Growing Eggplants

growing eggplantsIf your summer nights are spent outdoors grilling, then growing eggplants should be a necessity for your backyard garden. Popular in Central Asia and the Mediterranean, eggplants are a beautiful plant. They look as stunning in the garden as they do on your plate. There are almost limitless ways to prepare and eat them, meaning that a bumper crop will allow you to experiment with the huge range of recipes.

In the right climate conditions, eggplants grow almost as easily as their tomato relatives. Try your hand at growing eggplants this year and you’ll be happy to enjoy the bounty for months to come.

Start Growing Eggplants

Eggplants can be a little finicky in how you should plant them, so be sure to follow these instructions for your best chance of success.

When and Where Should You Grow Eggplant?

Eggplants thrive in the heat, so to grow them successfully you will need at least three months of hot summer weather. Their ideal daytime temperature is 80-90 degrees and nights that are warmer than 70 degrees.

A good rule of thumb is that if your climate can grow peppers, you will be able to grow eggplant. If your summers are slightly too short, you can try your hand at fast maturing varieties that take less than 60 days to be ready for harvest.

Understanding Seed Germination for Eggplant

Most varieties of eggplant need warm weather and about three months to reach maturity. Any temperatures below 65 degrees will stop the plant from progressing and might even kill it.

Eggplant seeds take 7 to 14 days to germinate, and purchased seeds should stay good for about five years.

Starting Seeds Indoors

In much of the United States, eggplants should be started indoors and then transplanted outside in order to extend their growing season. You can start your eggplants indoors about six weeks before the last spring frost, which is usually two weeks after starting your tomatoes and peppers.

To plant your seeds, soak them overnight before planting them and then plant them in a moistened, living soil. Plant each seed a quarter inch deep with half inch spacing on both sides. Cover the seeds and keep their soil moist without getting soggy. Monitor the water level through the germination period, because if your seeds dry out they might not sprout.

Keeping your seeds in a warm place is crucial for success. Growing eggplant under fluorescent lights for fourteen hours a day and on top of a heating mat can make a big difference in their rate of growth. Once the true leaves have started to appear you can thin out the smallest plants and leave a two inch spacing between each one.

On warm, sunny days you can move your plants outdoors, but be sure to bring them back in if temperatures get below 55 degrees. This process is important for hardening off seedlings so that they will be able to adjust to growing outside.

Preparing an Eggplant Bed

Plan a garden space for your eggplants that is full of organic material and has good drainage and at least eight hours of sun per day. For best results, keep the pH level between 5.5 and 7.5. If you want to get a jump start on warming up the soil, you can cover the planting site with black plastic mulch for two weeks before planting out your eggplants. Another option is to mound up your soil into raised beds to expose more of it to the heating rays of the sun.

Moving Outdoors

After the last frost date is two weeks passed and your eggplant seedlings are about eight weeks old, they are ready to be transplanted outside. You should harden off your seedlings in the two weeks prior to planting them outside by starting with an hour of direct sunlight and slowly exposing them to more sunlight until they are only brought inside at night.

It’s best to transplant on a cloudy day, as harsh sunlight can hurt the already-stressed plants. Space your plants 18 to 24 inches apart and keep about three feet between each row. Water each plant thoroughly after transplanting them to ensure that they will have the energy to root out into the garden.

When plants are close to six inches tall, you can nip off the top tips in order to stimulate the plant to branch out into a bush. Once three of four fruits have set on the branches, you can remove the other side shoots that are developing in order to encourage the plant to put all its energy towards the fruit. Once you’ve reached the last few weeks of your summer growing season, pinch off the last blossoms on your plants in order to encourage their growth to be focused on forming the last few fruits.

Grow Eggplant in Containers

Eggplants grow great in containers. You can grow compact plants in a three to five gallon pot that has a depth of at least 12 inches. For best success, start your seeds indoors and transplant them into pots when they are eight weeks old. Keep each container on an outdoor table, as this will keep them elevated and out of the way of pesky flee beetles. If you use terra cotta pots, be prepared to water more often because they absorb moisture from the soil.

Note: Container eggplants will need more fertilizer than planted ones, so be sure to add some compost throughout the growing season.

Direct Seeding

If you live in a hot climate, you can plant your eggplant seeds directly into the garden. Sow the seeds less than half an inch deep and space them out every six inches. Once the first five true leaves form, you can thin out your plants so that they are spaced between 18 and 24 inches, depending on the size of the variety you are growing.

Watering and Mulching Requirements

The key to successfully growing eggplants is to baby them. Keep them out of cold temperatures and well watered throughout their maturation. When you first transplant your eggplants, be sure to water them intensely so that their soil is very moist. After that, eggplants need about an inch of water a week for best production. Irregular watering will lead to a woody stem and partially formed fruits. Drip irrigation is best because it allows moisture to go deep into the soil without disturbing the leaves and stem of the plant.

You should mulch immediately after transplanting to keep your eggplant safe from competition, and hand pull any invading weeds. Some people have great success laying down black plastic to smother weeds and warm up the soil while cutting holes for their plants to grow out of. Once the soil temperature reaches 75 degrees, you can pull off the black mulch and replace it with organics mulches like grass clippings and straw instead. This will keep the weeds down and protect the shallow roots of the eggplant plants.

Companion Planting and Rotation Considerations

Because eggplants are members of the nightshade family, they grow well with other nightshades like peppers and tomatoes because they all like the same kind of growing conditions. However, multiple nightshades in one spot will attract the same kinds of pests, and eggplants tend to be very susceptible to insect damage.

A smart planting choice is to plant eggplants next to beans, which repel beetles that would otherwise attack the eggplant. Pole beans can also provide shade and windy protection for this fragile plant. Never plant eggplant next to fennel, as it is a toxic companion plant that can inhibit growth for eggplants and other garden vegetables.

Common Pests and Diseases for Eggplant

Eggplants are relatively fragile plants that are susceptible to a wide range of pests and diseases. Some of the most damaging are the following.

  • Verticillium Wilt: verticillium wilt is responsible for killing more eggplants per year than any other disease. Infected plants wilt and yellow, eventually collapsing. The best way to defend against it is to plant your eggplants where they will get good drainage and to remove infected plants immediately. Buying disease resistant varieties like Irene can make a big difference in your overall crop.
  • Late blight: late blight creates dark green lesions on the lower leaves of plants that often leads to a fuzzy white fungus on the undersides of leaves. If not treated, blight will take out your entire crop. The best way to stop the beginnings of an invasion is to spray an anti-fungal spray at the beginning on an outbreak, and to destroy all plants that have been infected. Planting blight-resistant varieties are a good way to prevent blight from taking over your crop.
  • Flea Beetles: as a major pest for eggplant, flea beetles chew holes in leaves and stems, which weakens the plants until they die or stop producing fruit. You can use row covers to prevent flea beetles from accessing your plants, or grow them in container that prevent the beetles from climbing up into the pots. Keeping your plants properly hydrated and well fed with organic compost will make them better able to withstand the damages caused by flea beetles.
  • Colorado Potato Beetles: these are fat, black and yellow striped insects that lay eggs on the undersides of eggplant leaves and munch on the foliage until the plant is weakened. Your best defense is to hand pick the beetles from each plant and drown them in soapy water.
  • Tomato Hornworms: tomato hornworms are giant fleshy green caterpillars that love to defoliate eggplant leaves. Check your garden frequently and pick off these pests so that they can’t cause long term damage to your plants.

Harvesting and Storing Eggplant

Eggplants can be grown in a vast array of colors and sizes, so be sure to look carefully at your seed packet instructions to know when the variety you are growing is ready for harvesting. Eggplants always taste better when they are younger, so it pays to harvest them early before they get tough and bitter. The best way to tell if an eggplant is ripe is if its skin has a glossy sheen and a plump firmness that has a spongy feel and doesn’t give when you press inwards.

To harvest your eggplants, cut the stems with a knife or pruning shears and handle them gently, as eggplants can bruise easily. If you slice the eggplant open and notice that the seeds inside have turned brown, the fruit has over-matured and will no longer taste good.

When stored at 55 degrees, eggplants can last about a week. Eggplants don’t do well in cold temperatures, so the refrigerator isn’t a great choice for storage. If you chose to use it anyways, wrap the eggplants in plastic and use the vegetable within the next few days.

You can also dry your eggplants using a dehydrator. Cut a fresh-picked eggplant into half inch thick slices and dehydrate until the cubes are dry and brittle. When you want to use them in a recipe, soak the cubes in water for at least 30 minutes.

Saving Eggplant Seeds

Because eggplants are a self-fertilizing plant, you can save seeds from open-pollinated varieties that are grown at least 50 feet apart from each other. Chose your biggest, healthiest plant and only harvest the first few fruits from it. Clip off any new flowers that form on the plant so that it directs all its energy towards ripening those seeds. Allow the next two eggplants to grow until they are thick, leathery, and turned yellowish brown. Then, harvest these fruits and cut the bottom end of the fruit off so that you can pick out the seeds. Another option is to tear up the pulp and place it in a pail of water. Squeeze the pulp like a sponge until the largest seeds come loose and fall to the bottom. You can dry these seeds at room temperature for two weeks in a cool, dark place. You can store them in an envelope after this time, and your seeds should stay viable for the next five years.

Choosing the Best Eggplant Seeds for Your Needs

There are lots of different types of eggplant that you can grow, depending on your climate and conditions. Below are some of the main categories that most eggplants fall into.

Oval to Oblong Eggplants: these form the classic eggplants that you can find in most supermarkets. Most are large, oval-shaped and purple, and they grow best in warm tropical climates.

  • Small-fruited Eggplants: these eggplants like ‘Little Finger‘ grow well in compact spaces and are ideal for container gardens.
  • Asian Eggplants: This smaller eggplant variety tends to mature faster than oval eggplants, which causes them to produce long, slender fruits. Some fun varieties to grow are ‘Japanese White Egg‘ and ‘Ping Tung
  • Novelty Eggplants: these are usually unusual heirloom varieties from around the world and can come in a wide variety of colors, like the ‘Rosa Bianca‘.

Additional Growing Tips for Organic Eggplant

Follow these tips for best success in growing this occasionally finicky garden plant.

  • Spray your eggplants every couple weeks with a liquid organic leaf spray fertilizer. This will keep the leaves healthy (helping it fend off flea beetles) and will produce richer, sweeter fruits.
  • Eggplants thrive with consistency, so provide them with the same amount of water every day and they will stay healthier.
  • Wait longer than you think before putting your eggplant transplants outside. Even a little cold weather can permanently cripple them.
  • You can inter-plant your eggplants with an early crop like lettuce that will be harvested long before the eggplant reaches its full size.