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How to Grow: Eggplant
Learn about growing different varieties of eggplants in this podcast
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Growing up in an Italian-American family, eggplant parmesan was a part of life. I didn’t realize until I grew up how many other uses and types of eggplant (Solanum melongena) there are. You can grow tiny green eggplants the size of a cherry tomato to oval-shaped, purple fruits the size of a melon. I love the long thin varieties available now that come in green, white, or purple-striped colors. They’re great for grilling, sauteing, and making babaganoush, soups, stews and of course, eggplant parmesan.
When to Plant
Eggplant are in the tomato family and like the warmth just like their cousins. Transplant seedlings into the garden 2 weeks after the last frost date. The soil needs to be at least 60F for best growth — May or June. You can start your own seedlings indoors 6 to 8 weeks earlier or purchase ones from the local garden center.
Where to Plant
Eggplant love the sun and heat. Plant them on raised beds, in well drained fertile soil. The beds warm up faster and dry out sooner in spring. Eggplant are beautiful plants as well. The purple colored flowers and attractive fruits makes this the perfect edible landscape plant amongst your perennial or annual flowers. If you’re having trouble getting eggplant to mature, plant them in a container. They’ll grow faster than in the ground.
How to Plant
Amend the raised bed with compost before planting and lay black plastic mulch over the bed two weeks before setting out seedlings. The black plastic mulch will warm up the soil, stimulating the eggplants to grow quickly. Space plants 18- to 24-inches apart on the bed.
Care and Maintenance
Eggplants grow best with temperatures above 70F. During cool springs, protect young eggplants by laying a floating row cover over the plants during chilly nights. In fact, eggplants won’t set fruits when temperatures are consistently below 65F.
Eggplants need consistent fertility and water to grow best. Add a small handful of an organic fertilizer, such as 5-5-5, around plants once a month during the growing season. Keep plants well watered with at least 1- to 2-inches of water a week. Water stressed plants will produce bitter tasting fruits.
I like to use small tomato cages to keep eggplants standing. It helps keep the plants upright during summer thunderstorms and keeps the fruits off the ground and clean.
Eggplants can be attacked by a number of different insects. Flea beetles will eat shotgun-like holes in the leaves of young seedlings. Cover plants with row covers to prevent their damage. Colorado potato beetles love eggplant almost as much as potatoes. Handpick adult beetles, crush the orange eggs on the undersides of leaves, and spray larvae with Bacillus thuriengensis ‘San Diego’ to control them.
The main disease that attacks eggplant in verticillium wilt. It can stunt and deform the plant. Avoid this disease by rotating crops or growing eggplants in containers filled with sterilized potting soil.
Harvest eggplants when the fruits reach full size, the skin is glossy, and the flesh firm. Press the skin gently with your thumb. If it bounces back without cracking, the fruits are ready to harvest. If you dent the skin with your thumb, the fruits are over mature. It’s better to err on the under than over ripe side when harvesting, since over ripe fruits tend to be bitter tasting. Use a sharp knife and gloves since some varieties have thorns.
Some good large, oval-sized varieties to grow include ‘Traviata Hybrid’ (purple skin) and ‘Beatrice Hybrid’ (violet skin). Some long, thin varieties to try include ‘Fairy Tale Hybrid’ (purple striped), ‘Louisiana Long Green’ (green skin), ‘Gretel Hybrid (white skin). Some really unusual small round varieties include ‘Kermit hybrid (green skin) and ‘Turkish Orange’ (orange skin).
Text excepted from the Northeast Vegetable and Fruit Gardening book.
I’ve got a riddle for you. What eggs come in white, yellow, purple, red, orange and green and hail from India? It’s really not an egg. It’s the eggplant!
Eggplants have been cultivated in Asia for thousands for years. Varieties that were brought to Europe in the 18th century had either yellow or white colored, small fruits, so they were eggplants. Eggplants didn’t really catch on in this country until more recently with the popularity of Asian cuisines.
Growing eggplants in Vermont can be problematic. Like their cousin the tomato, they require long warm days and high fertility to produce fruits. If we have a cool, cloudy summer, you might get large plants but few ripening eggplants. But eggplants are worth growing. Newer varieties are more adapted to short growing seasons, the plants are down right beautiful in the landscape and the flavor of grilled eggplant, baba ganoush, and caponata transports you to exotic lands.
Here’s how to grow them. Select small fruited varieties such as ‘Fairy Tale’ and ‘Thai Green’. They mature faster, offering more fruit than the large, teardrop-shaped varieties. Amend your soil well with compost and cover the garden bed with dark plastic mulch afew weeks before planting. Plant the end of May or early June into the plastic covering plants during chilly nights. Side dress with an organic fertilizer once every 3 weeks and keep plants well watered.
In real cool areas, grow eggplants in 5 gallon black plastic containers, to accumulate heat. Keep the plants well fertilized and watered. To harvest, press the skin of full-sized fruits. If it bounces back, they’re ready to eat. If your finger leaves an indent, they’re over mature and probably bitter. Reduce the bitterness in eggplant by either soaking them in water for 15 minutes before cooking or removing the skins.