Eggplant (Solanum melongena)

If you had told me when I was a kid that I would be growing eggplant in my garden by my own free will, I likely would have walked away from you in utter disgust. Clearly, you wouldn’t have known me well.

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*A handy growing summary chart is at the end of the article.*

I’m honestly not sure why I decided to grow eggplant in the first place. Maybe it was the pretty picture on the seed packet, maybe it was something about the description of the flavor, but whatever it was, I’m glad I did. For the first time I was able to experience this vegetable (actually it’s technically a berry, go figure) in a way that wasn’t limited to the same old variety found at the grocery store. This is how I found out that not all eggplants have the same slimy texture or bitter taste.

The more you know…:

Eggplants are members of the nightshade family, along with tomatoes, potatoes, tobacco, and peppers. However, unlike those other groups, eggplants do not appear to be native to the Americas but are instead from the Asian continent. From there they spread to the Mediterranean region where they have become a common ingredient and garden plant.

Eggplants go by various names, depending on what region of the world you are in. In parts of Europe they are called aubergines, in parts of Asia they are known as brinjal. In Greek they are called melitzana (meh-lee-TZAH-nah). These names are derivations from various other languages, but eggplant itself appears to have come from the fact that the white varieties look like eggs.

Speaking of varieties, there are actually quite a few different ones. They are typically grouped by regions of the world where they are more commonly grown. Shapes range from round, to oblong, and long and narrow. Colors vary from dark purple, light purple, variegated purple and white, white, and light green. The flesh is varying shades of white to tan.

How to grow:

If you decide to grow from seed, give yourself a hefty head start. Eggplant seeds are notoriously slow to germinate, usually taking 2 to 3 weeks before seedlings appear. They also require warm temperatures (above 50 F), so starting them inside or with a heat mat is essential in order to get them going. Growth will initially be slow, but once weather conditions are reliably sunny and warm they will take off. The wait is worth it, though, as growing from seeds offers you so many more options than buying plants from the nursery.

Eggplants love sun, but can tolerate a little bit of shade in hot regions. They will appreciate having regular water, but not to the point that the soil is soggy. They can grow a few feet tall and may need staking to keep fruit off of the ground. These plants can become aggressively productive, providing more produce than you’ll know what to do with, so giving them soil with good nutrients is essential to support that growth (though I’ve grown them in dense clay that literally could be used for pottery, and they still thrived).

In zone 10 and above, eggplants are perennial, but are grown as annuals in colder regions since they are not frost tolerant. You will need at least three months of warm growing weather to give them time to reach maturity and have a chance at getting a harvest. There are smaller varieties that are suitable for growing in pots where they could be brought under cover in case your growing season is too short outside. Be aware that if you do try to grow them in an enclosed space that you will need to hand pollinate the flowers. Gently rub a clean paintbrush across the anthers to the pistils, or give the stems that have open flowers on them a gentle shake to distribute the pollen.

In growing zones with late frosts, like zones 8 and 9, you could see harvests that continue well into the fall. I have picked eggplant in time for Thanksgiving dinner! As long as the temperatures don’t reach the freezing point, the plants will live and continue to produce though the rate of production will slow as the weather gets cooler. Eggplant could be overwintered if properly protected from freezing conditions. Covering with plastic will help create greenhouse-like conditions that warm the tissues and soil enough to help keep them warmer than the outside air. Incandescent lights (like Christmas lights) can also help provide just enough warmth to keep them alive. These strategies will only work if temperatures don’t go much lower than freezing, though.

Another option to get eggplants going is to take cuttings later in the season and root them. They can simply be placed in water, or in very damp potting soil. Roots should begin growing in a couple of weeks. If started in water, the cuttings should be put gently into moist soil in pots once the roots are well established. Once the weather is warm enough, the plants can be transplanted outside.

Pests and problems:

There are a variety of insect pests that will love to chew on your eggplant leaves and fruits. Some of them are the same pests as found on eggplants relatives, like tomatoes and potatoes. Monitor your plants regularly so you can spot these pests early on and seek proper treatment before infestations become too great for the plants to survive.

Aside from the obvious poisons, insect pests can be dealt with by spraying with blasts of water (though be mindful of the potential for bacterial and fungal disease spread from damp conditions). Removing pests by hand and destroying them is also another option, as is having a variety of other plants (usually flowering plants native to the area are best) around to help attract natural predators of those pests. It’s a great idea to learn what the eggs of various plant pests look like so that you can destroy them before they hatch and release a multitude of plant parasites into your garden. Eggs are frequently found on the undersides of leaves, on stems, or even in the soil hidden by fallen leaves and mulch.

Fungal and bacterial diseases are another problem, often exacerbated by warm and humid conditions. This can be helped by not using overhead sprinklers, or by using them judiciously. Drip irrigation is actually not my favorite means of watering plants because it involves a lot of plastic tubing that isn’t cheap, and the holes often get clogged so plants don’t get watered. However, it is useful for avoiding getting water onto plants and preventing the spread of fungal and bacterial spores.

Overhead sprinklers help to wash off dust, can deter insect pests, keeps the whole area cool during summer, and is a more natural way of watering. However, you don’t want the water hitting the plant from the side as this can help spread bacterial and fungal spores from one plant to the next and gets the plant wet from the underside where moisture will have a harder time evaporating. You’ll also want to time your watering to be at the beginning of the day where the warming temperatures will speed up the evaporation of water on the plant and reduce the optimal conditions for bacterial and fungal pests to survive.

If you see signs of fungal or bacterial diseases, there are some sprays available to treat your plants with. Many of these topical treatments are safe for vegetables, and are even considered appropriate for organic gardening. Read labels carefully because some of these treatments have to be carefully timed in terms of weather and light exposure.

Pick a winner:

Given the wide diversity in eggplant shape and size depending on the variety grown, there is no one standard to determine when one is ready to be harvested. However, one good clue would be the appearance of the skin. Most eggplant varieties are at their best flavor and texture when the skin is still shiny. Once an eggplant becomes too large the skin will become dull, the flavor can be bitter and the flesh will be very seedy. It will still be edible, but will not be at its best.

On the other hand, picking an eggplant too early is not ideal, either. You won’t have given the fruit time to develop the best flavor and the flesh will be tough. Your best strategy is to find out what size the fruit is expected to reach when fully mature and then harvest just before that point. This information is often included on seed packets for that variety.

Eggplants grow on very tough stems, so don’t try to pull them off. You will literally find yourself pulling on the whole plant if you try this. The stems will also not snap if you try to bend them. The best way to harvest your eggplants without damaging the plant is to use sharp scissors or clippers. Curved garden clippers are actually best as straight scissors can slide along the stem instead of cutting all the way through. The stems are that tough!

Another thing to watch for when harvesting your eggplants is spines. The top of the fruit where it is attached to the stem will have a green, leaf-like cap and that is often very spiny. Wear gloves and hold the fruit from the side while cutting in order to reduce your risk of getting poked.

Now what:

Eat it, of course! There are a variety of ways to prepare your eggplant, as well as to store it for future use. The best advice I can give is that olive oil is your friend. However, eggplant is very spongy and will absorb a huge amount of oil so be judicious in how much you use.

When we have an abundance of eggplants (which we often do), whatever isn’t given away is stored for later meals. I often cut the narrow varieties into large bite-sized chunks then freeze them on a flat tray. Once frozen I will put them into plastic containers with tight fitting lids. Freezer bags are not ideal as they do allow moisture to evaporate out more readily because they are not truly air-tight. Freezing them on trays first helps keep them from sticking together in one large mass later on, making it easier to get only the amount I want and not the whole container. I find that large tubs from yogurt or sour cream are best (6 to 8 cups in size).

I also have food dehydrators and I use that method for preserving the larger, round style of eggplants. I cut the eggplant lengthwise (stem to blossom end) into thin strips roughly 1/4 inch thick and dry until brittle. These will be ideal for using in casseroles like moussaka where they can be placed between layers of sauce and be rehydrated during cooking.

I have a few recipes ready to go and will be adding more over time, so click on this link here to see some tasty ways to enjoy your eggplants and other summer harvests!

Plant Summary:

  • Annual/Perennial: Plants will live for several years in zone 10+, grown as annual elsewhere
  • Evergreen: in zones 10+, may lose leaves if being overwintered in cooler zones
  • Height: depends on variety, about 3-4 feet
  • Width: depends on variety, about 2-3
  • Flower Color: pink to purple
  • Sun: full sun
  • Water: regularly, but not soggy, somewhat drought tolerant
  • Soil pH: neutral to slightly acidic
  • Soil type: amend heavy clay or loose sandy soil
  • Key nutrients: fertilize as you would for other vegetables
  • Planting time: best to start in late winter/early spring, especially in zones with short growing seasons
  • Zones: 5+

3 thoughts on “Eggplant (Solanum melongena)

  1. There are two reasons I do not grow this. First, I do not like it much. Second, it is not very productive in the mild climate here. Each plants makes about a single big fruit, and maybe a single smaller fruit before autumn. I really should try the sort with smaller fruits. The plants could finish more individual fruits before autumn, and such fruits would likely be of better quality.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The variety is key! I used to hate (and still do) the eggplant from the store. The lighter purple varieties and the skinny ones taste different and don’t have that harsh eggplant taste. You might have better success with the smaller types given your climate, but I have picked plenty of fruits even in October and November and it is cool here during the fall. I think the trick is to get them out into the garden as soon as possible to provide time to reach maturity while it is warm.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Exactly; they need to start early where warmth is potentially inadequate; and smaller fruit develop faster where the warm season is not long. The weather can get somewhat warm here, but not for very long, with cooler nights. It is great weather. It is just not so great for plants that enjoy warmth.

        Liked by 1 person

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