A Gardening Ode to Okra Guest Post

As part of the May WordCount Blogathon, today’s special event is a blog post swap with another Blogathon Blogger. I’ve swapped blogging duties with Nancy Mann Jackson, a freelance writer who gardens with her husband and two young sons in Alabama.

Nancy blogs about gardening, harvesting, cooking and preserving with kids in tow at GrowingFoodandKids.com. You can find more of Nancy’s writing on her website at NancyJackson.com or connect with her on Twitter @nmjackson. (Blog post and photo by Nancy Mann Jackson)

Oh, Okra!

Growing okra is a lot like having babies; there is some discomfort, even pain, involved. But the end result is worth it all.

If you’ve never picked okra, you may not know what I mean, but it is perhaps the itchiest plant in existence. As a kid, I remember seeing my dad head out to the garden to harvest okra on a 90- or 100-degree afternoon, wearing jeans and boots, a long-sleeve shirt and gloves, with a sharp kitchen knife in hand. After growing my own okra crop for the past several years, I know he wasn’t just worried about getting sunburned. He was trying to avoid the stinging okra itch, which is difficult to get rid of, even after a hot shower.

Regardless of the irritating itchiness of the plant, it will always have a place in our garden. When you grow up in the South, as I did, okra is a staple for vegetable gardeners. The plant originated in Africa, and historians believe it arrived in the New World through the slave trade, and may have been first brought to North America by French colonists who settled Louisiana in the 1700s. There, it became the star ingredient of gumbo, and it quickly became a favorite crop throughout the southern states; Thomas Jefferson once wrote that it was being grown in Virginia before 1781, according to the Texas Cooperative Extension. For centuries, then, okra has remained a favorite food and a cultural signature in the South.

But it’s not just the long tradition that keeps us planting okra. It’s also easy to grow in hot, dry places. It doesn’t need much water and it thrives in high temperatures and direct sunlight. A couple of summers ago, when most of the Southeast experienced a severe drought, many of our vegetables struggled to survive. But we had more okra than we knew what to do with.

Best of all, however, okra tastes delicious. I admit it’s an acquired taste, but it doesn’t take long to get used to, especially if it’s prepared well. While I don’t eat any other vegetables fried, there’s nothing quite like fresh okra, chopped and lightly fried in a little corn meal and salt. But I also love steamed okra and boiled okra, especially with onions and tomatoes. And of course, it’s the ingredient that makes gumbo gumbo.

No longer is okra just a southern food. The plant is growing more popular in gardens and on menus and dinner tables across the United States, but in many places, it is still seen as an “exotic ingredient,” according to this article in the Poughkeepsie Journal.

If you’ve never grown okra before, why not do something “exotic” and give it a try? Just don’t forget your long sleeves and gloves when you head out to harvest those yummy little green pods.

Thanks, Nancy! Okra sounds like it would do well in our hot, dry climate. I’ll be sure to think of you the next time I have a bowl of gumbo, too.


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