Tag Archives: drought tolerant

Drought-Tolerant Okra Offers Colorful Pods in the Garden

Yellow okra flower, similar to hibiscus

When I was at Rooting DC last February, I received six seeds of “African red okra” from a person who was talking about preserving seed diversity. Intrigued, I planted them later in the season just to see how they would grow. Four of the six seeds germinated resulting in two plants in the front garden in full sun and dry conditions and two in the back garden. The two in the back lived with the tomatoes in morning shade and afternoon sun and did not lack for water since the diva tomatoes get all the water they need.

All summer long I have been watching the okra grow in my Virginia garden. When people think of okra plants, they think “vegetable.” True, the immature pods are harvested for many types of dishes and are highly nutritious. Other parts are edible: the leaves can be eaten raw or cooked (like spinach) or used as a thickener in a stew. The seeds, if roasted and ground, can be used as a coffee substitute and if they are pressed, they can yield oil for cooking.

mature pod splits open to reveal seeds

I never intended to eat the pods, I just wanted to see how the plant would fare as a garden plant, a summer annual. Now in September, I think they have reached their full glory. These plants are about 4 feet tall with sparse foliage but plenty of pods and flowers. Because okra is a member of the hibiscus family, the small, yellow flowers look like hibiscus flowers but are not as flat. The thick pods are red and green, with five broad sides that taper into a point. The pod points upwards, much like a hat. Some pods have already matured enough to split open, revealing many dark black seeds (which mature to a soft gray later on). These I cut and put in a paper bag to prevent okra babies in my garden next year. The mature pods can be dried and used in floral arrangements such as wreaths. The young pods, if sliced in half, can be used to make flower designs by pressing the cut half into an ink pad and pressing down on paper.

Although not deer resistant, these plants have proven to be pest-resistant. I have read that okra plants are the most heat and drought-tolerant vegetable species in the world and they certainly were drought-tolerant in my garden. They are known to grow in poor soils with heavy clay and intermittent moisture. Technically okra is a perennial but in our zone 7 area, the plants will die from the cold this winter.

I like their strong vertical shape but because the foliage is sparse, they would work best if many were grown together yet with enough space to see the pods. There is actually quite a lot of diversity with okra with regards to the pods: they can be spiny, smooth, thin, thick, short, or long and have many more ridges than five. Pods can be green or green and red or burgundy red. However there is little diversity with the flowers, basically yellow or white. There are some varieties with gorgeous burgundy red pods that would be very interesting to try in the garden, especially in a mass up against a house, as a backdrop to other plants. Instead of growing okra for cooking, try growing okra as an ornamental garden plant and let the pods mature into unusual colors and shapes. The yellow flowers are a bonus!

young, immature pods are best for cooking

Still Blooming in December: Bidens ‘Campfire Fireburst’

Bidens Campfire FireburstOne of the advantages of being a garden communicator is that you have the opportunity to learn about new plants before they are introduced to the retail market. Often wholesale nurseries will send plants to garden communicators which in my mind is a good thing because if they had not sent me the plant, I might not have otherwise paid attention to it or even known about it.

This year, Proven Winners sent me an annual, Bidens ‘Campfire Fireburst’.  I had not grown or even heard of Bidens before. This is partly my fault. I tend not to purchase annuals especially plants (as oppose to seeds) because they are short-lived. Usually by October’s frost, they die so I find it hard to spend money on a plant that will only last a few months.

However, Bidens seems to be lasting even longer than a summer annual which increases its value tremendously. When I received it in the beginning of the growing season, I placed it in the garden in front of the house, which is on the southern side in full sun. Throughout the summer it bloomed and survived our mid Atlantic heat and humidity. I only watered a few times to get it established, I did not fertilize nor did I deadhead, trim, or stake.

Bidens was left to fend for itself but it thrived all summer long, blooming continuously. In the fall, its orange yellow flowers blended well with the mums and other Halloween decorations and now that it is December it is the only thing left blooming that I can cut and bring in to the office. I am amazed that it is still blooming in December. According to the Proven Winners web site, Bidens is hardy to zone 9 but we have had 30 degree nights where I have had to scrape the ice off the car in the morning.

Bidens ‘Campfire Fireburst’ will be available at retail garden centers in 2016. Recently there has been an increase in breeding efforts with this species so you may see a wider range of color combinations from yellow, gold, orange, and red, including bicolor and white and even lavender. The flowers are a small, simple, and daisy-shape on wiry stems. The foliage also is small, fern like and pretty in a parsley kind of way. Although I had placed mine in the garden bed next to a blue fescue, I think they are best used in a window box or hanging basket to be able to see the flowers up close. Bidens are heat and drought tolerant and provide an unusually long stretch of color, well into winter in my Virginia garden.