Eggplant does not like cold weather and it’s also a little fussy about its food and water. But, as long as you pay attention to these basic needs, it will reward you over and over during its long growing season. So, growing eggplant is a little more difficult than most vegetables, but not by much. You will learn what to do and what not to do in this article and you will be well equipped to grow your first healthy eggplant plant.
You can grow eggplants in the ground, but they actually do better in containers or raised beds where it’s easier to control the soil temperature and environment (remember, eggplants are a little choosey about their growing conditions).
Called by various names: eggplant, aubergine or brinjal, this beautiful fruit is believed to have originated in India where it still grows wild. Yes, although we eat eggplant as a vegetable it is actually a fruit. And to confuse us more, it is also classified as a berry because of its edible seeds.
Eggplants belongs to the nightshade family which also includes tomatoes and potatoes. The alkaloid compounds they contain can be harmful if taken in large quantities, so people with arthritis or other bone or joint issues might want to completely avoid eating eggplants and other nightshade foods.
Although we usually associate eggplant with a deep, shiny purple color, there are also white, lavender, green, orange, and striped varieties. They also vary in size and shape with subtle differences in taste, although they all have the same spongy texture.
Eggplant is a vegetable (for the purposes of this discussion), so of course it is healthy to eat. You won’t hear rave reviews, however, like those about trendy avocados, cauliflower and kale, but it definitely has some serious health benefits.
Among other things, eating eggplant helps protect against cancer, is an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, helps build bones and helps lower cholesterol and blood pressure. You can read more about the health benefits of eggplant here.
Here are two quick and delicious eggplant recipes.
Cooking with Eggplant
Mostly known in the West for popular dishes such as eggplant parmesan, the Greek dish moussaka, and the French vegetable stew ratatouille, eggplant is eaten in a variety of ways in the Middle East, Asia and the Mediterranean countries.
Since it doesn’t have much flavor on its own, eggplant often paired with spices and other flavorful ingredients. For example, an Indian recipe would be to marinate cubes of eggplant in a few spices, then stir fry with mustard seeds in oil for a tasty side dish.
Depending on the variety, some eggplants can be bitter. To counter this, before cooking, sprinkle the eggplant cubes, slices or halves with salt, leave for 30 minutes in a colander over a bowl, then rinse with water and pat dry.
As mentioned earlier, eggplant is a warm weather plant so you should only place your seedlings outside when the soil has warmed up. So, for this reason, it’s better to plant them in containers or raised beds which naturally have warmer soil. Make sure to choose a location that can receive 6 to 8 hours of sun a day.
Eggplant can be started from seed, or you can buy starter plants from your local nursery. If you buy starter plants, check that the undersides of the leaves are free from any bugs or disease.
Sowing Eggplant Seeds
You can sow seeds directly outdoors, but unless you live in a Southern climate it’s best to start them indoors 6 to 8 weeks before the average last frost.
Sow the seeds indoors in seed starter cells, two in each cell. Use an organic potting mix, water well and they will germinate in 8 to 10 days. Use a heating mat, if necessary, to keep them around 75 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit while germinating.
When the seedlings are several inches high, after discarding the weaker ones in each cell, you can plant them outside. However, if the weather is not warm enough at this stage, plant them in small pots to give them room to grow and keep them indoors for a couple more weeks. Use a liquid fertilizer in the pots.
Planting the Seedlings Outdoors
Again, this can’t be stressed enough, make sure the weather and the soil are warm before planting outside. In cooler climates, plant the seedlings in containers or raised beds. Quite often eggplants do better in these than planting directly in the ground.
For planting in a container, choose one that is at least 12” in diameter, larger if you want two plants in one container. The larger the pot, the bigger your harvest will be. And a dark color is preferred to help absorb and retain the heat.
For planting in raised beds or in the ground, space them 12” to 18” apart.
Once the seedlings are in place, firmed down and watered, your plants will benefit from a topping of mulch to keep the soil warm, moist and to deter weeds. Hardwood, straw or shredded leaves would be good choices.
At this stage also, if you place a couple of stakes around each plant, you’ll be able to support them as they grow taller and produce heavy fruit, which could topple the plants. If you place stakes at a later stage when they’re needed, you could risk damaging the roots.
Soil and Fertilizer
You’ll be most successful growing eggplant if you give it the soil and nutrition it needs to produce large, heavy fruits.
Start with a good-quality potting mix with some organic compost added. When planting in the ground, if the soil is not fertile and well-drained, add some peat moss or other organic material.
Eggplant is a heavy feeder, so a regular fertilizer is essential to produce lots of large fruits. Use a slow-release, water-soluble fertilizer every 2 to 3 weeks while the leaves are growing. Once the blooms start to develop, a fertilizer with less nitrogen is recommended, since too much nitrogen can result in low fruit production. You can’t go wrong with a good-quality tomato fertilizer as tomatoes have the same nutritional needs as eggplant.
Eggplants become bitter if not given enough water. So, water often and deeply and never let the soil dry out, but don’t let it get soggy either.
To help them thrive thrive, some gardeners recommend watering your eggplants every 3 to 4 weeks with a solution of 1 tablespoon of Epsom salt to 1 gallon of water which boosts the levels of magnesium and sulfur.
Even if you do everything else right when growing your eggplant, if you take your eye off the ball with this step, you may get lots of pretty flowers but no fruit.
Although eggplants are self-pollinating, they may need some help if natural pollinators like bees are not common visitors to your garden or if the plant is protected from breezes which would naturally distribute the pollen.
So, it will be your job to help with this process. Every day, in the morning when the flowers are fully open, gently tap each flower a few times. That’s all you need to do! If you want to be more technical, you can hold a buzzing battery toothbrush behind the flower to shake it. Or, less technical but more precise, take a Q Tip or a fine paint brush and “tickle” inside the flower for a few seconds which will move the pollen from the male to the female parts.
You’ll know a flower has pollinated when it closes but does not fall off. After that it will take 50 to 80 days to product a fruit ready for harvesting.
It can take up to 5 months to produce large fruits, but you don’t have to wait that long. Eggplants are ready to be harvested when the skin is shiny, so they can be picked at even quite small sizes. If you wait for them to reach full size, don’t leave them too long on the stems as they will get bitter the more they mature.
To harvest, use a pair of sharp scissors or pruning shears and leave a little bit of stem behind. Do not pull the fruit off as that can damage the plant. If you harvest regularly, your eggplant will keep producing throughout the season.
As for storage, eggplants will keep fresh in the fridge for several days.
Check the leaves of your eggplant frequently for flea beetles. They are an eggplant’s worst enemy and are notorious for eating the leaves and leaving holes. However, if they do appear, you can treat the leaves with insect dust, also called diatomaceous earth. Sprinkle it over the leaves in the evening and wash off in the morning. Do this for 3 consecutive days. Repeat again if they return.
Aphids are another possible pest to watch out for. They can be easily treated by spraying with neem oil or a pure castile soap solution, both of which are harmless to humans.
Slugs and snails are common in vegetable gardens. Use iron phosphate and sprinkle it around your plants. It works wonders to get rid of these slimy pests.
One way to minimize pests is to cover the plants with floating row covers or other sheer fabric and remove them when flowering begins.
Other Maintenance Issues
If you see some bottom leaves turning yellow, simply remove them so air will circulate better around the bottom of the plant.
There are endless varieties to choose from when growing your own eggplant. If you’re a beginner, choose a variety that has plenty of time to mature in your climate. However, if you want to be a bit adventurous, why not choose one of more exotic heirloom varieties which are available from online seed companies.
In general, the Japanese and other long and slender varieties have thin skins and fewer seeds. They also tend to be less bitter than the more common ones found in grocery stores.
Here are a few to consider:
- Black beauty is the easiest variety to grow in United States and is the common variety found in most supermarkets. It produces large, glossy, dark-purple fruits which mature early.
- Millionaire is a Japanese hybrid that yields a heavy crop of tender fruits from mid to late September.
- Thai Long Green are a beautiful green color with a long, slim shape. They have a thin skin, a firm white flesh and a delicious flavor.
- Listada de Gandia are white with purple stripes. They have a fabulous flavor with a sweet tender flesh.
- Dusky produces dark purple oval fruits that have a creamy flesh. It is a popular variety, recommended for home gardeners.
- Orient Express is slower to germinate than other varieties, but once it does it produces lots of long, slender and delicately flavored eggplant.
- Ichiban is a Japanese eggplant that is disease resistant and easy to grow. It produces long narrow dark purple fruits that have a creamy sweet flesh.
- Casper produces pure white medium-size fruits on compact plants. They ripen early and are quite prolific.
- Bambino is a miniature cultivar that reaches just 1 foot tall. This plant would be suitable for indoor cultivation.
- Raja is a white, round-shaped eggplant from India. It is fast growing, high-producer and is ideal for stuffing.
Final Thoughts on Growing Eggplant
If you have never thought of growing eggplant before, I hope this article will encourage you to try. It’s a beautiful vegetable to grow, it does really well in containers and it keeps producing fruit throughout the season. Why not try a few different varieties just for fun!