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Archive for Wednesday, April 25, 2001

Okra, corn must wait for warmth

April 25, 2001

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Gardeners who plan to grow direct-seeded vegetables such as sweet corn, okra and beans should have those crops in the ground by mid-May.

All three are very sensitive to frost and will not germinate in cool soil or when the air temperature spends much time below 60 degrees, so early May generally is your first opportunity to plant these seeds with confidence.

This week I'll deal with corn and okra; next week we'll talk about beans.

I lump corn and okra together not only because they should be planted about the same time, but also because they share the same growing habit and their location in the garden should be carefully chosen. When full-grown, which will happen by early to mid-June, the stalks of both corn and okra will throw a long shade.

You would not want, for example, to plant your corn or okra on the west side of your much-shorter bush beans, where they will eclipse the afternoon sun. On the other hand, corn and okra can provide needed shade for broccoli or greens during the last few weeks of their growing season, when too much direct sun can cause them to bolt and lose flavor. It's all a matter of strategy.

In the home garden, corn should be planted in a square or rectangular patch consisting of multiple rows spaced 2 1/2 feet to 3 feet apart. Unless you pollinate by hand, the pollen that makes the kernels form will be carried on the breeze from the tassels on the top of the stalks to the silks on the ears. That's what makes this configuration optimal.

To gauge how many rows you'll need and how long they should be, plan for each stalk to yield two ears of corn and the plants eventually to be 15 inches apart. To plant the seeds, draw a furrow 2 inches deep and water it. When the water has drained, you are ready to set the seeds and cover them.

The rule of thumb on germination is that about 25 percent of your corn seed will fail, so if you plant seeds every 3 inches or 4 inches you'll be assured of having a good stand of corn. In about two weeks, after the plants emerge and grow to a height of 2 inches, you can thin them out.

The 15-inch spacing may seem overly generous when the plants are tiny, but don't leave them in cramped quarters. Full-grown corn plants need space and draw a lot of nitrogen out of the soil.

If you want different varieties of corn, plant them two weeks apart to avoid cross-pollination. You can continue to plant corn until the first week in June.

Most garden-store corn seed is now sugar-enhanced, which is good. The kernels of these varieties are sweeter and more tender, and their ears will hold longer on the stalk or in the refrigerator before the "meat" of the corn turns to starch. The best variety of table corn I have planted, both for flavor and local growing conditions, is Kandy Korn.

By comparison, you don't have to worry about pollination issues with okra, because the fruit is set on blossoms. Okra can be planted in long single rows if you want, but it's more attractive when it's clustered.

Blooming okra which looks very much like a hollyhock and is, in fact, a relative is pretty enough that some people plant it as an annual in their flower gardens. Burgundy okra, whose stalks and foliage have a distinct red hue, can provide interesting contrast to the green in a garden.

Okra is a reliable grower once you get it to germinate. Its seeds have a hard cover that can make this a bit tricky.

I always place the seeds in a cup of water the night before I plant them. This softens the shell and allows them to sprout quickly and without steady watering by me once they're in the ground.

Okra can be planted much like corn, although the germination rate for soaked seeds is higher. I typically drop a seed every 4 inches and later thin the plants to 12 inches apart. Your seeds will be happiest if you plant them when the ground has been warmed by successive days of 70-degree temperatures.

Some people claim to start okra seeds indoors, though I tried this once with less-than-impressive results. Okra does not transplant well. We have a long enough hot season in northeast Kansas that direct-seeding is the only method that makes sense.

If you have had cutworms in your garden, you may need to collar the seedlings, but okra generally isn't of interest to the typical garden pests. In recent years deer have been my okra's main predator; once over the fence the deer stop there first. This appears to be more than coincidence as a neighbor reported a couple of years ago that the deer had come up on her patio specifically to eat the hollyhocks she had planted next to the house.

Several varieties of okra will thrive in this climate; just make sure the one you choose is spineless. Even then, I still get a rash on my hands when I pick. Clemson Spineless is the seed I buy most often, although I also have grown Annie Oakley, Cajun Delight and a couple of burgundies.

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