Discover the natural partnership between eggplant and outdoor grilling, and you will make these stately plants welcome residents in containers, ornamental borders, raised beds, and traditional gardens. Small-fruited eggplant varieties tend to be especially heavy bearers, and you can expect to pick a dozen or more from each Hansel, Gretel, or Ichiban plant over the summer in warm climates. Varieties like Black Beauty that bear traditional tuxedo-purple fruits are equally impressive in the garden, or when stuffed, grilled, or combined with summer herbs and tomatoes in homemade eggplant parmesan.
Soil, Planting, and Care
Eggplant loves warmth and grows best in very sunny, well-drained locations. Raised beds that have been generously enriched with composted manure are ideal, but any fertile soil with a pH from 6.3 to 6.8 will satisfy the plants. Although eggplant’s coarse, leathery leaves withstand hot weather in champion style, provide a generous mulch of hay, shredded leaves, or other biodegradable material beneath your eggplants to keep the soil relatively cool and to hold moisture and keep down weeds. Because eggplant really needs warm soil to grow well, gardeners in cool climates often do best growing the plants in large, dark-colored containers. On a sunny day, soil temperatures inside black pots may be 10 degrees or more higher than in-ground soil temperatures. Row covers are also a good option in cool climates, or even to protect plants from cool spells in warm climates. Open the ends of the row covers on warm days to let the bees reach the flowers for help with pollination.
Eggplants grow into tall, angular plants, so they should be spaced 24 to 36 inches apart. Fertilize planting holes by mixing in a balanced timed-release or organic fertilizer, following the rates given on the label. At the same time, mix in 2 inches of compost to help hold moisture and fertilizer in the soil. Set plants at the same depth at which they are growing in their containers, and water well before spreading mulch. To keep plants healthy and well fed, give them a liquid plant food, such as Bonnie Herb & Vegetable Plant Food, every couple weeks.
In the case of a late cold spell, you may need to delay planting eggplant seedlings until cool weather passes. Should this happen, keep the plants in a sheltered, sunny spot outdoors during the day, and bring them indoors at night.
Be sure to keep plants watered or they will be small and bitter. They need a nice, steady supply of moisture but not so much that the soil is soggy. Drip systems or a soaker hose are ideal.
Eggplants are prone to falling over when loaded with fruit, so you may want to tie plants to stakes to keep them upright. If you drive a stake into the ground just an inch or two from the plant at the time of planting, you won’t disturb the plant by trying to do it later. You can also use small tomato cages to support the plants.
The tiny, black flea beetle is by far the worst pest of eggplant, but big, healthy plants usually produce well despite tiny leaf holes made by lots of flea beetles. In some areas, a common soil-borne fungus, verticillium wilt, causes eggplants to wilt and die. Where verticillium is a common problem with non-resistant tomatoes (they are close eggplant cousins), grow eggplants in containers filled with premium potting mix.
Harvest and Storage
Eggplant fruits can taste bitter if picked when underripe or overripe, so harvesting is part of the eggplant grower’s art. A perfect fruit will stop growing larger, have a glossy skin, and show a sprinkling of soft, well-formed yet immature seeds when you slice it open. Fruits with no visible seeds are immature, and hard, dark seeds are found in overripe eggplants. Use pruning shears to harvest eggplant with a short stub of stem attached, because the fruits will not pull free by hand. Rinse clean, pat dry, and store in the refrigerator for several days. Eggplant discolors rapidly when cut open, so work quickly when preparing slices or skewers for grilling. Marinades that include salt, vinegar, and/or lemon juice will keep cut pieces of eggplant from darkening.
Where should I plant my eggplant?
Does eggplant grow upright or is it supposed to fall into a vine and grow on the ground?
Can Ichiban eggplant be grown in a container?
Does my container-grown eggplant need to be outdoors for pollination?
What causes eggplant fruit to become distorted and strangely colored?
How do I know when to harvest my eggplant?