Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) is a summer favorite in many Southern kitchens, but its subtle flavor and thickening prowess make it a tasty vegetable across the country. Popular breaded and fried, pickled or served in gumbo, just a few plants of okra can produce enough of the vegetable for your whole family to enjoy throughout the summer.
1. Time After Planting
Most okra plants mature about 60 days after planting. If you planted shortly after the last spring frost, you could see okra pods as early as June. The plants continue to produce pods throughout the warm summer months. Watch for flowers to form on the plants -- each one will become a pod that's ready to pick in about four to six days. Prepare to pick okra about every two days in the summer.
2. Size and Color
Most pods are ready to pick when they are 2 to 4 inches long, although some stay tender up to 6 inches. The smaller pods that are ready to harvest are bright green, while older, tougher pods become a darker shade. When you wait too long to pick okra, it becomes too tough and chewy to be enjoyable -- although it's technically still edible.
3. Cut Stems
The easiest way to harvest okra is to cut through the stems with a knife. When a pod is ripe and ready to harvest, the stem -- like the pod -- should be firm but tender enough that you can easily cut it with the knife. If the stem is tough and too fibrous for easy cutting, the pod is probably too old to use in your kitchen. If you're unsure about the pod's ripeness, harvest it and snap it in half. If it doesn't break easily, it's too old. Breaking it won't hurt the quality of a ripe pod because you should cook it almost immediately; you must cook okra within two to three days, or it gets too tough to eat.
Even when you know a pod is too ripe to eat, pick it anyway and throw it away or add it to your compost pile. Old pods drain energy from the plant, keeping it from growing new ones or continuing to flower through the end of the season. When your kids are helping you harvest -- perhaps with scissors or small shears instead of knives -- make sure they wear gloves and long sleeves. Okra has short, spiny hairs on the leaves, stems and pods, and these can irritate sensitive skin.