You either like eggplant or you don’t. I wasn’t a big fan of eggplant, but since eating fresh eggplant from the garden and knowing the best way to prepare it, I do eat it a lot more regularly. Also, there are varieties that are not so bitter than the usual black (purple) eggplant. Eggplants are generally a no-fuss. They do get eggplant rust in spring, but after much experimenting I have developed an enviro-friendly control for it.
Eggplants (aubergines or brinjals, whatever you prefer ) are native to tropical Asia and were first cultivated in India. Its popularity spread during the 18th century and is now grown in warm, tropical and subtropical areas worldwide. In cooler parts of the world it is grown in greenhouses (glasshouse). Eggplants have many varieties, including small green ones, medium sized white fruits and the large ‘Black Beauty’ we are all familiar with.
Solanum melongena, as the name suggests, belongs to the Solanaceae Family, which includes potato, tobacco, peppers, nightshade and of course tomato!
Again the purple colour of the fruit is brought on by the bitter tasting Anthocyanin, which can be visualised in a range of colours from red-blue, depending on the pH of the surrounding tissue.
The eggplant is considered a berry in botanical terms and its seeds are bitter tasting due to them containing an alkaloid, known as nicotine – not enough to do any harm though. Alkaloids are generally produced by plants to prevent herbivores from eating them.
Eggplants are easily raised from seed when the ground is warm enough after the last frost. You can let them germinate and grow inside, and then transplant outside once true leaves have formed. This can be done if the soil has not warmed sufficiently and to get a head start on the growing season. You can also buy seedlings from the local nursery.
Make a 1-2 cm hole in the soil, place a seed inside and sprinkle with soil to cover. You will have a seedling popping out of the soil in about 1-2 weeks. Thereafter, the eggplants grow quickly in a sunny warm spot. It is usually at this stage when they start to get eggplant rust, especially if it rains a lot. See my Pest Control post for a solution to your eggplant rust problem . The rust below is likely the Pearl Millet rust, Puccinia substriata, and infects eggplant during their aecial life stage (sexual). Whereas grasses, such as the Millet are infected during the fungi’s uredinial life stage (asexual) and the millet remains the main site for fungal population persistence. See here for a complete profile on Eggplant Rust!
Eggplants do need some training, but not nearly as extensive as for tomatoes. They need one sturdy stake tied to the main stem, this prevents any wind damage and assist with the weight of the developing fruits. I can not remember whether I heard this or read this as none of my reference books have it, but do not let your eggplant carry more than 8 fruits at any time. If more flowers develop, simply remove them so that you can get eggplant fruits earlier. If eggplants are removed, flowers can be allowed to set again, keeping the number at 8. Also, only let one eggplant flower occupy the same flowering stem, as illustrated below.
Just snip the smaller flower off
Eggplants do well in containers and this opens space in the main garden for larger and more nutrient hungry vegetables (such as cauliflower/broccoli). Container saucers must be kept full once fruit set starts to allow fruits to swell. Fertilising is also increased from monthly to every two weeks when fruit set starts. They love sun, so put them in a warm sunny spot with 6-8 hours of full sunlight.
Other eggplant tips
Eggplants are perennial and can be kept through the winter (in areas that have a warm enough winter with no snow) to fruit immediately once spring is in full swing. So what you can do is keep one through the winter and then plant a new one during the next growing season and then you can remove the older one from the last season when it has finished fruiting for the second time. This allows the new one to grow and will you still get eggplants from the old one.
Do not grab the eggplant by its calyx or sepals – the green leftovers from the flower – as they have nasty thorns that can do quite some damage!
The flowers and stigma detached quite well, unlike the tomato flowers that can remain on the fruit during set and will damage/scar the fruit.
Make sure to prepare the containers for the eggplants with a good amount of kitchen waste and pot ash. I feed them Biogrow Biotrissol (1/2 strength monthly during growth to fortnightly during fruit set) and the Talborne Organics Vita – Flower & Fruit 3:1:5 pelleted slow-release fertiliser (sprinkled every month), see Composting.
Harvesting & Storing
Eggplants are harvested once the fruit has a uniform purple colour. Do not leave the fruit on the plant for too long (exceeding I would say about 20 cm in length) as they become progressively bitter. But on the same note, it is better to ‘store’ the fruit on the plant and use immediately as they become bitter after being picked. If all else fails, the eggplants should keep well in the fridge (in a baggy with a few water drops) for about a week. – no freezing away, unfortunately, because the flesh is too tender – so you’ll have to settle for store bought eggplants in winter or just have it seasonally.
Just a few notes on preparing eggplants. If you want proper recipes, it is good to look at Asian cuisine, especially Indian and Chinese – they really know what to do with an eggplant . Otherwise, we have found that brushing the eggplant with a little bit of oil (rosemary or thyme flavoured oil complements the eggplant really well) and then grilling or roasting it, makes for a fine and sweet eggplant.
Seeds saving with all fruiting plants remains the same. Leave the last fruit on the dying plant to let it ferment (past eating stage) and ‘naturally’ prepare the seeds for planting for you. The fruit will ripen and go brown, yellow or orange (it really gets nasty ) and fall from the plant. Leave the fruit for another two weeks! Remove the seeds, rub between your fingers to separate and wash in a sifter. The seeds are placed in a little water and those that sink are considered viable and will be saved. The seeds are dried thoroughly on a paper towel for about a day and then store in labelled glass jars. The seeds will last for about 4 years.
The seeds are held in water at 50oC (122oF) for 25 minutes before planting to kill any diseases that may remain on the seeds.
I have Starke Ayres Black Beauty and White Star: good varieties in terms of resistance and fruiting.