What’s not to like about the heat-loving eggplant? They come in all shapes and sizes, small and round like an egg, long and skinny like a zucchini or large and oblong. The colors of their skin can be gorgeous, varying from white to green to deep purple to many colors in between. A true international vegetable, technically a fruit, is popular the world over — from Greek moussaka, Italian eggplant parmesan, French ratatouille, Asian stir-fries to Indian curries. This versatile vegetable can also be fried, grilled, added to soups, made into dips, featured in casseroles and stuffed. The culinary possibilities are endless. Not only is this vegetable a star in the kitchen, it can become a show-off in the vegetable or even the ornamental garden, thanks to its large dramatic foliage, purple flowers and colorful fruit. Did you know that eggplant can be grown successfully in a container? Try it and you’ll be adding color and ornamental beauty to your deck or patio, offering a convenient location to harvest a nourishing vegetable!
The eggplant (Solanum melongena) was domesticated from wild forms in the Indo-Burma region, and evidence suggests that it was cultivated as long ago as 300 BC. It was brought to Europe during the Middle Ages. The Moors are given credit for introducing the eggplant in Spain, which in turn, transported the eggplant to the new world. The word eggplant in English dates to the British occupation of India, where the egg shaped fruits was very popular in some areas. Thus the name eggplant. (Daunay & Janick)
There are three basic types of eggplant. First, there’s the large oval-fruited eggplant with purple skin — the common type found in the produce section of many supermarkets (‘Black Beauty’). Then there’s the oriental or Asian elongated type, which has the shape of a zucchini, but with purple skin (Ichiban). But if purple is not your color, there’s the novelty type with various sizes, shapes and colors, including white (‘White Beauty’), lavender (‘Rosita’), green (‘Applegreen’), yellow (‘Thai Yellow Egg’), orange (‘Turkish Italian Orange’), and red (‘Korean Red’). A gardening friend includes eggplants in his edible landscape to show off their many shapes, brightly colored fruits and large leaves.
Choosing a Planting Spot
There’s an old gardening saying — “right plant, right place” — and that is certainly true for eggplants, as they require full sun for at least 6 hours a day in fertile, well-drained soil with a high level of organic matter, and a pH of neutral to acid in the range of 6.0-7.0. However, I have found over the years that eggplant will tolerate less than ideal soil conditions, but do not thrive in very humid and wet areas.
Virginia Cooperative Extension Publication 426-480 recommends the following varieties for our area: ‘Mission Bell’, ‘Black Knight’ and ‘Little Fingers’. Over the years I have also found ‘Oriental Express’, ‘Nadia’, ‘Long Purple’, ‘Ichiban’ and ‘Rosita’ to be reliable, productive performers in our area.
Because eggplant is a warm-season vegetable with a long growing season, it is typically started from transplants and not directly seeded in the garden. Transplants that are 6 to 8 inches tall and grown in individual pots are ideal, and will give you a head-start on the eggplant’s long growing season.
Cool weather is not favorable for eggplant growth. In fact, eggplants are less tolerant of frost than its cousins, tomatoes and peppers. Most cultivars require a long frost-free period, 100 to 150 days from seed. Seeds germinate quickly at 70º-90º and should be started indoors 8 to 10 weeks before transplanting. Once transplanted, eggplant requires 70-80 days to mature. I usually wait at least two to three weeks after the last average frost date to set out my eggplant seedlings.. A common mistake is to transplant eggplant too early. Cold weather inhibits plant and root growth, reducing plant vigor and yields. When planting in rows, place transplants about 18 to 24 inches apart.
And as I mentioned earlier, eggplants can also be grown in containers, but require at least a two-gallon pot per plant. Containers are a great way to turn any surface into a productive vegetable garden. Containers also provide a good solution if you are short on garden space or simply want to enjoy the convenience. Eggplants grown in containers need constant water monitoring, as pots tend to dry-out quickly. Cultivars with compact plants are a good choice for container growing, and the suggested compact plants include ‘Fairy Tale’, ‘Crescent Moon’, ‘Hansel’, ‘Gretel’, and ‘Bambino’.
Eggplant belongs to the same family (Solanaceae) as the tomato, pepper and potato, and thus shares many of the same growing needs and problems. Eggplants are heavy feeders — an adequate supply of nutrients is needed throughout the growing season. The Virginia Cooperative Extension Publication 426-413 recommends applying 3 lbs of 10-10-10 per 100 square feet before planting, and side-dressing with 1 pound of 10-10-10 per 100 square feet 3-4 weeks after planting, or the equivalent of a complete organic vegetable fertilizer. Keep the area free of weeds as weeds will compete for moisture, sunlight and nutrients. Because I am a lazy gardener, I mulch around the plants with leaves or straw to reduce the need to pull weeds, and also to reduce water loss. I usually wait until the plants become established before mulching to allow time for the soil to warm up. Mulching too early keeps the soil cool, results in slow growth, poor fruit set, and shallow rooting.
Eggplants need constant water and lots of it — a minimum of one to two inches per week. Mulching prevents moisture loss and the need to water frequently. When I water, more is better! I give my eggplants a heavy soaking at weekly intervals because light, frequent watering promotes shallow root systems, resulting in a weaker plant.
Know your variety! When grown under favorable conditions, some eggplant varieties — such as ‘Black Beauty’ — reach a height of 4 feet and develop large, heavy fruit that will require support to keep the branches from breaking or keep the plants from blowing over in windy conditions. This also keeps the fruit off the ground which tend to spoil.
Plant eggplants and they will come. Every year just like clock work, soon after planting eggplant, the flea beetles appear, and proceed to chew small holes in the leaves — and this chewing will seriously weaken young plants. In addition to feeding on the leaves, flea beetle larvae also feed on the roots of the plant. I have found floating row covers provide adequate protection.
Eggplants have perfect flowers — meaning they contain both male and female parts and are considered to be self-pollinating like their relatives the tomato and the pepper. However, research indicates that eggplant pollination and fruit-set is enhanced by bee activity. Once the eggplant starts to bloom, I remove the row cover. After the plant blooms, it’s been my experience that the flea beetle pressure decreases.
The University of Maryland has documented success spraying the eggplant leaves with “Surround” — an organic product, made from kaolin, a fine clay, which forms a very thin barrier on the leaves, protecting them from hungry flea beetles. Tests conducted by the University of Maryland indicate that early spraying of transplants with this organic product significantly decreased flea beetle damage and increased yields compared to untreated plants. The tests also showed that early spraying, before the eggplants are attacked, was more effective than spraying after the flea beetles have attacked. The University of Maryland has also produced a brief video demonstrating how to apply Surround to the leaves of eggplant to protect them from flea beetles.
Other pests to watch for with eggplant include aphids, lace bugs, Colorado potato beetles, red spider mites and white flies.
The most common disease that affects eggplant is Verticillium wilt, a soil fungus disease which affects the vascular system of the plant and results in stunted plant growth, yellow discoloration and eventual defoliation of lower foliage, and finally, plant death. An infected plant should be removed from the garden and destroyed. Placing the debris in the compost pile will contaminate the compost with the disease. This disease can remain in the soil for years; therefore, it is very important to avoid planting susceptible vegetables in the same areas as other members of the nightshade family — tomato, pepper and potato. Once a plant has Verticillium wilt there is no cure; however, research has shown that eggplants grafted to Verticillium wilt-resistant root stock produce more vigorous and productive plants. I have recently noticed that this type of grafted eggplant is being marketed by several specialty nurseries.
Begin harvesting eggplant when the fruits reach full size and the skin is shiny. Another test of doneness is to press the side of the fruit firmly; if this pressure produces a thumbprint that bounces back quickly, your eggplant is ready for harvest. Under-ripe eggplant is too hard to take a thumbprint and overripe ones are so soft that a thumbprint leaves a permanent bruise. Harvest fruit by cutting, not twisting, which can damage the plant.
Eggplant is a relatively easy and fun plant to grow and makes a wonderful garden addition. They also add the excitement of color and texture to your vegetable or ornamental garden, and their culinary uses are endless!
Thanks for joining us in The Garden Shed. We hope to see you next month.
“History and Iconography of Eggplant,” Chronica Horticulturae, Vol. 47, No. 3, pp.16-22 (Daunay & Janick, 2007)
“Vegetables: Growing Eggplant in Home Gardens,” Washington State University Extension Fact Sheet, FS149E, https://pubs.wsu.edu/ItemDetail.aspx?ProductID=15719&SeriesCode=&CategoryID=&Keyword=eggplant
“Container Grown Eggplants,” Penn State University Extension, http://extension.psu.edu/plants/gardening/fact-sheets/vegetable-gardening/growing-great-container-vegetables/eggplants
“Potatoes, Peppers, and Eggplant,” Va. Coop. Ext. Publication 426-413, http://pubs.ext.vt.edu/426/426-413/426-413.html
“Examining an Organic Control For Flea Beetles on Eggplant,”University of Maryland Extension, http://extension.umd.edu/learn/examining-organic-control-flea-beetles-eggplant
“Vegetables Recommended for Virginia,” Va. Coop. Ext. Publication 426-480, https://pubs.ext.vt.edu/426/426-480/426-480.html
“Grafting Eggplant onto Tomato Rootstock to Suppress Verticillium dahliae Infection: The Effect of Root Exudates,” HortScience, Vol. 24 No. 7, pp. 2058-2062 (Dec. 2009) http://hortsci.ashspublications.org/content/44/7/2058.full#content-block