There’s no arguing that without eggplants, the culinary world would be missing a bright star. Cooks around the globe use this versatile veggie in dishes closely tied to both their culture and their cuisine. Without eggplants, the world would be devoid of such signature dishes as ratatouille, moussaka, eggplant parmesan and baba ghanoush, but fear not: The palette of eggplant varieties is constantly expanding, offering cooks the world over plenty of opportunities to create all these delicious dishes and more.
Eggplant (Solanum melongena), also known as aubergine, is a member of the nightshade family. A close cousin to the tomato and potato, this warm-season vegetable is at home in gardens across North America. A native of the Indian subcontinent, where its wild relatives can grow up to 8 feet tall, eggplant can grow perennially for years in climates that never dip below freezing, but across most of North America, they are grown as a warm-season annual crop.
To successfully grow eggplants, seeds should be started indoors under lights eight to 10 weeks before the last expected spring frost. This is of particular importance in northern climates, where the growing season is short. Most eggplant varieties have a fairly long growing season, with larger selections taking upwards of 75 days to fully mature. Plant seeds in peat pots or seeding trays, and use a seed-starting heat mat to maintain a soil temperature of around 85 degrees F for optimum germination.
Like other warm-season transplants, including tomatoes and peppers, eggplants should not be moved out into the garden until daytime temperatures regularly stay above 60 degrees F and nights above 50 degrees F. Before planting, work organic matter into the soil, ensuring pH ranges between 6.0 and 6.5. Locate the seedlings in an area that receives a minimum of six to eight hours of full sun per day. Eggplants prefer warm soil, so using black plastic to cover the ground for a few weeks before planting will speed growth, as will mulching the transplants with dark compost.
Using row cover is another way to keep the plants warm, especially during cooler spring temperatures. If using row cover, be sure to remove it when plants come into flower to allow access to pollinators. The flowers can be white to purple in color, with bright-yellow anthers. Although the first few flowers might drop off the plant and fail to produce, the remaining flowers will each yield a single fruit, with each plant often bearing five or more fruits. The more frequently the fruits are harvested, the greater the fruit set.
During flowering and fruit development, supply the plants with adequate moisture: about 1 inch of water per week either via rainfall or supplemental irrigation. As flea beetles can sometimes be problematic on eggplants, particularly for young seedlings, protecting the plants with a kaolin-clay-based product is key in susceptible areas. Organic spinosad-based sprays are also effective against adult flea beetles and certain species of beneficial nematodes can be introduced to the planting area to battle their soil-dwelling larvae.
Shades Of Aubergine
The diversity of available eggplant varieties is astounding. Fruits can be dark purple, lavender, yellow, white, rose, cream, reddish purple and even orange, depending on the selection. Their shapes are equally as diverse: Small egg-shaped varieties are perfect for single servings, while a single huge, teardrop-shaped fruit will easily fill an entire pan with eggplant parmesan. Japanese eggplants are elongated, reaching 6 to 8 inches in length and creating perfectly uniform slices. Here are a handful of my favorites.
- Little Finger: A small, slender-fruited variety, Little Finger has dark, thin skin with perfectly sized, single-serving fruits. Best harvested when 3 to 6 inches long, this variety is ready to pick in a mere 60 days. Recommend it to customers for summer grilling.
- Rosa Bianca: The rounded, pink- and white-striped fruits of this Sicilian heirloom are mild and creamy with very few seeds. Because it requires between 75 and 85 days to mature, it might not be the best variety for northern gardeners. These fruits are perfect for stuffing with rice and ground meat, and then roasting.
- Millionaire: These king-sized fruits on early-maturing plants are ready to harvest in just 55 days. Millionaire boasts classic dark-purple fruits. Both the productivity and flavor of this Japanese variety are exceptional. Slice Millionaires into rounds and make eggplant parmesan or baba ghanoush.
- Casper: An ivory-skinned, slightly elongated eggplant that fruits in about 70 days, Casper’ grows well even in northern gardens. Each plant produces a half dozen or more fruits with a mild, non-bitter flavor and small seeds. The mild flavor is ideal for ratatouille.
- Pin Tung Long: This heirloom Asian selection is extremely prolific—up to 20 fruits per plant! The long, slender fruits average 16 to 18 inches long and have soft skin that does not require peeling, making them perfect for grilling.
- Udumalapet: Hailing from India, Udumalapet bears light-green, pear-shaped fruits with purple streaks. As they mature, they change to pale yellow with lavender striping. They’re best eaten small (about 3 inches long), while the skin is still tender and the seeds haven’t turned bitter—use them in Baingan Bharta (aka eggplant curry).
- Applegreen: These small, egg-shaped fruits are pale green, even at maturity. Ripening in 70 days on extremely prolific plants, Applegreen plants are great for container culture, as they reach only 18 to 24 inches in height. Roast these small eggplants whole on the grill or in the oven.
- Fairy Tale: Another perfect container selection, the lavender- and white-striped fruits of Fairy Tale grow on plants that reach a mere 1 to 2 feet in height. Fruits are elongated and reach only 5 inches at maturity. These versatile fruits are excellent for a single-serving side dish, either grilled, roasted or breaded.
No matter which eggplants you choose to grow, the fruits are ready to harvest when the skin is glossy and the pad of your thumb doesn’t leave an impression on the skin. When cutting the fruit from the plant, leave the calyx—the protective green petals at the top of the fruit—and an inch or so of stem intact to prevent rot. Over-mature fruit will be soft and slightly mushy, and the seeds will be brown rather than white. Harvested fruit should be stored between 50 and 55 degrees F for up to two weeks before use.
These shiny beauties are remarkable in both the garden and the kitchen. Make room for them in your plot to help fill your customers’ plates!
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2014 issue of Hobby Farms.