Days to germination: 10 to 14 days
Days to harvest: 50 to 80 days
Light requirements: Full sun
Water requirements: Frequent watering
Soil: Loose, well-fertilized
Container: Dwarf varieties work best
Most people are familiar with the unique purple color of the eggplant, but modern varieties come in yellow, white or even lightly striped pink. The eggplant is also called an “aubergine” in some parts of the world. Eggplants have attractive white or purple flowers, and work well even planted within your flower garden.
Though soft and a bit spongy on the inside, eggplants are fairly high in fiber as well as potassium and manganese. Eggplant is not eaten raw, and can be cooked in many ways. It’s usually salted (and rinsed) first, to remove any bitterness but very young eggplants are fine without this step.
Starting from Seed
This heat-loving plant needs to be started indoors in order to avoid the cool temperatures of the spring. Planting right out into the garden won’t provide enough time for a harvest unless you live in a very warm climate with a long growing season.
Prepare a place to keep your seedlings that will be warm to around 80F or you will get poor germination. At lower temperatures, use more seeds to compensate. Get your seeds started about 6 weeks before your last frost date of the season. Don’t plant them very deep, only about 1/4 inch under the soil.
The soil needs to be warm before you can put out the eggplant seedlings, which means you need to wait at least 2 to 3 weeks after your frost date to transplant. A layer of black plastic over the future eggplant bed will help get the soil heated up sooner.
Keep your seedlings at least 2 feet apart when you plant them out. Dig up the soil to loosen it up, and mix in aged manure or compost.
Most varieties of eggplant have very large fruits (between 6 and 9 inches long, weighing up to a pound each), which can weigh down the bush. A large tomato-style cage is ideal for support but you can also stake your plants as they grow.
If you are going to use either of these methods (particularly the cages) you will have to make that decision at transplant time, not when the plants are fully grown. Push the legs of the cage into the soil so that the seedling is roughly in the center. The cage needs to be as far down as you can push it so that it’s securely anchored.
Trying to put a cage around a large plant will damage both the branches as well as the spreading roots underground.
Once the fruits start to form on your plants, keep watering regularly every other day. Eggplants are heavy-feeders, meaning they need a lot of nutrients for good fruit production. Use a complete fertilizer mixture once a month to keep your plants healthy and producing.
Any variety will work in a container, with most eggplant bushes growing no taller than 3 feet. Larger plants will need large pots, but you will have more success growing container eggplants if you choose smaller varieties.
Ichiban and Fairytale are two eggplants that are perfect for containers, and their fruits are smaller as well which makes support less important. Both of these types produce long skinny fruit, rather than the fatter type of traditional eggplants. Fairytale is the one with the pink stripes mentioned earlier.
If your main use for eggplant includes recipes calling for large slices, the skinny fruits might be more of an inconvenience in the long run.
But if you do grow these varieties, you can put 2 plants in a 12″ pot with no difficulty. Place them where they will get lots of sun. If you can set your pots out in front of a south-facing wall, you’ll get extra heat for your plants.
Pests and Diseases
One of the biggest disease threats for eggplant is Verticillium wilt, which will cause your plant’s leaves to wilt, turn yellow and eventually fall off. Once wilt has infected your plants, there is no treatment for it. You can pull up the dying plant and dig out as much soil as you can without damaging the nearby plants. If you’re lucky the other plants will be spared, but most likely they will all get it.
Its caused by a fungus that lives in the soil, so don’t use the same garden patch for eggplant each year. Rotate your crops, and that also includes tomatoes and peppers. None of these vegetables should be planted in the same area one season after the other.
As for insects, you need to keep Colorado potato beetles off your plants or they can do a lot of damage to the leaves. They have black and orange stripes, and are sometimes called ten-stripe potato beetles. Pick them off by hand when you see them, and keep your plants treated with insecticide. Also watch for aphids and flea beetles. The same insecticide sprays can help repel them.
Harvest and Storage
Eggplants can really be harvested any time after they have turned their deep purple color and have a clear shiny skin. Once they begin to get dull on the outside, you’ve waited too long. They still may be usable as long as you cook them a bit longer, and definitely salt them before using to get rid of the increased bitterness.
The more frequently you pick the fruit, the more your plants will produce. So if you leave your eggplants to the last possible moment, the plant will slow down considerably and you will have fewer fruits. As the season comes to an end, pinch off new flowers. This keep the plant from wasting its remaining resources on starting new fruits, and help the last ones grow more quickly for a final harvest.
Wear gloves when you pick your eggplants, as many varieties have sharp spines right where the fruit is attached to the stem. Gently twist off the eggplants, or use a knife to cut them off.
You can plan on getting between 3 and 5 pounds of eggplant fruit from each plant. Two or three plants is usually enough for the average family unless you cook eggplant quite frequently.
Eggplants don’t store for very long, so don’t plant more than you can use quickly. Whole eggplants can be kept in the fridge for about a week.