Growing eggplant is easy where summers are long and warm. Where summers are short, varieties that mature quickly and produce medium to small fruits can easily be grown in containers. If you grow peppers, you can grow eggplant. The fruits may be purplish-black, white or all shades in between — some varieties even bear orange or green fruits.
Eggplant Varieties to Try
Eggplant varieties differ in size, shape, color, growth habit and even maturation time.
Oval to oblong eggplants produce the large, oval-shaped, purplish-black eggplants seen in most supermarkets. Most varieties produce best in warm climates.
Japanese eggplants mature faster than oval eggplants, producing numerous long, slender fruits.
Small-fruited eggplants are the best type for compact spaces. Some varieties produce fruits in attractive clusters which may be green, white, lavender or purple.
Novelty eggplants include unusual varieties from around the world, such as orange Turkish eggplant, green Thai eggplant, or egg-shaped white eggplant.
For more detailed information on each type of eggplant and our list of recommended varieties, see our Eggplant at a Glance chart.
When to Plant Eggplant
Start eggplant seeds indoors about six weeks before your last spring frost, or about two weeks after tomatoes and peppers. Eggplant seeds germinate best at temperatures above 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Bottom heat is useful in getting the plants up and growing. Keep these members of the nightshade family growing under bright fluorescent lights for 14 to 16 hours each day, and transplant them to 4-inch containers when they have three leaves. Move plants outdoors on warm, sunny days, but bring them indoors when temperatures drop below 55 degrees. Set out hardened-off seedlings when they are about eight weeks old. When planning your garden, allow one plant per person, as a healthy plant will produce about 5 pounds of eggplant over two months or more. For more information on starting seeds indoors see Seed Starting Made Simple. To learn when to plant eggplant in your region see What to Plant Now.
How to Plant Eggplant
Choose a sunny, well-drained site with fertile soil (pH between 5.5 and 6.5). To reduce pest problems, choose a spot where nightshade family members (eggplants, tomatoes, potatoes or peppers) have not been grown for at least two years. Two weeks before planting, loosen the planting bed and mix in a 2-inch layer of rich compost along with a standard application of balanced organic fertilizer or composted poultry manure and water well. In cool climates, cover the prepared bed with black plastic film to help warm the soil. Allow 24 inches between plants and plan ahead for stakes or other supports. In most regions you’ll need to cover newly transplanted eggplants with row covers to exclude flea beetles and other pests. Once plants are about 14 inches tall they are tough enough to fend for themselves and at this height you can remove covers to admit pollinators.
Growing Eggplant in Containers
Another way to keep pesky flea beetles at bay is to grow eggplant in containers. Compact eggplant varieties work especially well in pots. Keep your eggplants on an outdoor table to keep them out of range of ground-dwelling flea beetles. Plants produce best in 16-inch-wide pots or planters. Dark-colored pots help accumulate heat in cool climates. Growing eggplant in containers requires fertilizing as often as needed to maintain steady growth and good leaf color. Plants that need to be watered often also need to be fed more frequently.
Harvesting and Storage
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 with their cap (calyx) intact. Storing eggplant is easy — simply keep the fruit at cool room temperature or in the refrigerator for no more than three days before cooking or preserving.
Saving Eggplant Seeds
Eggplants are self-fertile, so saving seeds from open-pollinated varieties is simple provided different varieties are grown at least 50 feet apart. Choose a robust plant from near the center of the planting and harvest only the first two fruits. Allow the next two fruits to grow until they become leathery with age and turn a yellowish brown. Meanwhile, clip off most of the new flowers produced by the plant to direct its energy into the ripening seeds. To remove the ripe seeds, cut off the bottom end of the fruit and pick out the seeds.
Or, tear the pulp into spongy bits and place them in a pail of water. Squeeze the pulp like a sponge until the largest seeds drift to the bottom. Dry the seeds at room temperature for about two weeks. Under good storage conditions, eggplant seeds will remain viable for five years.
Pest and Disease Prevention Tips
Flea beetles frequently chew small holes in eggplant leaves which seriously weakens young plants. Growing eggplant in containers keeps the ground-dwelling beetles at bay. Gardeners can also use row covers to protect the young plants until they start to bloom.
Colorado potato beetle larvae devour eggplant leaves. Pick the yellow and black adults and the soft-bodied, red or gray larvae and drown them in soapy water.
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. Genetic resistance is not available. Pull up plants that wilt and then collapse, and fill the empty planting hole with compost.
Sunscald occurs when leaf cover is insufficient to screen plants from strong sun. Fruits with brown patches of sunscald are edible, but may ripen unevenly.
Tips for Growing Eggplant
Wait for warm weather to set out young eggplants, which will not thrive until soil temperatures rise above 60 degrees.
Water deeply — provide 1 to 2 inches of water per week after plants are producing fruit. Allow the soil to dry slightly between waterings to discourage verticillium wilt.
Midseason fertilization keeps eggplant productive until cool fall weather stops their growth.
Eggplant requires no pruning beyond removing old, withered 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. In long-season regions, eggplants can be topped back by half their size in midsummer to stimulate the growth of new fruit-bearing branches.
In the Kitchen
Eggplant contains fiber, potassium and folate. Become a culinary star by learning how to cook eggplant in caponata and ratatouille. Eggplant slices can be grilled or breaded. When fried, they make delicious veggie sandwiches or casseroles. To make a spread called baba ghanouj, grill or bake whole eggplants that have been pierced with a fork until they cave in. Purée the cooled pulp with garlic, tahini, lemon juice and olive oil. Raw eggplant starts browning immediately after it’s cut, so work quickly. Many recipes involve salting eggplant slices before cooking to remove bitterness, but this step is seldom necessary with young, garden-grown eggplant. The best way to preserve eggplant is to freeze slices that have been blanched, pan-fried or grilled.
Contributing editor Barbara Pleasant gardens in southwest Virginia, where she grows vegetables, herbs, fruits, flowers and a few lucky chickens. Contact Barbara by visiting her website or finding her on Google+.