Edible Landscaping

From April 2008 E-newsletter





Eggplants are heat lovers that form their fruits once air temperatures are consistently above 80 degrees F.

Edible of the Month: Eggplant

Eggplants are the world travelers among vegetables. Although native to India, eggplant varieties from Japan, Thailand, Italy, and Turkey are now available. It's easy to understand their popularity. These tomato relatives are easy to grow, love the heat, and produce an abundance of fruits. Depending on the variety the fruits can be as large as a small football or as tiny as a cherry tomato. Eggplants are not only tasty, they're also one of the most beautiful plants to grow in any garden. The fruits' skin colors include deep purple, green, orange, white, and even lavender.

Eggplant bushes grow 1 to 4 feet tall and wide, depending on the variety. They produce attractive pink, star-shaped flowers followed by the equally attractive fruits. Since the plants are so ornamental, they fit well in flower gardens and containers. The fruits are always eaten cooked and often used in ethnic dishes, such as Italian eggplant parmesan, Indian bengan bartha, Middle Eastern Baba Ganoush (see recipe), Greek moussaka, and French ratatouille.


'Sweet African Orange' eggplant fruits start out white and mature to a bright orange-red color. The white stage has a milder flavor. This specialty variety tastes good in ethnic dishes and is attractive as an ornamental.

Planning

Like their cousins tomatoes and peppers, eggplants like it hot. There's no need to rush them into the soil in spring, since they grow best when soil temperatures are above 60 degrees F. and air temperatures are around 80 degrees F. If you're planning on growing your own transplants from seed, start seeds indoors under grow lights 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost date in your area. Transplants are also available from local garden centers or online. In warm areas with long growing seasons, you can sow seeds directly in the soil.

There are many eggplant varieties to choose from. The slender Japanese and Italian varieties are more productive and begin producing earlier than the traditional oval, large-fruited varieties. If you're mostly grilling or sautéing the eggplants, choose the slender varieties. If you're making casseroles and baking with your fruits, choose the large-fruited varieties. Or just plant some of each!

Here are some of my favorite eggplant varieties. The days to maturity after the name are from transplant to first harvest. All bushes grow to about 3 feet tall unless otherwise noted.

  • 'Black Beauty' (80) — This classic dark purple, large oval fruit grows 6 to 7 inches long. Great for slicing.
  • 'Easter Egg' (52) — This highly ornamental bush grows only 1 to 2 feet tall, producing egg-shaped white fruits.
  • 'Fairy Tale Hybrid' (65) — This 2-foot-tall bush produces clusters of purple and white striped fruits that are only 2 to 4 inches long. Great for grilling.
  • 'Green Goddess Hybrid' (68) — This highly productive slender variety features 8-inch fruits with green skin.
  • 'Kermit Hybrid' (60) — This small bush is a Thai favorite, producing 2-inch-diameter green fruits for soups and stews.
  • 'Ping Tung Long' (65) — A Taiwanese variety that features 12-inch-long, slender fruits with dark violet skin. Thrives in high heat and humidity.
  • 'Purple Rain Hybrid' (66) — These 6- to 7-inch-long fruits have wine-purple skin streaked with white and have a mild taste.
  • 'Rosa Bianca' (73) — The 4- to 5-inch-long fruits of this Italian heirloom have white- and violet-streaked skin and creamy white flesh.
  • 'Sweet African Orange' (90) — This Turkish heirloom produces 4-inch-diameter sweet fruits that start out white, but mature to orange.
  • 'Tango Hybrid' (60) — This white-skinned hybrid matures early and produces 7-inch-long slender fruits.

Planting Site Preparation

Choose a sunny, well-drained site with slightly acidic soil. Consider building raised beds on all but sandiest soils to help the soil warm up and dry out faster in spring. In regions with cool summers, lay dark green or black plastic mulch over the bed before planting, to preheat the soil and keep it warm all summer.


Award-winning 'Hansel' eggplant features long, thin, dark purple fruits that can be harvested when 2 to 3 inches long or allowed to mature to 9 inches long. At either size the fruits are not bitter.

Planting

Plant outdoors 2 weeks after all danger of frost has passed and soil temperatures are at least 60 degrees F. If using plastic mulch, poke holes in the mulch and transplant your eggplant seedlings through the holes. Space plants 18 to 24 inches apart in rows 30 inches apart. For container growing, choose a pot that's at least 12 inches in diameter and fill it with sterilized potting soil. Adding a few cascading flowers or vegetables, such as nasturtiums, cucumbers, or thyme, makes it even more ornamental.

Care

After transplanting, protect young eggplants on cool nights by placing a floating row cover over the bed. Eggplants won't consistently set fruit when air temperatures are below 65 degrees F.

Eggplants are heavy feeders. Fertilize as you would tomatoes. Side-dress plants monthly with a balanced fertilizer. Avoid high-nitrogen fertilizers. Too much nitrogen can produce plants with lots of foliage, but few fruits. In warm areas, mulch around plants with a 1- to 2-inch-deep layer of an organic mulch to keep the soil moist and weed-free.

Stake or cage the plants as you would tomatoes. Eggplants set more fruits and the fruits stay cleaner if they're kept off the ground. In cool-summer areas prune off suckers that won't have time to form fruit due to the short growing season. You may get fewer overall fruits, but the size of the remaining eggplants will be larger.

Eggplants are attacked by the same insects and diseases often found on tomatoes and potatoes. Check plants for signs of the Colorado potato beetle by looking for orange eggs on the underside of leaves. Crush the eggs, handpick potato beetle adults, and spray Bacillus thuringiensis 'San Diego' on the young red larvae.

Wash off aphids and cover young seedlings with a floating row cover to prevent flea beetle damage on new leaves. Eggplants are susceptible to verticillium wilt. To prevent this disease, don't plant eggplant in an area that's had tomatoes, potatoes, or peppers planted in the last 3 years. Another option is to plant in containers with sterilized potting soil.


'Fairytale' eggplant features clusters of finger-sized lavender and white striped fruits that are great grilled or sauted.

Harvest

Harvest ripe eggplants when the fruits are full size for that variety and skin is still shiny and firm to the touch. Dull-colored skin and brown seeds when you cut open the fruit mean the fruits are overmature and flesh will be bitter. Also, press your fingernail on the fruit skin. If the skin bounces back without cracking then the fruit is ready to harvest. If your nail indents the skin, it's over mature.

To harvest, wear gloves and use a sharp knife to cut off the ripe fruits, including the cap and a short piece of the stem. Eggplant fruits bruise easily and the plants have thorns so handle the fruit and plant carefully. Store fruits in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.

Other Great Eggplant Stories

Easy Eggplants

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