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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 like to grow a bit. Our short-season climate, however, makes that a dicey proposition with this long-growing, very frost-tender vegetable; we had poor results from classic “main season” types, but got lots from a short-season type. That type (Traviata) is, however, a hybrid, so this year we are going to try a slightly longer-growth open-pollinated type.

The need with eggplant—as for most warm-weather crops here—is for a reliably fairly 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” (from transplant, not direct seeding) tend to run from 60 on up to 80 or more. We reckon that even as short as our syummers are, we should, if we pick our transplant day carefully, be able to grow eggplants with “days to maturity” of up to 75—maybe even 80, but that would probably be pushing the envelope.

(Here, our mid-season warmth high point is about July 22nd; to see how an 80-day plant would do, we go 40 days back and forward from that mid-point, which would leave us transplanting out around June 12th for maturity around August 31st. The average high/low temperatures on those dates here are 75°/39° and 77°/41°. An eggplant page from the University of Arizona says in salient part:

The optimum daytime growing temperature ranges between 70°F and 85°F. When temperatures rise above 95°F, eggplant ceases to set fruit and may drop flowers or abort immature fruit. Fruit set is also reduced when temperatures fall below 60°F.

That’s fine for us: we hit the 70s in mid-May and stay there or above till mid-September, while never (again, on average) getting over 90°. So the dates cited above should work fine for us, and you can use the same approach yourself, based on your warmest day (from your own records or, if you haven’t a large enough dataset, from the nearest weather station).

After an extensive literature review, we found four open-pollinated eggplant cultivars that seem suitable, listed below; all nominally come in at 75 days or fewer (which cutpoint left out a lot of popular varieties). We didn’t look at any of the elongated Oriental types because their shape doesn’t fit our typical eggplant uses, but if you’re interested in that type, try the Ping Tung (70 days) variety.

(For the lazy or timid, all of those are also available as seedlings.)

This year, we are going to try Rosita, mostly owing to the combination of its shape and its looks (some gardeners use it as edible landscaping). But you likely wouldn’t go wrong with any of these, all of which have their fierce partisans.


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.

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 the 10-week period. So, if we are looking at starting seed on June 12th (or whatever date works in your climate), we need to start our seedlings 10 weeks before that. For us, that means starting the seedlings on April 3rd, and starting careful hardening off around June 3rd to June 5th for true transplant around June 12th.

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 grow eggplants in containers, needing one five-gallon container per plant.

Transplanting Out

We have already discussed planting dates. Note that in mid-June 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 at least a 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 plant spacing, in deep-dug 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 side dressings of extra fertilizer are often recommended, owing to the plant’s long growing season.

Although eggplants are sturdy bushes, the fruits are heavy: support of some sort for them is a wise idea. Make quite sure that none of the fruit is in contact with the ground (or the mulch surface); use something to keep any drooping or sagging fruit up—perhaps a brick, or even a plastic coffee-can lid.

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! These are part of the nightshade family.) 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 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 thpse cooked dishes 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).

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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