardener, Mary suggests Candle Fire may even be a standout edible for inclusion in the ornamental garden. Later this summer, we will get together and decide if Candle Fire deserves "our endorsement."
Okra is very versatile. It is delicious fried and in gumbo, soups, stews and relishes. Imagine how pretty a jar of pickled red okra will look. Pods can even be painted and turned into ornaments for the Christmas tree.
My brother, Bud, who retired from Dixie Cup to enjoy the “leisurely life” of gardening and cattle raising at Caulksville, had an experience worth sharing. Last year, he planted one row of okra close to the fence where the cows grazed. Before long, he noticed the tops of his plants were looking a bit strange. Then he discovered, the cows could stretch their necks and reach that row of okra, which they promptly mowed down to about two feet tall. Determined, the cows then began to push against the fence to reach the lowest branches.
The end result was Bud had to restretch the fence and now plans to grow his okra a few feet further from the fence line. He did learn that while cows loved the leaves, they would not eat the pods.
Currently, the most popular okra on the market is Clemson Spineless, which was the AAS 1939 winner. If you’re thinking about planting okra, remember that it’s a warm season crop. Growing okra requires a lot of sunshine, so find a place in your garden that doesn’t get much shade. Also, be sure there is good drainage in your garden.
For those like me who are planting okra for the first time, here are some handy tips from our friendly County Extension Office:
• Prepare your soil well. Add two to three pounds of fertilizer for every 100 square feet of garden space. Work the fertilizer into the ground about three to five inches deep. This will allow growing okra the best chance to absorb nutrients.
• Rake the soil to remove all rocks and sticks. Work the soil well, about 10-15 inches deep, so the plants can get the most nutrients from the soil around their roots.
• Since our last predicted frost day was April 15, now is a good time to plant okra.
• Once the okra is up and out of the ground, thin the plants to about one foot apart.
• For an even flow of ripe okra throughout the summer, plant seeds in shifts.
• Water plants every seven to 10 days. Although they can handle dry conditions, regular water is beneficial. Also remove any weeds.
A member of the hibiscus family (the flowers look very similar), okra is actually a kissing cousin of the cotton plant (both are botanically related in the scientific family Malvaceae). An African native first grown in Egypt in the 12th century BCE and then throughout North Africa and the Mediterranean, okra has since spread throughout the world. Ground okra seeds were used as a coffee substitute by Southerners during the blockades of the Civil War. (In retrospect, you have to marvel at the resilience of Southern ancestors who survived on black-eye peas and okra ground coffee!!!)
Okra has many healthful benefits. It is rich in soluble and insoluble fiber, folic acid, vitamins B5, C and A and protein, and contains essential minerals including potassium, magnesium and iron. Americans consume .15 pounds per person annually, but the majority of okra is eaten in the southern U.S.
Other All-American 2017 winners are Dianthus Supra Pink Fl, Fennel Antares F1, Geranium Calliope Medium Dark Red, Penstemon Twizzle Purple, Pepper Mad Hatter, Tomato Chef’s Choice Yellow F1, Tomato Patio Choice Yellow F1, Verbena EnduraScape Pink Bicolor, Vinca Mega Bloom Orchid Halo F1, Vinca Mega Bloom Pink Halo F1, Zinnia Profusion Red, Celosia Asian Garden, Pea Patio Pride, Squash Honeybaby F1 and Watermelon Mini Love F1.
All-America Selections is a nonprofit trialing organization for plants that demonstrate great garden performance throughout North America.
Next week, the topic will be tomatoes — we all have a favorite.
Lucy Fry of Fort Smith is a level 4 Master Gardener and writes the area Master Gardener newsletter. Her column, Gardening for the Record, runs weekly in the Times Record. Send questions to email@example.com.