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Eggplant
(Solanum melongena)


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Cultivars

Eggplant.

Eggplant is renowned primarily not for its own mild taste but for its amazing ability to soak up any oil or fat like a sponge and taste of that oil. Of the "kraft-paper-substitute" vegetables, it is far and away the noblest, and we would like to grow a bit. Our short-season climate, however, makes that a dicey proposition with this long-growing, very frost-tender vegetable; to date, we have had poor results, but that could just be us and our black thumbs.

The need with eggplant--as for most warm-weather crops here--is for a reliably early type: the "days to maturity" datum becomes especially critical because, unlike some other warm-season crops, eggplant have almost zero tolerance of cold (other plants may be checked in their growth by a cool spell, but eggplant tend to just give up), so their growing days have to be definitely warm growing days, and so right in the middle of our so-called "warm season", which is not a very long period.

Nominal eggplant "days to maturity" (presumably from transplant, not direct seeding) tend to run from 60 on up to 80 or more. Now types in the 60 to 65 day--just possibly up to 70-day--range might well work, but the problem with many such early types (again as with most such warm-weather crops) is that they tend to be quite small; better something than nothing, of course, but it would be nice to find a solid early type that is not puny ("Early Egg", for example, is nominally 65 days to maturity, but its fruit is at best about 5 inches long, whereas "normal" eggplant are 7 to 9 inches long).

But, just to add to the fun, eggplant--while it needs warmth without intervening cold--does not do well with too much warmth; if it gets really hot (as it very well can here during our short warm season), eggplants have a marked tendency to slow down their growth and (bonus) get bitter: bitterness is a notorious eggplant problem.

Some folk hereabouts do get good results with eggplant, but our microclimate is especially difficult (we are in a "coulee", a small depression that is typically a few degrees cooler than the region as a whole). Of possible cultivars, one with promise is Diamond, a Ukranian cultivar, listed by one seedsman as "65 to 95 days from transplant" (quite a range!) and often described as "adapted to the North". One quite experienced home gardener, who lives in Wisconsin, has written of Diamond:

70 days here. Robust spreading bush, 2' high X 3' wide, strong stems seldom break or lodge. Elongated purple fruit borne early, and in steadily-increasing numbers, with an exceptionally heavy yield in early autumn. The flavor is very good, with only occasional bitterness... only a few (such as "Casper" and "Pingtung") are better. Thrives on heat, but tolerates cooler temps. My high-pH soil & the prevalence of fungal wilt in my area stunt or kill most eggplant in my trials; but "Diamond" thrives year after year. Vigor, earliness, disease resistance, and yield are all outstanding; this is the standard against which I judge all others.

This year, we are going to stick to trying Diamond because of our short season. We are tempted by, and will try some other day, the Italian "mid-season" type called Rosita, said to be (and we agree) possibly the most beautiful eggplant to look at (white streaked with rose); one source says "80 days", which is probably marginal out here. Note that the above-cited Casper (a white type, as in The Friendly Ghost--you do realize that originally all eggplants were 100% white?) notoriously does not do well in really hot weather, which we can get. Whether the season hereabouts is long enough for Rosita (or, in our case, any eggplant) remains to be seen.


Planting

Timing

Owing to the nature of eggplant's climate demands, as just discussed, timing in our relatively short but hot season is crucial. Obviously, seedlings for transplant is the only possible approach.

Obviously, with eggplant being very cold-tender and also fairly long-season (growth times, depending on cultivar, range from 58 to 90 or more days from transplant), around here it is a race. We want to get our eggplant vines out as soon as possible, but we must take great care not to plunge in too soon. One source says to plant them out "when the average daily temperature reaches 65° F"; if we simplify by assuming that the daily average is just the average of the daily high and daily low, that occurs around here in middle to late June. Another source says "Delay planting in the spring until nighttime temperatures are in the upper forties"; that, too, correlates with middle to late June. So, if we take care with how and where we set our plants, and use a few other early-start tricks (row cover, or Walls o'Water, or plastic water bottles near the seedlings), we can probably risk June 15th as a planting out date.

Eggplant seedlings need a long time indoors in pot before they're ready for transplanting; several sources say 8 to 10 weeks. They also need a long, careful hardening-off period, probably 7 to 10 day's worth; whether that should be counted as pre- or post-transplant time is unclear from the literature. If we use good-sized seedling pots (say 4-inch peat pots), we should probably consider the hardening-off time as pre-transplant--part of a 10-week period--so we are looking at starting seed around April 1st and starting careful hardening off around June 5th for true transplant around June 15th.


Starting Seedlings

Optimum soil germination temperature for eggplant seeds is 86° F. Even after emergence, maintaining a soil temperature of about 70° is recommended. It is wise to start more seeds than one wants plants, then select the strongest seedlings at planting-out time. Note that germination is famously slow, often two weeks or thereabouts


The Bed

A well-drained sandy loam of pH 5.5 to 6.5 with high organic matter content is ideal for growing eggplants.

By general report, plastic mulches are a huge assist in growing eggplants in a shorter-season area.

One can also--as we will this year--grow eggplants in containers, needing one five-gallon container per plant.


Transplanting Out

We have already discussed planting dates. Note that in mid-June--the likeliest planting-out date--average night temperatures are only in the middle to high 40s. These rascals being so cold-sensitive means that we need to muster all the warmth weapons in our arsenal: plastic mulch to warm the ground, put in place a good couple of weeks before transplant time; row covers; and perhaps Walls o'Water (or makeshift substitutes, like plastic milk jugs filled with water and set amongst the seedlings). A Louisiana university grower (like many experienced home gardeners) reported that eggplants responded very well to black-plastic mulch and to drip irrigation.

A plant spacing, in deep or raised beds, of about 18 inches probably works best, though somewhat closer spacings might be risked, especially for the smaller varieties. Or, as noted, containers work well.

It's especially important to water eggplants well right after transplanting, because--besides temperature--eggplants are also quite sensitive to water stress. (That's why drip irrigation is a wise approach.)


Growing

Water well; as noted above, drip irrigation works nicely for eggplants. Several occasional sidedressings of extra fertilizer are often recommended, owing to the plant's long growing season.

One source said that plants should be restricted to no more than 4 fruits, to make sure each reaches a good size and ripens properly.

Although eggplants are sturdy bushes, the fruits are heavy: support of some sort for them is a wise idea.

Fruits should be picked as they come ready, judged by their size. If the season lasts long enough, the plants will continue producing. (Seed savers should select for the longest-yielding specimens.) Harvest by cutting the stems--don't pull the fruits off. (Be aware that all green parts of the plant can be toxic--don't try eating the leaves.) Bitterness, a too-common complaint with store-bought eggplants, seems rare in home-grown, probably because they are picked before getting too big (a word to the wise). In fact, let's emphasize that: don't let eggplants get too big before picking them. How big "too big" is depends on the cultivar, so read up and (as the aforesaid Nero Wolfe often puts it to Archie) use your intelligence as guided by your experience.

Note well that eggplant has to be used quickly after harvest: even under ideal storage conditions (temperature 40° to 50° F. and humidity near 85%), the fruit will keep only about seven to ten days. Your best bet is to cook it up in appropriate dishes then freeze the cooked dish for later use.


More

Relevant Links

Besides any links presented above on this page, the following ought to be especially helpful:


Odds and Ends

Biology

Eggplant is a frost-intolerant perennial grown as an annual; it belongs to the family Solanaceae, which also includes tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes (and the nightshades). The purplish-black color of the immature fruit is a result of anthocyanin in the subepidermal cells.

Fruit types are varied, including a small "green grape" eggplant from Thailand, "Easter-egg" types with variously colored fruits on a single plant, Italian "bella" types with delicate pink and white shading on round fruits, the standard commercial black type with three-pound fruits, and the increasingly popular, slim, purple-black Oriental ("Japanese") types. Shapes vary from round to almost breadstick-shaped; color variations include white, red, green, purple, pink, glossy solid black, and variegated.


History

Eggplants are first reported as being in cultivation in China in the early 4th or 5th centuries B.C.; the dark-purple varieties were probably being domesticated in Burma and India at around the same time. They likely made their way to Europe with the Moors in Spain somewhere between 300 and 700 A.D.

"Aubergine", the name by which eggplants are known through most or all of Europe, is French, and comes comes from the Catalan alberginia, which in turn comes from the Arabic al-badingan. It was the English who dubbed the vegetable "eggplant", from the egg-like shape of the first specimens introduced to that country (which may even have been white too).


Envoi

A popular eggplant recipe from Turkey is called "Imam bayildi" (with variant spellings seen), which means, roughly, "the swooning priest" (an imam is not actually a priest but a Muslim prayer leader, but that's too long a phrase). Explanations of the name are several--the imam swooned when he tasted how good it was; the imam fainted when he saw how much expensive olive oil was used; the imam was delighted when a shopkeeper's wife was required to quickly prepare a dish for the imam's unexpected visit--or an old Turkish proverb (Imam evinden ash, olu gozunden yash cikmaz, "No food is likely to come out of the imam's house and no tears from a corpse") suggests that perhaps the stingy imam, presented with a dish so expensive, fainted from delight. (Adapted from a text by Clifford A. Wright.)


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