The complex tropical flavor of the eggplant is a treat like none other. Although the fruit takes a bit more care than most common garden vegetables, there’s no satisfaction like bringing in these purple-black fruits for the table – and the rich, full flavor of home-grown eggplant makes its bland supermarket counterpart pale in comparison!
What to Expect
This gorgeous fruit is most commonly grown in a deep purple color, with either blocky & globular or gracefully elongated shapes (we offer seeds in both types.) The fruit’s texture is thick and meaty, with a unique flavor, and it is a common vegetarian substitute packed with vitamins and minerals.
Starting the Seed
For this warm-season plant, start indoors at least six weeks before you expect the last frost in your region. Plant a quarter-inch deep, and keep the soil as warm as possible. A heat mat beneath the seed flats is ideal, because your target temperature for germination is up to 90 degrees Fahrenheit, as per Cornell University’s suggested range.
Remember, this is a very tender plant that is probably not native to your area. Don’t move the seedlings outdoors until the soil temperature is above 60 degrees. When it’s warm enough to transplant, introduce the seedlings to the outdoor environment slowly; let the trays sit outside for a few hours, lengthening the time each day until they have “hardened off.” If you don’t take this step, moving the seedlings from their temperature-controlled indoor environment directly into the chilly spring garden may kill them.
When transplanting outdoors, Cornell recommends spacing the plants up to two feet apart in rows three feet apart. The plants may grow up to 4 feet high, and will reach approximately the same width as height. You may need to stake the plants if they become too top-heavy with fruit.
Eggplants love heat. They need heat – or they will never set fruit. Industry experts at Cornell warn that without 24-hour temperatures of at least 70 degrees Fahrenheit, your plants won’t thrive. This includes nighttime temperatures, too!
Consistent watering is also important to set good crops of evenly shaped fruit. You don’t need to drown the plant, but make sure it gets enough moisture on a daily basis.
Eggplants are very susceptible to insects – so much so that gardeners have been known to use them as “sacrifice” plants to attract damaging insects away from the rest of the garden. Vigilance is key. If you are seeing tiny holes in the leaves, The Old Farmer’s Almanac reports the likely perpetrator is the flea beetle, one of the plants’ worst enemies. Other insects to watch out for are aphids, cutworms, and potato beetles; Cornell notes that spraying the plants with a hose will shake loose pests. Covering young seedlings will also help them survive their most susceptible stage before being exposed to natural enemies.
The main disease to watch for is verticillium wilt. Fortunately, prevention is easy: don’t place eggplant where other susceptible species have been grown in the past year! This means avoiding any ground where tomatoes, peppers, or strawberries have been grown recently. Ideally, Cornell recommends planting in a patch of ground where those other crops have never been grown.
Harvesting and Use
Harvest the eggplants when they are slightly immature; still tender-skinned and firm (but not rock-hard) to the touch. The skins will be shiny and smooth.
When it comes to cooking eggplant, the sky’s the limit. Whether you want to roast, grill, or fry, there’s a recipe for you! The plant makes wonderful appetizer spread, a main course as eggplant parmesan oozing tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese, or as a side dish mixed with other vegetables. It has even been used as a meat-substitute for vegetarian palates.
Growing eggplant is sometimes a challenge, but it is well worth the effort. This extremely versatile and utterly unique plant is an outstanding addition to any garden – and any dinner table.