Okra, a member of the mallow family, is native to the warm climates of Africa where it has been grown for thousands of years. Okra farming gained popularity in the past decades spreading its production to very corner of the world. The upside of okra farming is that it can easily be grown both in gardens and at a larger scale, in commercial farms.  Okra is a fast growing, highly profitable vegetable; income is generated after a harvest period of 10 to 12 weeks. For farmers to achieve profitable okra farming, recommended production practises should be followed.

Climate

Okra farming is most fruitful in hot climates. Okra develops best in climates with high day time temperatures as well as warm night temperatures. The optimum temperature for successful okra farming ranges between 25oC and 30oC. However, the vegetable can still thrive is slightly lower and higher temperatures. Okra requires soil temperatures of about 25oC to 35oC with minimum temperatures ranging at 20oC. For successful germination of seeds, temperatures should average at 21oC to 32oC. It is crucial to note that okra is highly sensitive to cold climatic conditions. Soil temperatures below 27oC results in failed germination and the okra seeds decay. Temperatures above 42oC are also detrimental to the crop causing yield losses. Okra plants grow rapidly in the rainy season than in dry weather conditions.

Soil requirements

The texture and fertility of the soil has a significant impact on successful okra farming. Okra grows best in sandy loam soils that are well drained. Poorly drained soils are unfavourable to plant growth as the vegetable tends to drown. For the highest yields, soils should have a pH of 6 to 6.8. This because a lot of okra varieties require maximum nutrient uptake. Some varieties like the Pusa Sawami can thrive in soils with higher pH levels as they are more tolerant to salinity. Although okra farming can be successful in clay soils, the seedlings have difficulty emerging thus it is advisable to use the transplanting method. Take note that okra does not do well in soils with a hard pan. The compaction of the soil restricts plant growth resulting in declined yields. In addition, okra farming thrives in highly fertile soils, as such organic fertilisers including mulch and manure should be used to improve soils and enhance good harvests.

Seed Variety

Seed variety determines the quantity and quality of the overall yield hence is one of the most important decisions in okra farming. The ideal variety is one that it fast growing, compatible with the climate and soil, and resistant to pests and diseases rampant in an area. Okra varieties include Annie Oakley, a spineless variety with bright green angular pods that requires approximately 53 to 55 days to reach maturity. Other popular varieties are: the Prelude which is an open pollinated spineless variety with very dark green, glossy, fluted pods; Emeralds are a spineless variety with dark green, smooth, round pods and are one of the late maturing types taking up to 60 days. The Prelude variety generally yields better than most okra varieties.

Fertilisation

Fertilisers must be administered based on the results from a soil tests. A soil tests is essential to define the type of nutrients and exact quantities that are needed for successful okra farming.  If the soil test indicates high pH levels, lime can be applied 3 to 4 months prior to seeding. Note that although adequate nitrogen is necessary to achieve a long harvest period, too much application causes excessive vegetative growth which leads to lower yields. Organic fertilisers like manure and compost coupled with appropriate registered inorganic fertilisers improve soil fertility, thus elongating the harvest period. A highly recommended fertiliser for okra farming is the polyethylene mulch.  Polyethylene mulch, also referred to as plastic mulch, reduces soil compaction and crusting, evaporation of soil moisture, fertilizer leaching, drowning of crops, and growth of weeds. It helps to raise the soil temperature and accelerate plant growth.

Land preparation

Early preparation of the land is an important step in okra farming. Okra grows best in soils that have been worked 8 to 10 inches deep. The soil has to be turned deeply so as to loosen it and all rocks removed. Early land preparation allows the weed seeds to germinate, these will be killed while disking the soil prior to planting. Okra farming is usually attacked by nematodes. For this reason, it is of outmost importance to fumigate the land. A soil test can help determine if there is need to fumigate.

Planting

Okra farming tends to fail in areas with low temperatures, as such, it should be planted upon the end of a frosty period. Ideally, okra should be planted 2 to 3 weeks after a cold season. Okra farming requires row spacing of 71cm to 96m with a 20cm to 30cm distance between the plants. It is often planted about 2cm to 5cm deep using a seed rate of 4 to 6 seeds per 30.4cm. Prior to planting, seeds have to be soaked in water for about 4 to 6 hours. This is done to fasten germination as okra has a thick coat that delays this process.

Weed and Pest control

Weed and pest control are essential management practices in okra farming. Okra is susceptible to pests including blister beetles, caterpillars and aphids. These damage the crop resulting in a rapid decline of yields. In addition, weeds deprive the plants of adequate water and nutrients. Farmers can control weeds and pests through the use of cover crops and mulch. Note that cover crops have to be turned every 2 to 4 weeks.  Cultivation, hand weeding and application of pesticides and herbicides are among other effective measures of controlling pests and weeds.

Harvesting Okra

A successful okra farming venture should yield approximately 200 to 300 brushels per acre on bare ground. Yields from polyethylene mulch ought to be 2 to 3 times higher. Okra should be harvested whilst still tender, which is about 5 to 6 days after flowering. Okra harvests are usually 2 to 3 times a week in the morning while temperatures are cool so as to harvest fresh product. Okra tens to deteriorates quickly hence should be stored in well ventilate containers. Care should be taken not to bruise pods as they turn black or brown within a few hours.

Although okra is a fairly easy vegetable to grow, improper production management is detrimental to yields. Okra is highly fragile and sensitive to low temperatures, for this reason, neglect usually leads to undesirable yields. To get the maximum yields, there is need to know more about the vegetable and the different varieties available. This will help make informed decisions leading to bumper harvests.