The Southern Agrarian

Southern Agrarianism and the culture of the Old South

Tag: okra

The Southern Agrarian Last Ditch List

Okra pods and flower

Most of us garden primarily for pleasure. It’s what we do because – well, because we are Southern Agrarians. Yes, what we grow ends up on our table or given to friends and neighbors; however, what our garden produces generally does not determine whether we eat or starve.

But what if it did? What if our very fragile system were to collapse leaving the grocery store shelves empty and the streets too dangerous to venture out in? Part of Southern Agrarianism is being independent of that complex system, so this is very much a topic for discussion.

My garden tends to be planned more around what we enjoy eating and growing rather than for maximizing food production when lives depend on it. The Last Ditch List is what I would be planting if lives did depend on it.

 

The Southern Agrarian Last Ditch List

Sweet Potatoes (Centennial)
Incredibly easy to grow; I’m still growing them from the very first slips that I got about eight years ago. I keep moving them around to avoid soil-borne pests and diseases, and they will take transplanting without any problem.
ꔷ The taste is delicious
ꔷ High in nutritional value
ꔷ Will last for months if stored in a cool, dark place
ꔷ The leaves are edible

Okra (Clemson Spineless)
ꔷ Continuous production through hot weather
ꔷ Very resistant to disease and pest
ꔷ Each plant will produce one or two edible pods about every two to three days
ꔷ Easy to save seeds
ꔷ Delicious when fried

Eggplant (Florida Highbush)
ꔷ Highly productive through hot weather
ꔷ Easily prepared and makes a good, filling meal
ꔷ Minimal problems from disease or pests
ꔷ Relatively easy to save seeds if you know the technique
ꔷ Should plant a fairly large number to maintain genetic diversity in seeds

Seminole Pumpkin
ꔷ Fruit can last up to a full year when properly stored
ꔷ Almost impervious to disease or pests
ꔷ Huge vines that drop roots along the way making the plant very resilient and able to thrive on relatively poor ground
ꔷ Lots of organic matter at the end of the season to keep the ground rich
ꔷ Needs good care and lots of water to get started; once established, requires almost no care

Collards (Georgia Southern)
ꔷ Winter crop
ꔷ Other greens will not reliably produce seeds in this area

 

Second Tier crops

These are ones that I am still working with but don’t have enough experience yet to put them on the Last Ditch List. Nothing other than lack of a well established track record keeps me from putting them on the Last Ditch List.

Potatoes (Yukon Gold)
This is only my second time planting these, but all indications are that they should make the Last Ditch List in the next year or two.

Squash (Tromboncino)
The variety makes all the difference. I have given up on the more typical yellow squash; bugs have destroyed them every single time I have tried. Tromboncino, on the other hand, is highly resistant to pests due to its tough outer skin. The fruit is pale green, long and thin, and grows on a vine. I have them growing along a fence.

 

Not On The List

These are crops that I grow now, but they don’t meet the criteria for inclusion on the Last Ditch List.

Beans (Kentucky Wonder or Blue Lake) – Too many poor results. Sometimes I get a good crop, and other times it’s a poor crop. Inconsistent. May be moved to the Last Ditch List once I learn more, but not yet. Good potential once I learn more.

Corn (Reid’s Yellow Dent) – Low yield for the amount of space it takes up. Heavy drain on the garden soil. If any crops would be available for purchase following a collapse, it would be grains. They are well suited for large scale, highly mechanized farming, and they transport and store well. I keep some seeds on hand for use in corn meal or for chicken feed – just in case.

Tomatoes (Homestead 24) – Too easily damaged by bugs or disease or blossom end rot. They stop producing when the weather gets hot.

Peppers (Carolina Wonder) – Susceptibility to Blossom End Rot keeps peppers off the list. If I can get the calcium deficiency solved, this might be moved to the Last Ditch List.

 

Final Notes

Vegetable gardening is very location-dependent. This Last Ditch List is what works for me here in north central Florida. There is a really good chance that your Last Ditch List would be different. Maybe very different. Perhaps the most value from this list is in the criteria – why I chose what I did for this list.

What is on your Last Ditch List – and why?

What’s In The Garden Now? June 1, 2016

Eggplant in the foreground and tomatoes in the background.

Eggplant in the foreground and tomatoes in the background.


I’m always interested in hearing what others are growing in their gardens, so this post is about what is in my garden now. But first, a note about what my priorities are and how I choose what to grow:

  • Sustainability – Everything that I plant in my garden is open pollinated. Savings seeds is just as important to me as the vegetables that go on the table. Hybrids are not even considered when picking varieties.
  • Resilience – Rather than start with “What do I like?” and then try to make it grow here, my strategy is to ask “What will dependably grow here?” and then find ways to prepare it so that I enjoy it. (See the section on Squash below for any example).
  • Organic – I avoid the use of any chemical pesticides or herbicides. I’m not fanatical about it, but it’s been many years since I used any chemical pesticides on the garden. When needed, I use BT and Neem Oil, which are both organic pesticides that are safe to apply immediately before picking and eating.

Eggplant – This is a hot-weather favorite that keeps on producing through all but the very hottest summer days. In the past, I have always gone with Black Beauty, but this year I am growing the Florida High Bush variety. My hope is that, based on the description I read, the plants will be stronger and less likely to be blown over in a wind, yet still have the good taste and texture of the Black Beauty. This variety was developed in the 1940’s for commercial fields, and the objective was to keep the fruit up off the ground. So far, so good.

Tomato – What’s a garden without tomatoes? Several years ago, I did some fairly extensive testing for taste, quantity, and general quality. I grew several varieties and kept careful records. I counted the yield from each individual plant, and I wrote a number on the individual fruits and gave them to friends and relatives and asked them to rate them by various criteria. The overall winner was Homestead 24. That has become my standard tomato variety and I see no reason to change. There will be some other varieties that may taste slightly better or have other desirable qualities, but – all things considered – the Homestead 24 beats them all.

Bell Peppers – I’m trying a new variety this year: Chinese Giant. As the name implies, these are a very large fruited pepper. I have read that if thinned (something I haven’t tried yet), they can reach 5″ – 6″ in length and width. My previous variety was California Wonder; they were good, but I wanted to try something new.

Okra – Another great hot-weather producer. This year is a test of a strain of Clemson Spineless called “Heavy Hitter”. In the past, I always went with regular Clemson Spineless, but when I read about Heavy Hitter, I had to give it a try. Heavy Hitter has a different branching pattern which results in more branches – and thus more fruit – from each plant. It was developed by Mr. Ron Cook in Oklahoma. If it works as I think it will, I’ll be doing whatever I can to help promote this strain of okra. This was planted quite late since I wanted to put it in some new ground that had been lawn up until a few months ago.

Squash – I suppose this one doesn’t really belong here since I turned the entire crop under two days ago. In previous years, I decided “No more squash” because they were always ruined by worms boring holes and ruining the fruit. Stubbornly, I wanted to give it one more try. The first few were great, but then the worms came (I avoid the use of pesticides wherever possible). Not wanting to feed the worms, I used my BCS tractor with the roto-tiller attachment to turn that part of the garden into dirt. Next year, I’ll go back to planting Seminole Pumpkin and use it as a squash.

Cotton – I like planting cotton every once in a while just to have it. This year, I planted Red Foliated White Cotton that I got from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. The stem parts of the plants are red – an interesting color in the garden – and it produces a short staple white cotton. What do I do with it? Not much. It is just interesting to grow, and there are plenty of folks who have never seen cotton growing.

So – what do you have in your garden now?

Cotton blossom, Red Foliated White Cotton.

Cotton blossom, Red Foliated White Cotton.

Eat What You Grow

This Black Beauty eggplant is a reliable producer here in The South.

This Black Beauty eggplant is a reliable producer here in The South.


Most of us tend to plan our gardens, at some point, by leafing through a seed catalog and picking what we like to eat. While “Grow what you like” is certainly a good way to start, a more realistic plan is to “Like what you grow”.

I have heard it said that there are places where one can grow just about anything. Unfortunately, I have never lived in such a place, so the best plan for me is to find what grows well here and focus on that. Once I find what grows well here, the focus then shifts to finding ways to prepare it so that we enjoy eating it.

I was never really fond of eggplant, but in the hottest part of the summer, eggplant is one of the very few things that thrives in the heat. I have never had any problems growing eggplant. It seems to repel bugs and I’ve never seen any disease. Aside from very mild heat wilt in the hottest part of the day, the heat doesn’t bother it. In addition, it produces a lot of fruit with just a few plants. Another plant with similar characteristics is okra. Since that is what grows well here, our focus then shifted to finding ways to make the best use of those crops.

Laura always seems to find a way to prepare a meal that I am sure to love. With eggplant, she slices it into thin slices, coats it with flour, then dips it in egg, then in seasoned bread crumbs. She then fries it in a cast iron skillet (cast iron is a requirement for any Southern kitchen worthy of the name) until the outside is nice and crispy. Add a bit of coarse-ground sea salt and serve. It is delicious.

Okra is even simpler – she cuts it into sections, fries it in oil, then salt and serve. Fried and breaded okra is, of course, one of the classics, but this is such a simple and delicious way to prepare it that it has become our standard. For a bit of variety, try okra gumbo – the acid in the tomato cuts the “slime” that makes many folks turn away from okra.

The key here is to shift the focus from trying to grow “favorites” that don’t do well where you are, to finding ways to really enjoy what does grow well at your location. Our next experiment will be Seminole Pumpkin – a staple of the early Seminole Indians here in Florida.

Gardening in West Africa

This is a follow-up to a previous post in which I mentioned that some of the seeds that I have been collecting from my garden would be sent to Sierra Leone, West Africa with some of our missionary friends. These photos are some that they sent of their garden.

Although okra was originally brought to America from Africa, the variety of okra grown there today is typically a very primitive type. There is very little attention paid to developing improved varieties, so the best route was for them to bring seeds back from America and hope that they will serve as the foundation for a strain that will be well-suited for the West African environment.

In West Africa, the climate is tropical, but the dry season is influenced by the Sahara, to the north. The dry season is very dry and the rainy season is very rainy. In the words of Joseph, their local helper, “Sista, let de rain meet your seeds in de soil.” Very simple words from very simple people, but containing much wisdom.

Part of the garden. In the background is the classroom building where native men are trained in The Bible. The tree in the center is a Moringa tree - an incredibly useful tree that I hope to get growing here.

Okra from our garden now growing in West Africa. The variety is Clemson Spineless.

Blue Lake Bush beans getting started.

How Big Does Okra Get?

On October 20, I began removing all of the hot weather crops from the garden. The next step is to add and mix in some more compost and prepare for the cool weather crops. When it came time to remove the okra, I was truly impressed with the size of some of the okra stalks.

This particular one had been blown over on its side and continued to grow to the massive size you see in the photo. Although the stalk was huge, this particular one wasn’t among the best producing plants in the garden – perhaps because it was expending energy on plant growth rather than okra pods. It did OK, but was not the best. Seeds from this one were not saved.

Okra stalk at the end of the summer growing season - October 20.

How Much Okra?

Sometimes it just helps to see how much a given area can produce rather than reading numbers on a spreadsheet. Okra, beside being something I thoroughly enjoy, is a very prolific producer. Here are two photos – the first showing the area planted, and the second showing a typical yield. I pick okra about every 24 to 36 hours. Anything more than that, and you’re going to have okra that is past its prime.

Never Prune Okra

Several months ago, I decided to try an experiment. I pruned back several okra plants by cutting a few inches off the top. The idea was to see if, as happens with some plants, pruning makes it more productive. In addition, the plants were getting pretty tall. I am 6’6″ tall, and I now have to bend some of the plants down in order for me to pick the pods off the top (remember that this is in a raised bed, so they aren’t as tall as it may seem).

The results? The trimmed plants have produced absolutely nothing from that point on. Let your okra grow as it will and keep it picked – don’t cut anything but the pods.

Hot Weather Crops

Here in The South, the intense summer heat limits your garden to only those few plant varieties that can truly handle the heat. Fall, Winter, and Spring gardens are when we get the nice lush growth, but with the heat and the insects it takes careful planning and selection to have a beautiful and productive garden.

This has been an especially hot and dry summer, and the stink bugs were out in force. I have long since pulled up the tomato and squash plants that just couldn’t handle the heat. Here is what I have in the garden now (July 19, 2011).

Strawberries - they are not producing fruit now, but the plants are handling the heat just fine.

Bell peppers are producing well. They turn red before they get very big, but they produce far more than we can use ourselves.

Sweet potatoes. These are doing very well. There are 4 plants in this section of the garden.

Egg plant. The fruit doesn't get very big before harvest stage, but they still produce far more than we can use.

Egg plant ready to be picked

Okra - the Summer performer. No matter how hot the weather, okra just keeps on producing. The only pest is ants, and they are a minor problem and relatively easy to control.

Sweet potato being grown in a container

Fried Okra

One of the very few things that will grow even during the hottest part of the summer is okra. It not only grows, it thrives. Once it starts producing, picking okra is literally a daily task. Okra must be picked before it gets too big. Large okra pods quickly toughen up into a woody texture. The trick is to pick them when they’re about the length of your longest finger – at least that’s how I do it.

Okra can be prepared in a number of ways, but unless you’re part of a very small percentage of people who enjoy a slimy texture, the key is to get rid of the “slime” that okra is well known for. My two favorite ways are fried and in a gumbo with tomatoes. The acid in the tomato cuts the “slime”, and frying also eliminates it. We’ll talk about okra gumbo another time. This post is about fried okra.

Fried okra is almost like eating popcorn or potato chips – you can just keep on eating them until you’re full. One tip that I learned is that, after cutting it up, you want to let it soak for a couple of hours in milk with an egg mixed in. That lets it work its way down through the slices.

 

Okra pods, sliced and soaking in milk and egg.

In the batter

With the milk and egg serving as a glue, build up a good heavy layer of batter.

Deep fry in oil until the batter turns a golden brown.

At the bottom, fried okra. At the top, eggplant cooked the same way.

Lessons Learned – Part 1

I’m titling this one “Part 1”, not because I have a “Part 2” in mind, but because learning new things is an on-going process. I’ll write “Part 2” (and 3, and 4, and …) as soon as I have more lessons learned that I want to record.

More Plant Spacing – I have been planting too closely for most plants. By the time the plants mature, they are so densely packed together that the inner leaves do not get sufficient light, so they just yellow and die. There is not enough air circulation to dry the inner parts of the plants, and though I can’t prove it, I suspect that the plants would be healthier with more room to “breathe”.

Use Plant Cages – Primarily for tomatoes, but also for plants like peppers, some way to stabilize and contain the plants is a major advantage. Some of the tomato plants have grown over the sides of the garden and down to the ground. When they grow that big, they are much more difficult to work with, and much more susceptible to broken branches and other damage. We haven’t had any high winds yet, but plant cages will keep the plants from being blown over by the wind.

Prune Where Needed – The tomatoes ended up putting too much energy into growing branches and leaves rather than in growing fruit. Although pruning tomatoes is more commonly done in the northern parts of the country, I will be pruning my next crop of tomatoes. This is also related to using tomato cages to contain and train the plants.

Upon doing some more reading, it looks like this year’s poor blackberry crop may be due (in part) to not having done any pruning on them. I’ll do that next season. I also neglected to give them the fertilizer and water that they should have gotten.

Grow Up – Not Out – I had planned to use bush beans and determinate variety tomatoes and plant in stages, thinking that I would then get enough beans in a single flush to be able to can the surplus. Somehow, that just didn’t work out as planned. I’ll be going back to pole beans and indeterminate tomato varieties so the harvest is spread out over the life of the plant rather than one large flush of produce and then the plant dies. This also allows for better utilization of the available area in the garden. The various trellis designs that I have been experimenting with look very promising.

Better Planning – I have been pretty much planting wherever there was an empty space in the garden. That kind of haphazard planting just doesn’t work very well in the long term. I will be dividing the garden into 4 sections, and making sure that crops are rotated so that it will be 4 years before a section contains the same type of plant. That should help reduce soil-borne disease and balance out the nutrients in the soil.

Earlier starting – I did fairly well this year, but I still want to start my seeds for the Spring garden around the end of December or first of January. In this part of the country, with the seedling setup that I have, that should work out just fine. There may be some risk of a late frost, but the plants can be covered if needed. I usually try to have at least twice as many seedlings as I plan to use in case of a problem like that. If they aren’t needed, there are plenty of folks eager to take them.

Color Makes a Difference – This year, we planted both yellow squash and zucchini. Both grow about the same, both taste about the same, but both look very different. I discovered that the dark green zucchini is very easy to overlook among the dark green plant. Several times, I have discovered huge zucchinis that are far bigger than I wanted (although they do quite well when baked). They got that way because I overlooked them. Next year, we might be growing yellow squash and not zucchini, we’ll think that over carefully before planting. The bright yellow squash stands out and is a lot easier to see when it’s time to pick them.

Mix it up – I have noticed some differences in the sections of the garden that I can only attribute to not having mixed the growing mixture up well enough. When the hot weather garden is finished, I will be adding some more compost and doing a better job of mixing it up. Just to make sure though, I’ll be doing some soil testing.