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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 Dec. 10:

Take advantage of these dry but crisp conditions. It’s time to get out the rake!

* Rake leaves away from storm drains and keep gutters clear.

* Fallen leaves can be used for mulch and compost. Chop up large leaves with a couple of passes with a lawn mower.

* Prune non-flowering trees and shrubs while they’re dormant. Without their foliage, trees are easier to prune.

* Rake and remove dead leaves and stems from dormant perennials.

* Make sure to take frost precautions with new transplants and sensitive plants. Mulch, water and cover tender plants in the late afternoon to retain warmth.

* Succulent plants are at particular risk if temperatures drop below freezing. Don’t water succulents before frost; cover instead. Use cloth sheets, not plastic. Make sure to remove coverings during the day.

* Clean and sharpen garden tools before storing for the winter.

* Brighten the holidays with winter bloomers such as poinsettias, amaryllis, calendulas, Iceland poppies, pansies and primroses.

* Keep poinsettias in a sunny, warm location. Water thoroughly. After the holidays, feed your plants monthly so they'll bloom again next December.

* Just because it rained doesn't mean every plant got watered. Give a drink to plants that the rain didn't reach, such as under eaves or under evergreen trees. Also, well-watered plants hold up better to frost than thirsty plants.

* Plant garlic (December's the last chance -- the ground is getting cold!) and onions for harvest in summer.

* Bare-root season begins. Plant bare-root berries, kiwifruit, grapes, artichokes, horseradish and rhubarb. Beware of soggy soil. It can rot bare-root plants.

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