Eggplant is a member of the nightshade family and is closely related to potatoes and tomatoes. It is most commonly recognized as a large blackish-purple vegetable known for it’s use in dishes such as Eggplant Parmigiana, but a short browse through any seed catalog will reveal eggplant in all shapes, sizes and colors. And while it is a beautiful and versatile vegetable, it is also quite a temperamental plant to grow.
Getting a Head Start Growing Eggplant
To get a head start on your eggplant it is best to start them from seed about 6-9 weeks before your last frost date. They are a warm weather crop and require a soil temperature of about 80 degrees F to germinate properly. The use of a heating pad, or keeping them in the warmest room of your home, will greatly increase your germination rates. Plant your seeds about 1/4 in. deep in your choice of seed starting medium. It should take between 1 and 2 weeks for germination to occur. You may notice that your seedlings are growing much slower than their relative, tomatoes, and that is because eggplant prefer warmer growing conditions. As it gets closer to spring you should notice their growth rate increase.
Once your seedlings reach about 3 inches tall, transplant them into larger containers. You will not want to transplant them into the garden until the weather has warmed and the daytime temperatures are in the 70s.
Planting Your Eggplant
Whether you buy your plants from a nursery or start your own, you do not want to plant out your eggplant until the soil and air temperatures have sufficiently warmed. Raised beds and plastic mulch can be used to help warm the soil a little earlier in the season. Here are some tips on getting your eggplant off to a good start:
- Choose your location wisely. Eggplant need full sun and well-drained soil
- Give them room to grow by placing at least 2-3 ft between each plant
- Eggplant does not like standing water, but do need to be watered deeply weekly
- Add mulch will help keep the soil cool and conserve water
Problems Growing Eggplant
Flea Beetles are by far the worst pest for eggplant. They can destroy and kill a small plant in a matter of days if you aren’t careful. Starting with larger, healthy plants can go a long way on combating these bugs, but even then they may still struggle. I keep a good dusting of Food Grade Diatomaceous Earth on all of my eggplant for the first few weeks- reapplying after rain or watering. This is very effective in killing the flea beetles until your eggplant has grown large enough and strong enough to fend for itself.
Other problems pests are the Colorado Potato Beetle and the Tomato Hornworm, both of which can be effectively hand-picked with out much trouble. Companion planting with beans and calendula can also help with these pests.
Eggplant is also susceptible to verticillium wilt. Using proper clean gardening techniques and crop rotation can help in prevention. Eggplant can also do well in a large container- such as a 5-gallon bucket, if wilt is particularly bad in your garden.
Harvesting and Using Your Eggplant
If you’ve never grown eggplant before, you may be wondering how to tell if your eggplant is ready for harvest. Eggplant should be picked when it is still on the small size, when the skin takes on a high shine. Like zucchini, you want to pick eggplant when they are immature. This lends to a better flavor and smoother flesh. Picking often will also encourage more growth and a more abundant harvest for you. When you cut open an eggplant, it should have a soft inside with very small, soft seeds. If the inside is on the tougher side or the seeds have begun to harden, your eggplant is past it’s prime and will most likely have a more bitter taste. Eggplant will keep up to 2 weeks in the refrigerator, but always try to use or preserve it right away.
More about Using and Preserving Your Eggplant:
Varieties of Eggplant to Try
Ping Tung: This is a long, thin eggplant that comes out of Taiwan. The plants are extremely prolific and the fruits are tender, mild and sweet. This is my favorite to grow!
Purple Long: Coming from Italy, this eggplant has a more delicate flavor. It’s flesh is tender without a lot of seeds.
Rosita: These eggplant are a lovely bright purple color. The flesh is white and mild and the skin is very tender.
Black Beauty: This is your standard black, egg shaped eggplant. It requires a little longer of a season than some and isn’t as productive, but it is a good standby in your garden.