Though Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) fruit isn’t much more than a thick green hull, slime and seeds and the plant itself is impossibly irritating to the skin, few plants are as integral to Southern heritage. In my mind, okra is among the best vegetables Panhandle gardeners can grow. Not only is it a gorgeous plant – Okra belongs to the Mallow family which also includes beauties like Hibiscus and Cotton – but it’s exceedingly versatile in the kitchen, excellent fried, grilled, roasted, boiled (though you have to acquire a taste for slimy textures to enjoy this method) and most famously, as a thickening agent in Cajun gumbo. Because of this exalted status in Southern culture, whether you enjoy eating okra or not, it’s almost mandatory here to include the plant in one’s garden. Most gardeners stick with the old standard varieties such as ‘Clemson Spineless’ or ‘Cowhorn’ and there is nothing wrong with them, however, these plants are almost too prolific for most gardens (growing upwards of 6-7’), especially for those of us growing in the close confines of raised beds. In the search for a less rambunctious but still ultra-productive cultivar, this summer I trialed ‘Jambalaya’, an F1 hybrid developed by Sakata Seed in 2012, with impressive results!
From my experience growing the cultivar this summer, ‘Jambalaya’ merits consideration in the garden, and is a must for raised bed gardeners, for two primary reasons. First, it was bred to be compact and is considered a dwarf cultivar. This is an awesome attribute, as I typically end the growing season picking okra from a small ladder! Most seed purveyors tout the plant as reaching a maximum height of 3-4’ and while this estimate might be a little conservative, I can attest that ‘Jambalaya’ is greatly reduced in height compared to the standard cultivars. The second advantage of growing this variety is that it begins producing very early relative to its peers and bears heavily. ‘Jambalaya’ fruit begin to ripen in about 50 days, about ten days to two weeks earlier than ‘Clemson Spineless’, a definite advantage if rotating behind a late maturing spring crop like potatoes as I typically do. Though ‘Jambalaya’ is a dwarf plant, in no way are yields reduced. My specimens have produced continuously since late-July and will continue to do so as long as adequate fertility and consistent harvesting are provided.
Like any other okra cultivar, ‘Jambalaya’ has a couple of basic requirements that must be met for plants to thrive. In general, all okra cultivars love Southern summers and patience sowing seed is recommended, allow the soil to warm to at least 70 degrees before planting. Okra also prefers full sun, at least 6 hours per day, any less and yields will be reduced and plants will stretch towards the light. Belonging to the Mallow family, okra requires consistent moisture, particularly when in the flowering and fruiting phase. Finally, it is critical to keep up with your okra harvest as the plants produce! Okra pods grow quickly and should be harvested when they are no more than 3-4” long and still tender, larger pods are tough to the point of being inedible!
Whether you’re new to the okra growing game or you’re a seasoned gumbo gardener, I highly encourage you to give ‘Jambalaya’ Okra a look next summer. While ‘Jambalaya’ is available through many seed sources, Johnny’s Selected Seeds sells a conveniently small package perfect for backyard gardeners, though they’ll be happy to provide larger quantities as well. In ‘Jambalaya’ you’ll find a nice compact plant that won’t outgrow your space, provide you a summer long harvest of tender green pods, and will rival the ornamentals in your landscape for the title of prettiest plant on your property! Happy gardening and as always, if you have questions about vegetable gardening or any other horticultural or agronomic topic, please contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension office!