The time of year I write this (September) is not the time to plant eggplant, but it is the time to enjoy those wonderful vegetables (a botanical fruit) before we lose the plants to frost. I go through phases with my devotion to particular vegetables, but my current love is eggplant. Some of the advice I am going to give here can apply to other plants in this genus (solanum), such as tomatoes and peppers, and eggplants should also be grown in rotation with them (and potatoes) in an organic garden. (I will write an entry on rotation soon). Eggplants come in a variety of colors and shapes, from little round white ones to narrow green ones, to narrow lavender to the large, deep purple globe eggplants we see in the stores (though it is more of a tear drop shape than a globe). I have posted a photo of some of my end-of-season (read “a little battle scarred from bugs, but still delicious”) eggplants. I tried two new varieties this year, the green and the white, as my local garden center first ran out of the traditional purple ones (and the seeds I had started failed this year). As I wrote, eggplants can be lavender, purple or striped and are lovely in and out of the garden.
Eggplants love hot weather and a typical mistake is to set them out too early in the spring. If I do have an urge to set them out earlier than mid-May, I make sure I use a dark mulch (landscape fabric) and cover them with floating row covers, which increase heat. The row covers are also important to help combat flea beetles. Flew beetles (tiny black beetles) are the worst pest on eggplant I have here in central Virginia (and I had them as a problem when I lived in the mid-west too). One day your eggplant looks fine, the next day the leaves are riddled with tiny holes. Flea beetles seem to multiply fast and can destroy small, young seedlings quickly. The row covers keep the beetles off the plant until it is big enough to survive and produce fruit in spite of the bugs. Remember, part of the philosophy of organic gardening is to figure out the least problematic way to defeat or control a pest. Control is a key word here- I don’t kill all the flea beetles (though you can learn how to mash them between thumb and plant leaf before they jump-like their namesake, fleas, they are good jumpers-but mashing them to get good control them is a twice per day activity) (rotation, mentioned earlier is another way to control pests). I use lengths of an old garden hose, stick unto the ground with sticks inside to hold them up to support the row cover, and I weigh it down with rocks or bricks. It is very effective at control. I also use cutworm collars around the base of newly planted eggplants (cardboard toilet paper tubes, pressed into the soil) to stop cutworms from wrapping around the base of the plant and snipping it off near the ground (I use this for other transplants too).
In my experience, eggplants like rich soil, full sun and lots of water, but with good drainage. At the time they begin to flower, remove the row covers (and save it for next year- it isn’t cheap and can be patched to last a few more seasons) and let the pollination begin. I fertilize a few times each season with liquid fish emulsion and vermicompost or compost tea.
Eggplants are best young, before they have gotten bitter, seedy or woody. Some old time recipes recommend you soak your peeled and sliced eggplant in salt water to draw out the bitterness, but this is unnecessary with young eggplant. I love eggplant oven roasted with garlic and a sprinkle of sea salt, sautéed with tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic and fresh herbs over pasta and in baba ganooj.
Any questions? J