Overview and Description
Eggplants are in the Solanaceae, or nightshade, family, along with tomatoes, peppers and potatoes. Many of us grew up thinking of eggplant as large, somewhat oval shaped, purple vegetables. There wasn’t a lot of variety in what we could grow or how we ate it. Thankfully, that is no longer the case.
True to its name, eggplant actually does come in a small, white, egg-shaped variety.
There are also yellow, green and striped eggplants. The flavors are all subtly different and some are much easier to grow than others, which means the gardeners has a lot of options.
Eggplant has a bad reputation for being bitter. Some varieties can be, especially when they are harvested past their prime. Eggplants are related to tobacco and contain nicotinoid alkaloids, which can contribute to the bitter taste, but the amount of this alkaloid varies in different eggplants. Try a few varieties before you give up on eggplant..
- Leaves: Eggplants are coarse plants with spiny stems. The leaves are generally lobed and about 4 – 8 inches long.
- Flowers/Fruits: Flowers can be white or some shade of purple, with five-lobes. The fruit varies from small and round, to long and thin, to hefty orbs. Fruits are actually berries, with lots of tiny seeds inside the flesh.
Eggplant, Aubergine, Melongene
Eggplants are tropical perennials, which means they can live for several years in hot, humid climates. However for the vegetable gardener’s purposes, eggplants are grown as annuals.
Plants can get 2 – 3 ft. tall and bushy, but the size and weight of the fruits can cause the stems to bend over or even snap.
Eggplants are heat loving plants. They need a full day of sun exposure, not just to set fruits, but also to keep the plants warm.
Days to Harvest
Harvest times will vary with different varieties, but most eggplants take at least 2 months to mature, with some taking 70 days or more.
Eggplant Harvesting Tips
Ripe fruits will be glossy, with a slight give when you gently press your finger on the skin. Picking before they are fully grown is fine and will encourage more fruit set.
It is best to cut, not pull. Eggplant stems are prickly, you might want to wear gloves
Don’t let the fruits get over-ripe. They will be bitter and full of seeds. And the plants will stop producing more fruits.
Store in the refrigerator. They are bets used within a couple of days, but should last up to 2 weeks.
Don’t cut until you are ready to prepare it, the flesh discolors almost as soon as it is exposed to air.
Eggplant Growing Tips
Soil: Eggplants need a moderately rich, well-draining soil. It helps to work in several inches of compost or other organic matter before planting. Although not particular about soil pH, a neutral to slighly acidic (6.5 – 6.8) pH is ideal.
Planting: Plants should not be placed outdoors until well after your last frost date.
There is nothing to be gained by starting them too early. They will not start setting fruits until evening temperatures remain in the 70s F.
Start seed indoors, about 8 – 12 weeks before your last frost date. Eggplants are slow starters, especially if you cannot provide them with warm temperatures. Ideal germination temperature is around 75 F. A heating mat and a plastic cover over your seed tray will help keep it warm. If you can’t provide that, try starting them on top of your refrigerator. (Be sure to move them into a light, as soon as the seeds germinate.)
Whether you start with seeds or purchased seedlings, give the plants plenty of time to harden off. Transplant in the garden at least 2 weeks after your last frost date. Wait longer if temperatures remain cool.
Space plants about 2 – 3 ft.
apart. They will branch out and will need the extra air room.
Eggplants need warmth. Planting in raised beds or containers can kick start the season in cooler climates. You can pre-warm the soil with black plastic or even cover the plants with a floating row cover, for insulation. (The row cover will need to be removed when the flowers appear, to ensure pollination.)
In cooler climates, growing eggplants in black, plastic pots will give you an edge. The pots get considerably warmer than garden soil, sometimes up to 10 degrees warmer. They also hold their heat longer into the evening.
Pests and Problems of Eggplants
Disease: Eggplants can be prone to Verticillium Wilt, a vascular disease that prevents the plants from taking up water. The plants wilt and eventually die. If verticillium wilt is a problem, choose resistant varieties and avoid planting eggplants in an area where tomatoes or peppers have recently been grown. Growing them in a container is a good option, with fresh potting soil.
Insects: Flea beetles are the biggest problem you will encounter with eggplant. They chew dozens of holes in the leaves but rarely touch the fruits. The damage is mostly cosmetic, but does weaken plants and they can spread disease. You can thwart them early in the season with a floating row cover, but it will need to be removed when the plant starts setting flowers, so they can be pollinated.. I’ve had a bit of luck repelling them by putting the peels from onions around the plants.
Suggested Eggplant Varieties
‘There are wonderfully delicious heirloom eggplants and some great modern hybrids that are disease resistant and/or quick ripening. Experiment with a few varieties to see which do well in your growing conditions.
- Hansel – An AAS winner that has become extremely popular. The long thin fruits grow in clusters. You can start harvesting when the fruits are only about 4 inches long, to encourage even more fruits. (55 days)
- Gretel – The counterpart to Hansel, Gretel is a long, white eggplant that is also non-bitter and delicious when harvested young. (55 days)
- Japanese White Egg – Really does look like an egg. The flesh is very dense and sweet with extremely tiny seeds. (65 days)
- Listadia di Grandia – A Spanish Heirloom. Gorgeous fat, 7 inch long fruits that are white with purple stripes. Very mild, sweet flavor. (90 days)
- Louisiana Long Green – Heirloom. Eight inch long pale green fruits are sweet and tender. (100 days)
- Orient Express – A great choice for northern climates. Reliable what ever the weather brings. Very tender. Dark purple fruits are long and slender, about 8 – 10 inche long and 1 – 2 inches in diameter. (58 days)
- Rosa Bianca – Italian heirloom. Does better in warm climates. Fruits are rounded and about 4 – 6 inches long with a 5 inch diameter. Fruits are creamy white shaded with purple. (73 days)