In the Garden:
Coastal and Tropical South
Green eggplant is sweeter and finer-textured than purple, with fewer seeds.
It is time to start the seeds for fall eggplants, especially if the spring plants had a rough time. Even if you dislike eggplant, please keep reading. This humble vegetable has taught me a lot about gardening, cooking, and life.
Children Hate Eggplant
Like every human under the age of 15, I went to great lengths to avoid eggplant. My mother loved them, so of course her father grew them by the bushel. I watered and weeded them and liked their purple flowers. Their value was obvious to me, since the adults around the neighborhood would always buy them from my wagon. Still, the big purple eggplant became the ubiquitous summer vegetable at our table. By the time I was eight, I could stomach one slice of fried eggplant, but the fritters, casseroles with tomatoes and squash, eggplant Parmesan, and a dozen more recipes got only the one bite required. Soon I was planting the seeds in little cups, moving them to the garden ASAP, and tucking mulch around them for another crop.
Growing Good Taste
Mother kept teaching me about eggplant, she said, because I grew such fine ones. I peeled it, sliced and soaked it, and learned to put slices in water to prevent browning. Her patience was rewarded when in college I discovered eggplant moussaka and baba ganoush, but more importantly, green eggplants. They are milder, almost sweet, with thin skins and fewer seeds. Long and round greens led to purple ichiban and a gardener's fancy of trying new varieties each year.
There are many more varieties to try, including the skinny Thai long green and long skinny Ping Tung lavender eggplants. For purple and white stripes, look for the heirloom Italian eggplants. Just remember that green eggplants may be the key to your taste buds, too. My mother's method of continuing to put the vegetables on the plate has worked on my children, too. Their complaints about tomatoes and anything green fell on my deaf ears. They ate a little then, and came to their intense love of vegetables as they grew. Whew!
Each winter and summer, when time comes to start eggplant seeds, there is a tiff about how much room this vegetable will get. More garden space translates into the inevitable question of what to do with the abundance at harvest. One plant can, after all, easily yield a dozen eggplants or more, often enough for an equal number of recipes. The plants need a square foot to themselves and will shade the space below. A short stake or a wire cage can help support the plants when they are heavy with fruit and improves air circulation around the plants.
Many gardeners swear that to plant one eggplant is to sound a call to flea beetles miles away, and it is true that they are a common problem. These insects look like tiny black specks and jump like fleas when disturbed. When their beak pokes into a leaf, they suck the life out of your plant and leave a tiny open hole that looks like a pin prick. Their life cycle is complicated, but it is the summer feeding that does the most obvious damage. When they appear, or if they have been a problem before, spray with a pyrethrin and keep a close eye on the plants. Remove all plant debris from the garden to give adult beetles fewer places to overwinter; do not compost it.
In my garden these days, there are plenty of eggplants to eat and to sell at the local farmers' market. Check out yours and support your local farmers, even the backyard types like me.
Care to share your gardening thoughts, insights, triumphs, or disappointments with your fellow gardening enthusiasts? Join the lively discussions on our FaceBook page and receive free daily tips!