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Try okra; bees will thank you

Okra at its showiest, last summer at the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center.
(Photo: Kathy Morrison)

This pretty hibiscus cousin attracts pollinators

Add a little tropical flair to your vegetable garden. Okra is a Southern favorite that loves the heat.

Long associated with Creole cuisine, okra is actually a native of the subtropics of West Africa, Ethiopia and South Asia. It came to the U.S. sometime around 1700, most likely with African slaves.

By 1800, okra-filled gumbo was a staple in the American South.

But the okra plant itself is a garden standout that thrives in high temperatures. It loves days over 90 degrees.

This may be the most beautiful vegetable plant in your summer garden. And one of the tallest, too.

Okra is a member of the mallow or hibiscus family. The light yellow- or cream-colored flowers, often 3 to 4 inches across, look like Hawaiian hibiscus, only smaller. Bees love them! It's a good choice to attract more pollinators to your garden.

The key to okra success is full sun, heat and room to grow. Plants can get 6 feet tall easily, so put them on the north end of the vegetable bed so they don't shade other plants.

They like compost and aged manure. Dig some into the planting bed before planting or side dress new plants.

They need about the same water as tomatoes: 1 inch per week (or 5 gallons per plant per week). Make sure to keep them evenly hydrated through hot weather. Mulch is a must.

Getting the seeds started can be tricky. With a sharp paring knife, nick the side of the seed (to break the outer seed coat) and soak the seed overnight in a wet paper towel before planting. That will help them germinate. Once they're planted, make sure the seed bed stays evenly moist. Be patient: They can take up to two weeks to germinate.

As for harvest, the more you pick, the more they flower (and the more okra, which is a seedpod). For tenderness, harvest the pod about four days after the flower dies back. They grow really fast, so check your plants every other day or so.

Cut the pod off instead of pulling (pulling will harm the plant).

Wear gloves. Okra plants (even spineless) are covered with little hairs that can irritate the skin.

Some pods may seem small (2 inches) but they may still be ready to pick. Great big pods tend to have great big seeds and too much chewy fiber.

If they're planted now, you'll see flowers by mid-July, and the first pods a week later. If you keep the plants picked, they'll produce until frost.


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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of March 19:

Spring will start a bit soggy, but there’s still plenty to do between showers:

* Fertilize roses, annual flowers and berries as spring growth begins to appear.

* Watch out for aphids. Wash off plants with strong blast from the hose.

* Pull weeds now! Don’t let them get started. Take a hoe and whack them as soon as they sprout.

* Prepare summer vegetable beds. Spade in compost and other amendments.

* Prune and fertilize spring-flowering shrubs after bloom.

* Feed camellias at the end of their bloom cycle. Pick up browned and fallen flowers to fight blossom blight.

* Feed citrus trees as they start to blossom.

* Cut back and fertilize perennial herbs to encourage new growth.

* Seed and renovate the lawn (if you still have one). Feed cool-season grasses such as bent, blue, rye and fescue with a slow-release fertilizer. Check the irrigation system and perform maintenance. Make sure sprinkler heads are turned toward the lawn, not the sidewalk.

* In the vegetable garden, transplant lettuce and kale.

* Seed chard and beets directly into the ground.

* Plant summer bulbs, including gladiolus, tuberous begonias and callas. Also plant dahlia tubers.

* Shop for perennials. Many varieties are available in local nurseries and at plant events. They can be transplanted now while the weather remains relatively cool.

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