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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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Garden Checklist for week of July 7

Take care of garden chores early in the morning, concentrating on watering. We’re still in survival mode until this heat wave breaks.

* Keep your vegetable garden watered, mulched and weeded. Water before 8 a.m. to conserve moisture.

* Prevent sunburn; provide temporary shade for tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, melons, squash and other crops with “sensitive” skin.

* Hold off on feeding plants until temperatures cool back down to “normal” range. That means daytime highs in the low to mid 90s.

* Don’t let tomatoes wilt or dry out completely. Give tomatoes a deep watering two to three times a week. Harvest vegetables promptly to encourage plants to produce more.

* Squash especially tends to grow rapidly in hot weather. Keep an eye on zucchini.

* Some weeds thrive in hot weather. Whack them before they go to seed.

* Pinch back chrysanthemums for bushy plants and more flowers in September.

* Harvest tomatoes, squash, peppers and eggplant. Prompt picking will help keep plants producing.

* Remove spent flowers from roses, daylilies and other bloomers as they finish flowering.

* Pinch off blooms from basil so the plant will grow more leaves.

* Cut back lavender after flowering to promote a second bloom.

* One good thing about hot days: Most lawns stop growing when temperatures top 95 degrees. Keep mower blades set on high.

* Once the weather cools down a little, it’s not too late to add a splash of color. Plant petunias, snapdragons, zinnias and marigolds.

* After the heat wave, plant corn, pumpkins, radishes, winter squash and sunflowers. Make sure the seeds stay hydrated.

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