I’m often asked what my favorite crop to grow is. It comes up at the market with customers, and in casual conversation when people take an interest in my quirky form of vegetable farming. And there are a lot of potential cultivars to choose from when answering this question: to date GVH has planted and/or harvested upwards of forty varieties of veggies, fruits and herbs in 2018. But I finally have an answer to this question that is definitive, and a lot of people find it surprising.
My favorite food crop to grow is okra, and the reasons are numerous. Let’s start with the most basic of them all: I think it’s delicious. And okra is one of those “love-it-or-hate-it” foods; many people are turned away by its slimy, viscous texture. Not me, I will eat okra in any preparation I’ve seen. The technical term for the gooey nature of okra and other foods like it is mucilaginous; and that’s just fun to say! People are likely most familiar with the dredged and fried recipes that are so popular in the southern US. And while quite scrumptious, I personally believe this is a method that should be reserved for frozen okra. If the pods are firm and fresh, I prefer to saute them with tomatoes and allow the slime to thicken the stew, then serve it over a bed of rice. Pickled okra, with a sharp mix of herbs like mustard, fennel and celery seeds, is also popular in these parts. And a market customer gave me a suggestion for roasted okra chips a couple weeks ago that went over well for dinner last night.
Gumbo is a common nickname for okra, and of course it’s the name of a popular dish that incorporates it. Another apt nickname is “Lady Fingers”, which is a good enough reason on its own to give it favorite crop status. The plant is beautiful, with large lobed leaves and beautiful pale yellow five-petal flowers. The rhythm of the okra fruiting process is reliable. A bud forms, the petals turn from green to yellow, then the flower blooms for one day, and the next day the bloom falls off to reveal a tiny pod forming. In 2-3 days that pod is ready to pick, and the plant has usually started its next flower. And the plant continues that process, blooming one-at-a-time for months. The new blooms always come near the top of the plant, so it’s always easy to find the new pods as you move down the rows. And while a heavy rain or a stiff breeze may push a few plants over, a light shove is usually enough to put them back in their place. I don’t have to stake or trellis the plants in the ways that a lot of other summer crops require.
The plants get huge (my earliest plants are about 110 days old now and they are reaching over 8 feet tall) and once they cross the 80 day threshold, they will start to send up more than one flower at a time. The plants just get more vigorous and productive the longer they are in the ground. I’m on the verge of bringing a step-ladder into the field for every picking session! And aside from the occasional Japanese beetle, the pest and disease problems that affect many of the other plants that I grow seem to stay away from okra. With its broad leaves, it forms a dense canopy that keeps the soil underneath it shaded, hydrated, and weed free. Of all the food crops I’ve ever grown, okra may be the most resilient in the summer heat. And while the leaves might go a little limp from lack of water on a hot day, they spring back within minutes once given a drink or after the sun goes down.
Okra has all the feels, too. The slimy texture that the haters often cite also manifests itself on the stalks and young buds of the plant. Young okra plants have visible beads of slimy sweat on the surface, and it makes for an interesting symbiotic relationship with tiny black ants, who often form chow-lines climbing up and down the stems gathering and transporting the tiny clear beads back to the colony, I presume for the sugar contained therein. The pods always face straight up from the main stalk, and when you grab at the base of the stem and snap it downward, the audible crack reminds me of the snapping of fingers at slam poetry.
So that’s the honest truth: I love okra. I love it so much that I’m hoping to plant at least double the amount I did this year in 2019. I’ll try some obscure varieties, like Jing Orange and Abigail’s Coffee (because the seeds are dried, roasted, and ground to use as a caffeine-free substitute)! Okra is rich in vitamins A, C, and K, as well as dietary fiber. So I don’t feel guilty when I snap a pod off and just munch on it raw as I work my way down the row. Yes, raw. Don’t knock it ‘til you try it! And you’ll have the chance to try it this weekend, and every weekend into November if you come see us at the Grandin Village Farmers Market! And for fans of pickled treats, rest assured the pickled okra I’m canning up this week will be available for purchase when you arrive.