What is an Eggplant:
Eggplant is a vegetable belonging to the nightshade plant family as are tomatoes, peppers and potatoes. The fruit grows in a manner much like tomatoes, hanging from the stalks and branches of plants that can grow several feet in height (in the tropics the plants can reach 7’ tall). Contained within the flesh are seeds arranged in a conical pattern.
The skin of typical eggplant is glossy and deep purple in color and looks pear-shaped/egg shaped and can weigh a pound or more, this is the characteristic from which its name is derived. The fruit can also be long like cucumbers or plum shaped and come in a variety of colors including lavender, jade green, orange, and white.
1 cup of eggplant has the trace nutrition values of the following:
Potassium; Sugar; Protein
Vitamin C; Iron; Vitamin B-6; Magnesium
It is believed that eggplants grew wild in India and were first cultivated in China in the 5th century B.C. Eggplant was introduced to Africa before the Middle Ages and then into Italy, the country with which it has long been associated, in the 14th century. It subsequently spread throughout Europe and the Middle East and, centuries later, was brought to the Western Hemisphere by European explorers. Today, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, China and Japan are the leading growers of eggplant.
Types of Eggplants
There are multiple varieties of eggplant. Some may be sweeter, look different and have different maturity dates among other attributes. I am a believer in open pollinated heirloom plants. Here are a few varieties that I have grown and recommend:
Long Purple Organic, Italian type with dark purple coloring – Days to Maturity 70-80 days; Fruit Size 8-10 inches; Ferry Morse
Black Beauty Organic, HEIRLOOM, (my favorite) a large-fruited black eggplant – Days to Maturity 74 days; Fruit Size 4-6 inches; Park Seeds
Turkish Orange, A heirloom producing abundant red-orange fruit – Days to Maturity 65-85 days; Fruit Size 3 inches; Burpee Seeds
Casper Eggplant, A heirloom eggplant having solid, snow white colored skin – Days to Maturity 70 days; Fruit Size 5-6 inches, Trade Winds Fruit
There are many varieties to choose from. You can easily find an eggplant that fits all your requirements. In addition to heirloom, most of the reputable seed companies have developed and sell hybrid plant seeds. They have fantastic attributes, can be disease resistant etc. The issue with hybrids is that seeds from the fruit will not grow true to the parent so if you like a hybrid plant’s fruit you will need to buy new seeds every year. The only advice I would give is stay away from anything GMO.
Where to Plant
Eggplants thrive in “full sun” so select a location in the garden that receives at least 6 hours of direct sunshine. The soil should be well-drained. The soil should also have neutral to slightly acidic PH. If you have a meter, the PH should be about 5.5 and 6.5. To reduce disease and pest problems choose a spot where nightshade family members (eggplants, tomatoes, potatoes or peppers) have not been grown for at least two years.
When to Plant
Start seeds indoors about six to eight weeks before your area’s last expected spring frost. Sow the seeds about ¼ inch to ½ inch deep. If you use small containers as seed starters, you may need to replant your seedlings into 4” or larger pots as they grow to keep the plants from becoming root bound. Eggplant seeds germinate best at temperatures above 75° Fahrenheit. The easiest way to ensure good germination is to start the seeds in a warm room. Bottom heat pads work well and will maintain a steady temperature for the plants, they are however expensive and the heat they generate will not be able to maintain required air temperature. You should see seedlings popping out in about 7 -12 days. Use full spectrum lights set for 12-14 hours of light once the seedlings emerge.
Use seed starting soil from a reputable garden store. Using garden soil is less expensive but may introduce disease and bugs to the seedlings too soon. I use a mix of 80% seed starter soil to 20% worm castings. Additionally, if you reuse seed pots from year-to-year (like I do) make sure to remove old soil and clean the pots with either a weak solution of ammonia water or wash with hot water and soap to kill bacteria and other nasties that may be hanging around.
When daytime temperatures are above 65° Fahrenheit, move plants outdoors, but bring them indoors if nighttime temperatures are expected to drop below 55 degrees. Remember that seedlings started under artificial light can be burned and die if put in direct sunlight until the plants are “hardened off”. Make sure to follow the instructions in our article Starting Gardens using Seeds to avoid burning the seedlings leaves and killing the plant.
How to Plant
In the Northeast, early June is the time to plant warm weather vegetables. The daytime temperatures are usually above 65° Fahrenheit and nighttime temperatures are no less than 55°. Plant the seedlings in the soil a little deeper than they were in the pots. Make sure to cover the young roots. You can cut a section from an old soda bottle and use as a collar to keep out cutworms. Plants should be roughly 2’ to 3’ from each other in rows 2 ½’ apart. You should use stakes or other supports as the plants grow. I use inexpensive tomato cages and place them as I put the young plants in the garden. I cover the tomato cage with deer netting until the plants are about 14” tall and strong enough fend for themselves. The netting will not deter pollinators from getting in but keeps out most other pests.
Eggplants require consistent watering to grow properly and be healthy. Including rain, plants need 1 to 2 inches of water per week after they start producing fruit.
Every 3 to 4 weeks sprinkle a quarter cup of 5-10-5 fertilizer around each plant.
Prune the plants whenever there are withered or damaged leaves.
As the plants grow tall, numerous side shoots will form along the plant’s main stem. These side shoots will bear flowers and fruits later in the season. Using tomato cages will support this type of growth.
In long-season regions, eggplants can be topped back by half their size in midsummer to stimulate the growth of new fruit-bearing branches.
Eggplants will benefit with proper cover (I used shredded paper) to maintain soil moisture and it avoid (slow down) soil born disease.
Flea beetles frequently chew small holes in eggplant leaves which seriously weakens young plants. Try using ground cover to protect the plants. Diatomaceous earth contains no toxic poisons and works on contact. Dust lightly and evenly over vegetable crops wherever pest insects are found. Parasitic nematodes will attack the immature stages developing in the soil.
Colorado potato beetle larvae eat eggplant leaves. Try using ladybugs, spined soldier bugs and lacewing, to feed on eggs and the young larval stages. Parasitic nematodes will attack the immature stages developing in the soil. Diatomaceous earth contains no toxic poisons and works on contact. Dust lightly and evenly over vegetable crops wherever pest insects are found.
Aphids – A hard spray of water can be used to remove aphids from plants. Wash off with water occasionally as needed early in the day. Check for evidence of natural enemies such as gray-brown or bloated parasitized aphids and the presence of larvae of lady beetles and lacewings. Diatomaceous earth contains no toxic poisons and works on contact. Dust lightly and evenly over vegetable crops wherever pest insects are found.
Cutworms – Use collars around transplants if cutworms are a problem.
Verticillium wilt kills more eggplants than any other disease. Ensure good drainage and warm soil to discourage this soilborne fungus, which causes plants to wilt and eventually collapse, often with yellowing between the leaf veins.
Tobacco Mosaic Virus – Young growth is malformed and leaves are mottled with yellow. To prevent it, wash hands after handling tobacco before touching plants. Control aphids, which spread the disease.
Begin harvesting eggplant when the fruits reach full size and pressing firmly produces a thumbprint that bounces back quickly. Under-ripe eggplants are too hard to take a thumbprint, and overripe ones are so soft that a thumbprint leaves a permanent bruise. Eggplant skins should be tender and glossy. Use pruning shears to harvest eggplants to avoid the spikes on the stem.
A six foot row of eggplants should yield 12 and as much as 30 fruit.
Saving Eggplant Seeds
Heirloom eggplants are open pollinating, so saving seeds is easy. Choose over-ripe fruit from strong plants (take seeds from as least 2 different plant). To remove the ripe seeds, cut off the bottom end of the fruit and pick out the seeds. Dry the seeds at room temperature for about two weeks. Under good storage conditions, eggplant seeds will remain viable for five years.
Choose eggplants that are firm and heavy for their size. Their skin should be smooth and shiny, and their color should be clean looking. They should be free of discoloration, scars, and bruises, which usually indicate that the flesh beneath has become damaged and possibly decayed.
Although they look hardy, eggplants are perishable, and care should be taken in their storage. Do not cut eggplant before you store it as it deteriorates quickly once its skin has been cut or bruised. Place uncut and unwashed eggplant in the refrigerator crisper where it will keep for several weeks at best. If you have too much eggplant you can slice up the fruit, egg, bread and fry. My wife will do that to end of season excess fruit. We have stored them in the freezer for over six months – good winter eating.