How to Grow Eggplants
Eggplants are beautiful plants that are a cornerstone of edible landscaping and excellent for container gardening. Even better, they are delicious, and there are practically limitless ways to prepare them. They can be a bit finicky to grow in some regions, as they require lots of heat and sunshine. But don’t let that discourage you! With a little planning anyone can grow these wonderful veggies.
Selecting Your Varieties
There are two categories of eggplants to select from. Italians are the classic eggplant, and many heirlooms are available in purple, magenta, white, striped, and miniature. While all eggplants are originally from Asia, the Italian varieties have been bred in southern Europe for centuries. The “new” eggplant on the garden scene is the much older Asian eggplant; these are long and narrow, and come in a variety of colors including white, purple, magenta and green. When selecting the best variety for your garden, consider the variety’s flavor profile and disease resistance, and then once you’ve narrowed it down, go with your favorite color! If you will be growing your eggplants in a container, select varieties that are best suited for this, such as Shooting Stars and Little Prince.
Planting Your Seeds
Eggplants should be started indoors at least 4 to 6 weeks before the last frost; some gardeners plant their eggplants as much as 10 weeks early to give their transplants a strong start in the garden. They do not tolerate cold temperatures, and can only be sown directly outdoors in warm areas that do not experience spring frosts and where the soil temperature is above 60F. Plant your seeds 1/4 inch deep in small pots using a seed-starting mix such as Quickroot. Water frequently with a fine spray nozzle: eggplants do not tolerate drying out. Seeds started indoors should be grown under a strong light source and kept at 80 to 85F. Eggplant seeds grow best when kept warm on a heat mat.
Moving Eggplants Outdoors
Eggplants are warm season vegetables. They should be hardened off and planted outdoors at the same time as tomatoes, to which they are related. The soil temperature should be 60F, with no risk of frost. If a cold snap is in the forecast after you move your eggplants outdoors, you will need to protect them from the chill (read this to learn how to protect your plants). Select a site where you have not grown eggplants, tomatoes, tomatillos or potatoes for at least two years. Your garden should have fertile soil with balanced nutrients, and a pH of 5.8 to 6.8. Eggplants require a lot of calcium; deficiencies can lead to problems such as blossom end rot. Good supplements of calcium include Kelzyme, oystershell lime, and limestone. Eggplants prefer full sun; plants grown in partial shade may not fruit at peak levels. For the best fruit production, the plants need at least two months of nighttime temperatures of 70F. Space your transplants 18 to 24 inches apart in rows that are 30 to 36 inches apart.
Summer Success in the Garden
Eggplants are water loving plants, and require regular irrigation to produce healthy plants with good sized fruits. However, they do not like soggy, waterlogged soil, which promotes diseases. Deep watering a few times a week is a good way to encourage strong root development and fruit set. Mulch around your plants to help conserve the water you give them, either with plastic mulch or with natural mulch such as cocoa hulls. Mulching is also helpful to prevent weeds. As your eggplants mature, you may need to stake them so that the heavy fruits don’t pull over the plants and break their branches. You can create a bushier plant with more fruit-bearing stems by pinching off the tips of young eggplant stems. Watch for problems with your eggplants throughout the growing season. Eggplants can be affected by a variety of pests such as aphids and tomato hornworms, and diseases such as powdery mildew and Verticillium wilt. For more information about eggplant pests and diseases and how to control them, check out the University of California’s IPM website.
From Plant to Plate
Your eggplant fruits should be ready to harvest 80 to 90 days after planting the seeds. When harvesting, cut the fruit from the plant with garden snips about an inch away from the fruit, as pulling it can damage the plant. Eggplants have the best flavor when they are young, before the seeds start to form. Don’t leave your fruits on the plant too long, or the fruit can become tough and bitter. Although it’s tempting to let them keep growing bigger, the best time to harvest is when the fruits are over half their mature size and their skin is shiny. Over-ripe fruits have a dull skin. Picking the fruits early also encourages the plant to produce more fruit. Eat your eggplants as soon as possible after harvest for the best flavor and texture. Asian eggplants are typically thin skinned and don’t require peeling like Italian eggplants. Eggplants do not store well without preservation and should be eaten within a few days of harvest. For immediate eating, they can be baked, grilled, roasted, stuffed or mashed. They can be preserved for storage by drying, pickling, or freezing.
Get your eggplants planted now, and soon you’ll be enjoying your harvest in homemade baba ganoush, moussaka, and eggplant Parmesan!