November 12, 2016

1 - It may be possible to grow okra even in Northern New Mexico if a proper microclimate and growing conditions can be provided.

Yard and Garden November 12, 2016

Q.

As I have recently become a huge fan of okra, I wanted to know how difficult it would be to grow in my area. I live in Chimayo, about 30 miles north of Santa Fe. Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.

- Sarah D.

A.

Gardeners who are not familiar with okra may not know that this crop is related to cotton. It has a beautiful flower with a dark maroon center that is followed by a slender seed pot, the okra fruit. This fruit develops rapidly and requires frequent harvest before it become tough and inedible. In the South gumbo dishes are those containing okra which provides its unique flavor and mucilaginous (slimy to some people) character. It is very useful in stews and soups as that mucilage that may thicken soups. It may also be fried and that will reduce the "slimy" characteristic. It is very tasty either way.

It should be possible for you to grow okra in Chimayo, but it may be a real challenge. Your growing season should be long enough, depending on your exact location and microclimates you can provide. Your microclimate will be very important.

A microclimate is a small area with different environmental conditions than nearby areas. Changes in elevation over short distances, solar aspect (south-facing slope of mountain vs. the north-facing slope) will affect the microclimate. The microclimate on the north side of a house, outbuilding, or wall will be different from the microclimate of a south side location. You will want to choose a south-facing location if possible. Okra is subject to chilling injury, that is, injury to the young seedlings when temperatures fall below 40 degrees, so they need late planting or protection after planting. The okra plants prefer night temperatures above 60 degrees and day temperatures above 85 degrees. Late planting reduces the length of your already short growing season, so protection against cold nights may be a better alternative.

You can modify the microclimate in your garden with plastic coverings early (and late) in the growing season if necessary. Clear plastic covering the ground and sealed around the edges will speed the warming of the garden soil through the "greenhouse effect". Warming the soil early may be important in your area because okra seed require warm soil (60 degrees) to germinate properly. Okra is difficult to transplant because the roots may be easily injured, but starting indoors and transplanting carefully may also help you extend your growing season. Peat pots will be very helpful in this case.

Okra plants need at least 8 hours of sunlight each day (that should not be a problem for most New Mexico gardeners). They also prefer well-drained, but moist soils. That is a greater challenge for us, but with the addition of organic soil amendments such as well-decomposed compost, we can create an adequate soil for growing okra in New Mexico. Regular irrigation and organic mulch will help maintain the soil moisture that okra requires.

If you can provide a location in your garden with long hours of sunlight, adequate moisture, proper organic amendments, and season extension through any of several techniques, you should be able to grow okra almost anywhere in New Mexico. Gardeners who do not like the flavor of okra may enjoy growing them for their attractive flowers, but they will need to harvest the fruits frequently to keep the plants flowering. Perhaps such gardeners will have a neighbor, like you, with a desire for okra in their meals.

Marisa Y. Thompson, PhD, is the Extension Horticulture Specialist, in the Department of Extension Plant Sciences at the New Mexico State University Los Lunas Agricultural Science Center, email: desertblooms@nmsu.edu, office: 505-865-7340, ext. 113.

Links:

For more gardening information, visit the NMSU Extension Horticulture page at Desert Blooms.

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