When you think of the most popular vegetables to grow in the back yard, you probably don’t come up with eggplant. In fact, when Mother Earth News did a survey of who was planting what, the most popular homegrown vegetable was the tomato followed by peppers, green beans, cucumbers, onions, lettuce, summer squash, carrots, radishes, and sweet corn. Eggplant didn’t even make the list!
The bigger the eggplant, the bigger the bitter. (Photo credit: Asian Lifestyle Design)
Okay, so eggplant is not a favorite with a lot of gardeners but the reason just may be that most gardeners have never had young, sweet flavorful eggplants plucked off their own plants. Instead they’ve tried those large, purple cylinders they buy in the grocery store. I was the same way until I grew a few plants and discovered there is no comparison.
There are three tricks to getting full-flavored fruit from an eggplant; buy the right seeds, start the plants early and harvest the eggplant when they’re small.
My favorite eggplant is the round, striated one called Bianca Rosa from High Mowing Organic Seeds. This is a Sicilian eggplant with light pink fruits that are streaked with white and violet. The flavor is mild and creamy with no bitterness and a low number of seeds.
How To Grow Eggplant
Growing eggplant is a bit like growing peppers – both like warm summer days. In fact, I think eggplant is even more cold-sensitive. To get eggplant to flower and set fruit, you need warm soil and a long, warm growing season – from 100 to 140 days with temperatures consistently between 70° and 90°.
I always start eggplant from seed. And I always start them early – at least 10 weeks before my last frost date. Like all my seeds, I start them in cells. I don’t soak them overnight before putting them in the cell but you can to shorten the time to sprouting.
Once the eggplant seedlings get their second set of leaves, I transplant them into 2 inch peat pots, raise the tray up off the heating mat (I use two bricks – not high-tech but cheap and easy) but keep them there so they can have the warmth they need to thrive. When they get to between 4 and 5 inches high, I transplant them again, this time into 4 inch peat pots.
Why not go directly from cell to the 4 inch peat pot? Remember, eggplant like warm soil. Take them from warm, moist soil and stick them in cold dirt and they get shocky – I know, I tried. All my eggplant were stunted and fruit came late in the season.
So unless I plan far enough ahead to prepare the 4 inch pots and put them over the heat map to warm the soil (that’s unlikely), I just go from cell to 2 inch then 4 inch peat pot.
Once they have settled into the new pots and are thriving, I move the trays off the heat mats and onto my lighted plant stand (which I bought used almost 20 years ago and am still using).
When To Transplant Eggplant
Eggplant have the same needs as those of bell peppers. Transplants should only be set in the garden after all danger of frost is past. Remember, warm soil, warm air and warm days, lots and lots of all three are what eggplant need to thrive.
If your eggplant are happy, they will need more space than you might anticipate. Eggplant should be spaced about 2 feet apart. I don’t plant them in rows, I zigzag them. Like pepper plants, eggplant can be pulled over by the size and weight of their own fruit so I use tomato cages for support. I have also planted them along a fence line so I can tie the plants up once they reach maturity.
Space plants 18 to 24 inches apart in the row and stagger them so you can get 6 to 8 plants in less space. Make sure you leave about 2 to 2/12 feet between rows, especially if you are planting in raised beds so you can get to the plants and the fruit, easily.
Once in the ground, give the transplants a good watering to settle them into the ground. I always mulch eggplant but before I do, I put a ring of composted soil around each plant to feed it. Then I mulch with straw or grass clippings or both to keep the weeds down.
You can also use a nitrogen fertilizer if you don’t have any composted soil, feeding the plants when they are half-grown and right after you harvest the first fruits. But being a lazy gardener, I prefer using composted soil.
Once the plants are established, eggplant love the heat of the summer. You only have to water if you are in a persistent dry period then wait for those lovely, sweet eggplant to start emerging from each lavender flower.
Oh, and keep an eye out for one pest that just loves eggplant – the Colorado Potato Beetle.
Bugs That Bug Eggplant
When you read up on eggplant pests, the one you will read about the most is the flea beetle. Flea beetles chew tons of tiny holes in leaves. If plants are older and stronger, the flea beetles will be more of an annoyance than a true threat to your eggplant. And you can hand-pick and crush these little devils easily.
But if your plants are younger and tender, flea beetles can actually cause real problems. To avoid this problem, keep plants indoors until early summer, as advised and once you transplant them, cover outdoor plants with floating row covers to keep the flea beetles at bay until the plants get older and tougher.
Some gardeners think flea beets are an eggplant’s worst pest. I save that title for the Colorado Potato Beetle…on my Top 10 Bugs list for a reason.
The Colorado Potato Beetle will eat anything, even eggplant. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The good news is that the eggs, larvae and the adult beetles are easy to spot and even easier to crush.
The eggs, orange-yellow in color, can be found in clusters of about 20 on the undersides of leaves. Finding and killing them before they hatch helps decrease the odds of an infestation.
Just crush them gently (sounds like an oxymoron but necessary advice) with your fingers, trying not to damage the leaf they are laid on.
If the eggs hatch, the larvae are red to orange soft grubs about 1/2 inch long when mature. Larvae have black heads, little black legs and, as they grow, will have two rows of black spots on each side of the body. If you see holes in the leaves, check the underside for these babies.
When they reach maturity, the beetle phase, you will be able to recognize the adult Colorado Beetle easily. The body is domed with distinctive yellow and black stripes running along the length of the wing covers.
These beetles are easy to hand-pick and crush. I keep two small, flat stones in the garden by the eggplant to do just that.
The most common eggplant disease is Verticillium wilt which causes yellowing, wilting and death of the plants. If you plant resistant cultivars and rotate crops – never planting eggplant where tomatoes or potatoes have grown the year before, you should be able to avoid this disease.
Eggplant is one vegetable where size does matter – and it should be small.
If you harvest eggplant when they are young, you will be sure to get sweet flesh with none of the bitterness that larger eggplant bring to the table.
To find out if an eggplant is ready to be picked, hold the eggplant in your palm and gently press it with your thumb. If the flesh presses in but bounces back, it is ready for harvesting. If the flesh is hard and does not give, the eggplant is immature and too young to harvest.
Eggplant bruise easily so harvest gently. Don’t try to pull eggplant off the plant. You will damage the plant and probably not win the tug of war with the stem.
You might even get stabbed by one of the spines on the stem. So carry a sharp knife with you and cut the stem of the eggplant about an inch away from the top or cap of the fruit. That method protects you, the plant and the fruit from damage.
I harvest all season long. I love eggplant marinated and grilled. And when I get too many or get just a bit tired of marinating them, I simply slice them, grill them dry (no oil) on the Foreman Grill and freeze them. During the cold days of winter, I use the frozen slices to make wonderful Eggplant Parmigiana.
Eggplants don’t store well but you don’t want to leave them on the plants too long, either. Either harvest and use immediately for the best flavor or process them for the freezer.
No recipes for eggplant (other than marinated or in parmigiana) but a tip a chef shared with me. When making Eggplant Parmigiana, mix the ricotta cheese, eggs, cooked and crumbled ground beef and tomato sauce together.
This way, you only have to layer once. All 4 fillings are more evenly distributed and the finished dish has a creamier, richer flavor. This tip works for lasagna, too!
Next week, zucchini and summer squash and everything you need to know to enjoy both, all summer long.