For Love of Okra

March 29, 2013

Author: Libby Sander

Category: General News Stories from the Garden

By the time I was nine years old, okra had assumed the dubious honor of being the only vegetable I disliked. This held true for years, and I didn’t try very hard to identify any of the plant’s redeeming qualities. I loathed its slimy texture and strange anatomy, and that was that. But as I discovered last summer while enrolled in NFI’s Gardening Education Program, cultivating vegetables can do quite a bit to ease prejudices of taste. What we grow, we love.

Unaware of my long-held bias, two hearty okra plants thrived in my first garden as though that 12-by-12 plot was the happiest home they’d ever had. (I’d thrown in a few seeds on the edge of the plot as an experiment—or maybe a challenge.) Tall, leafy, and strong, they were prolific, and produced yellow flowers that belonged in a florist’s shop. It seemed clear that okra liked my garden. A lot. So I, in turn, began to like okra. It was especially good, I discovered, pan-fried in a hot skillet with a liberal dash of kosher salt.

The Gardening Education Program promises a growing-season of instruction; seeds and seedlings; and free use of tools. So I envisioned as many different veggies as my plot could hold: Zucchini, tomatoes, pattypan squash, green beans, fennel, chard, watermelon radishes, peppers, carrots, beets, spinach, basil, parsley, and dill, along with zinnias, sunflowers, and cosmos. And, of course, okra.  

Not all of my seeds sprouted. I was a newbie, after all, and no doubt my early and overzealous weeding hastened the demise of a few young plants. As the summer unfolded, though, my classmates and I learned how to care for those that did emerge. We watered, mulched, weeded, and—when our plants had matured–harvested. Terms like “vermicomposting” and “soil enhancement” became part of our vocabulary.

Our teacher, Nora, took care to explain that as some plants grow, they need extra help. A few varieties of green beans, for instance, do best when they have a trellis on which to climb. By mid-July, my bean plants had gotten quite robust. They looked restless. So one hot Saturday I went to the garden to construct a trellis. Using string and plastic stakes, I pieced together a makeshift contraption and threaded the beans’ spindly vines and heart-shaped leaves through it. Then I bolted for the air-conditioning, and from afar willed my green beans to grow fast and happy in their new vertical home.

By the following weekend, the trellis was dotted with purple blossoms. This was unexpected. I didn’t know bean plants produced purple flowers. And where were the actual beans? Nora took one look at my setup and laughed. “Those morning glories really like the trellis you made for them,” she said with a smile. So I spent the next hour dismantling the thing and detangling the impostors from their accidental home. On the ground, I cleared space for the bean plants—bush beans, as I now knew. The uprooted morning glories, meanwhile, found a new home in the compost pile.

The trellis incident was nature’s way of reminding me that I had a lot to learn. But I appreciated how the garden adapted again and again to my lack of precision and rookie mistakes. More than anything, though, I valued its tranquility. I loved wandering the wood-chip paths and watching other people’s gardens take shape. During the work week, my mind would often drift several miles across town to my own small plot. I’d picture the robins perched atop the bamboo rods to which I’d staked my tomato plants, and the bright goldfinches I often spotted in the cornstalks nearby. Thinking about the garden, it turned out, was almost as lovely as being there.   

By October, class was over and the growing season nearly done. I decided to pull up what plants remained. A few stray sungold tomatoes, some leaf lettuce, and young Red Russian kale just a few inches in length—that was it. Feeling sad as I placed the final harvest in my bag, I looked around and remembered what had thrived in this patch of earth. The carrots and fennel, admittedly, never made it. Nor did the beets. But I had conquered a lifelong suspicion of okra, grown a towering sunflower with a head the size of a pie plate, and learned how to squish beetles between my thumb and index finger.  

The garden had fed and inspired me all summer. Fittingly, it was a salad that emerged from that last visit. Tossed in olive oil and lemon juice and seasoned with a sprinkle of kosher salt, that bowl of baby kale, leaf lettuce and tomatoes was the very taste of my late-season garden. It was the best salad I’ve ever had.

Libby Sander was a member of NFI’s 2012 Gardening Education Program. She is on the waiting list for a plot in the Mamie Lee Community Garden. 

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