People who wrinkle their noses at the mention of eggplant are missing the gustatory delights of one of the best meat substitutes that can be grown in the garden. Prepared in cheese, egg, and tomato casseroles or sliced, batter-dipped and fried, eggplant can win over most doubters.
Eggplant fruits can be bitter when they pass the best harvest stage and seeds mature. Rarely, however, does a home garden produce bitter fruit, because gardeners tend to harvest eggplants before this point. Each plant should yield at least three to four fruits. Eggplants make excellent container specimens in tubs or boxes.
Eggplant is a heat-loving, frost-tender, summer vegetable. Because it sprouts and grows slowly from seeds, plants are customarily purchased. If eggplant is grown from seeds, a soil temperature of 75° is necessary for good sprouting.
Recommended varieties. The older, large-fruited market garden types, such as ‘Black Beauty’ and ‘Burpee Hybrid’, require 75 to 80 days to mature their first fruits. Over most of the country, the 65 to 70-day hybrids, such as ‘Early Hybrid’ and ‘Morden Midget’, will yield more fruit over a longer season, and the fruits will be of a more convenient size than those of the maincrop hybrids.
How to plant. Eggplant seeds sprout slowly; set out transplants after the ground warms up and all danger of frost is past. Space the plants 3 feet apart. If nights turn cold, protect the plants with a covering.
Care. Feed and water these as you do peppers. If you starve eggplant bushes or let them dry out, the fruit setwill be sparse. Restrict the number of fruits on a plant to six by pinching off tip shoots and removing extra blossoms.
Pests. Colorado potato beetle can defoliate young plants. Control with rotenone, sevin, or diazinon. Eggplant lacebug, a troublesome pest in the South, feeds on the underside of leaves. Dust or spray with malathion. If aphids infest foliage, control them with rotenone or malathion (note label precautions). Wilt diseases of the same types that attack tomatoes and potatoes will sometimes affect eggplant. The only “cure” is to try to avoid it by rotating crops and not growing eggplant in places where tomatoes or potatoes have been grown in the past three years.
Harvesting. Pick when glossy, dark purple, and about 6 inches long. Use a knife or kitchen shears to snip off the fruits. Wear gloves—the stems are prickly. If some of the fruits reach full size and begin to lose their glossy sheen, don’t eat them; cut off and discard the old fruit to encourage formation of new fruit.
In containers. Striking foliage, fruit, and blossoms and a worthwhile yield from a single plant make eggplant ideal for containers. Choose a tub or box with a capacity of at least 2 cubic feet.