Eggplants have a reputation as troublesome to grow and unpleasant to eat, but neither is deserved. With the right conditions, and in the hands of the right cook, anyone can enjoy eggplant from the garden to the plate.
I personally find it odd that many people don’t like eggplant. I think it’s because it’s often improperly cooked. If you get it right, this vegetable beats out the rest when it comes to flavor.
It’s also an excellent option for vegetarians and vegans who want an ingredient with a meaty texture that’s soy-free. Even carnivores love this tasty plant, which is actually a fruit.
Eggplants belong to the nightshade family, the same as the tomato, and there are an incredible array of colors, sizes, and shapes. The beauty of growing your own? You can have types that you would never find at the grocery store, and they taste so much better.
I grow eggplant every year and, in my climate, keeping it alive and getting it to fruit is often a challenge. This heat-loving plant is finicky, but if properly cared for will provide you with numerous fruits perfect for baking, frying, and sautéing. I encourage anyone who doesn’t live in an ideal climate for growing eggplants to try their hand at it, and we'll give you all the knowledge you need to succeed.
The following eggplant varieties are not only easier than some to grow, but they have a flavor that you'll love.
- Fairy Tale – One of my favorite types, this prolific plant bears small, slender, light-purple fruits with white splotches. It's ideal for container growing.
- Florida Market – This is one of the most common varieties available. The fruits on this plant are large and bell-shaped. It's likely the eggplant you’ve seen at your local grocer.
- Black Beauty – Expect to get dark, large eggplants from this plant. The thicker skin makes it suitable for roasting and making dips like baba ganoush.
- Little Finger – The little finger variety features long thin eggplants, as you may expect from the name. It flourishes in containers and packs a lot of flavor in a tiny package.
- Rosa Bianca – This is a plant with small, round, light purple fruits. It doesn’t do well in colder areas, but if you’re in a warm climate, it’s a great fit. The flesh is creamier than other varieties.
- Patio Baby – If you’re low on space, the patio baby eggplant is the way to go. This hybrid variety is compact but bears plenty of purple, oblong eggplants that are basically miniature versions of the ones you see at the grocery store.
- Snowy Eggplant – As the name implies, this is a white variety with a mild flavor and meaty texture. The fruit is slender but reasonably large.
How to Plant Eggplant
When to Plant Eggplant
Start indoors 35 to 55 days before the last frost and harden off at least ten days before putting it in its permanent location. You can transplant this when the plants are at least 3-inches tall.
Plant eggplants well after the chance of frost has passed in the spring when soil temperatures reach 55-60°F. Planting too early is a recipe for disaster and may kill your newly planted starts. Direct sowing isn’t advised, especially if you have a short summer season, like me.
In my area, I start eggplants indoors early in March to ensure that they’re nice and bushy by the time they end up in the ground. That way, there’s plenty of time for the plant to flower and set fruit. Be careful not to let them get root bound. If you have space, transplant seedlings to larger pots as they grow indoors.
Eggplants need plenty of sun. Place them in an area that receives sun for most of the day – at least 6 hours or more.
Eggplants require fertile, well-drained soil. They can't handle poorly-drained soil, so amend your earth with sand if it isn't well drained. Growing eggplants prefer soil with a pH between 5.5 to 6.5.
When starting eggplant seeds indoors, a heat mat is a must to warm the soil to encourage germination. Eggplant seeds germinate painfully slowly or not at all if the soil is too cool.
Ways to Plant Eggplant
Containers are an excellent choice if you’re growing eggplants for the first time. A pot lets you bring the plants indoors should the weather turn unexpectedly.
Containers have another benefit as well. Eggplants are actually perennials. If you have extra rooms indoors, you can bring them in when the weather begins to get cold in the fall so you can continue to harvest fruit.
When planting eggplant in beds, use mulch to help warm the soil before putting them in the ground.
Be patient. Even when growing eggplants with heat mats, seedlings are notoriously slow to germinate. In some cases, you may be waiting up to 2 weeks for seeds to sprout.
Your eggplant may seem small at first when it’s a seedling, but these plants can grow quite big. A large container is required even for compact varieties, at least 16-inches wide.
Plant seedlings 18 to 24-inches apart with 24 to 36-inches between rows.
Don’t forget to provide some support for your eggplants because, like tomatoes, they get large as they grow and the fruits can topple the plant over.
Caring for Your Eggplants
Water regularly, about 1.5-inches per week. Eggplants tolerate some drought, but they can't handle wet roots.
Eggplants are fussy about temperature. Although they like it hot if it gets too warm the blossoms on the plant begin to drop and fruits won’t set. That makes it tougher to grow in a location with wildly fluctuating temperatures in the summer. Where I’m located, the spring and early summer include days that are extremely warm with cooler evenings. In the late summer, the temps often stay hot day and night.
That's where containers come in handy. If you live in an area that has temperature extremes, consider growing in a pot that you can move around as needed.
I mulch all of my plants around the base, including eggplant. Mulching conserves moisture and regulates soil temperatures. Proper mulching also helps keep weeds away.
Feed growing eggplants with a compost tea every two weeks after planting. Give plants an extra boost before planting with a general fertilizer.
If you're growing eggplants close to other plants, you might find the large leaves begin to encroach on their space. You can trim the leaves without harming the plant.
I use sharp scissors to trim leaves to keep my beds neater since I plant tomatoes and eggplant close together. Late in the season, the leaves of both plants get a bit tangled, and I prefer to keep them nice and tidy.
Don’t plant in the same area as other nightshades were grown in the previous year. This includes anywhere you planted potatoes, tomatoes, or peppers.
Eggplant requires a long growing period, so it’s not ideal for succession sowing. That said, to ensure you always have eggplants ready to eat, choose a few varieties that have different maturity dates.
Common Problems and Solutions to Growing Eggplants
You may see a few issues when growing eggplants. Here are some of the most common and what to do about them.
- Not fruiting? Are you using a row cover to keep your plants warm? It may be hindered pollination. Cold temperatures may also prevent fruit from forming.
- Seedy fruit? You’ve left the eggplant on the vine too long.
- Poor growth? Your soil may be lacking nutrients, or it could be due to cold weather.
- Seedlings not germinating? The soil is likely not warm enough, or you’ve got stale seeds on your hands.
You probably won’t encounter too many pest issues while growing eggplants, but flea beetles are potential sources of ire. Flea beetles don’t typically cause enough damage to kill eggplants completely, but your plants won’t be too healthy if the infestation is significant.
These little bugs do the most damage to leaves and are capable of spreading disease, so even if they aren’t likely to murder your plants, it’s best to address the problem head-on. Use a natural spray to deter them or stop them with insect traps.
Hornworms are a garden foe you definitely want to get rid of right away since they can rapidly do a number on your plants. They’re more likely to head for your tomatoes but they aren’t picky, so they’ll sample tasty snacks around the garden.
For a small infestation, pick the worms off and squish them, or kill them by dousing them in soapy water. Parasitic wasps are a predator of tomato hornworms, so welcome them with open arms!
Aphids are known to attack growing eggplants. Blast them off the plant with a strong spray from the hose, and buy or encourage beneficial insects like ladybugs and lacewings.
Managecutworms, which feed off the stems and leaves of seedlings at the base, using diatomaceous earth or cornmeal mixed with molasses and Monterey Bt.
If you see tiny webs covering your plants, you might have mites. Control mites by removing infested leaves, or spray the plants with Neem oil.
Powdery mildew is a fungal disease that attacks eggplant. You can identify this ailment by the visible white spots it causes on foliage. Pick disease-resistant varieties to prevent infection in the first place and don’t overcrowd plants.
Another disease that eggplants may contract is verticulum wilt. You'll notice this disease when you see leaves curl, wilt discolor and die. Destroy any plants that are infected with this disease, because it can't be cured. It may be caused by poor crop rotation. Solarize any soil where infected plants grow.
Also, keep an eye out for blossom-end rot. Try to avoid this problem by maintaining consistent levels of moisture and feed plants calcium to prevent deficiency.
Cercospora Leaf Spot
Cercospora leaf spot can be controlled by rotating crops each year and avoiding overhead irrigation.
Companions for Eggplants
I like to plant my eggplants next to tomatoes and peppers since these plants have similar sunlight and water requirements. The following are some other good companions for eggplants.
- All types of peppers
- Spinach – plant it so that eggplant foliage provides shade in the hot summer months.
- Sunflowers will help you control cutworm infestations. Be sure to plant where the flowers won't shade your growing eggplants.
Harvesting & Storing Eggplant
Harvest eggplant when it’s reached its intended size. Most seed packets will provide you with this information. Not sure? It’s best to pick the fruit earlier rather than later. Leave it on the plant too long, and it may get tough and bitter.
In general, you can expect to pick fruits 16 to 24 weeks after sowing. One clue is when the skin of the fruit is shiny but hasn't started to wrinkle.
Be careful when harvesting eggplant. Many varieties have spikes that can prick the skin. I use scissors to cut the fruit from the plant, but some folks twist and pull to remove. I tend to avoid that for fear of toppling my plants by mistake or pricking myself on the thorns. Pulling the eggplant off the vine is not recommended.
Eggplant should be used quickly, within a few days. Store it in the fridge or cut it up into cubes and freeze it for later use. The texture will suffer, but it can still be used for sauces. Some folks also enjoy preserving eggplant by pickling it or turning it into chutney.
Eggplants are incredibly versatile in cooking. You can enjoy a variety of dishes with homegrown eggplant. From eggplant parmesan to scrumptious Thai sautéed eggplant, there’s a way to enjoy this meaty vegetable that will please even the pickiest palate.
It’s tough to find good quality eggplant at the supermarket, even in season. Growing eggplants at home ensures you’ll get the best tasting produce right at the peak of freshness. You may even convert a few eggplant critics. Now that you're armed with the right know-how, it's time to get planting. Let us know how it goes in the comments.