Chas Allen stands on a 10-foot ladder to harvest okra from a 13-foot tall plant at his home in Caledonia Oct. 6. The "backyard gardener" has grown vegetables in raised beds for years, but this is his first attempt at okra. Barring significant wind or a big change in temperature, Allen expects the Clemson Spineless variety plants to keep growing and producing. Photo by: Deanna Robinson/Dispatch Staff
October 11, 2017 11:10:01 AM
Chas Allen might be starting to feel a little like the mythical Jack of fairy tale fame, the lad who grew a legendary beanstalk. Allen's okra plants in Caledonia are defying the "3 to 6-foot" norm. As of Oct. 6, some were topping 13 feet, from soil level to tip -- and still growing.
The self-described "backyard gardener" -- and lab technician with Tronox Inc. -- has grown vegetables in raised beds on and off for years, but this is his first attempt at okra. The variety he selected is Clemson Spineless, purchased at the local co-op.
Okra needs well-drained, nutrient-rich soil. Allen and his wife, Veronika, have delivered on that.
"We had some good top soil; we just added to it from a couple of hills in the yard," he said. "But I chose this particular winter to clean out my chicken house, and it has about two wheelbarrows full of aged chicken manure mixed in with the top soil. I guess it just made it take off."
A change in sunlight access also seems to have provided a turbo boost.
"We had some other things in that bed, including zucchini, and (those plants) were every bit of 7-foot wide and about 4-feet tall," Allen said, noting the zucchini ended up shading the okra. When zucchini quit producing and Allen pulled it, the okra received all the benefits of the sun and went into overdrive.
The Allens are fans of raised-bed gardening. (Veronika, a quality technician at Steel Dynamics, helps build beds, plant and harvest. "I couldn't do it without her," her husband said.)
"Raised beds are easier to weed because you never step in them; the ground will always stay loose," he explained. "They're easily mulch-able. They drain better, so if you get a lot of rain, it doesn't drown the plants."
The couple maintains three vegetable beds that measure 5-by-16-feet, plus several smaller beds with herbs and other produce. Beds are made of treated 2-by-10s.
Mississippi State University Extension Agent Reid Nevins said okra this tall is unusual. He's got some on his own property he estimates are hitting 9 to 10 feet.
"We've had a really good growing season, with the rain back in June and July, steady rain up until the last month or so. Gardens have really flourished." Okra, he added, will grow and stay alive until a frost.
Good in anything
The versatile vegetable is good in anything, Allen said. "We eat it boiled, and all Southerners have always fried okra. One thing we like to do that's lower calorie is chop it up like we're going to fry it, but instead put it on a cookie sheet, just lightly brush with olive oil and season with garlic powder or salt (or whatever you like). Bake it for probably about 400 degrees for an hour. It comes out just like fried okra."
At the Allen homestead, the okra may not reach the heavenly heights of Jack's magic beanstalk, but it does keep growing. Barring wind or a big change in temperature, Allen expects the plants to continue producing. He'll keep climbing his ladder to harvest every pod he can reach.
"I have yet to run into anyone that has ever seen anything like them around here."
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.