Eggplants are native to likely India, China, Thailand, Burma or someplace else in southeast Asia, where it is still found growing wild as a perennial. Eggplant has been used for thousands of years; and while mostly enjoyed for its edible fruit, it also has a history of medicinal use. Vegetative parts and roots from wild eggplant species, including Solanum americanum and S. insanum, have been documented as a sedative and in the treatment of skin issues, such as rashes and sores. Crushed seeds from multiple species were once used to treat toothaches. And the fruit of the common eggplant we know today, S. melongena, is said to have several potential health benefits, like alleviating liver issues.
Given its rich history, it is no surprise that this warm-season crop has become a mainstay in the kitchen. Grilled, fried, sautéed, baked, breaded, stuffed, as baba ghanoush or roasted, this versatile edible can easily serve as the main dish or stand alone as a side. With so many varieties to choose from and quite a few ways to include them in a meal, eggplant makes a great addition to any summer vegetable garden.
Eggplants like it hot, sunny, and fertile
In the Solanaceae family, right along with peppers and tomatoes, it’s no surprise that eggplants prefer hot weather. But, they like it even hotter than their popular cousins.
Raised beds are a great option because the loose soil is better for eggplant roots. Make sure you give them lots of room, they can get quite large. Eggplants grow well in containers, too. Use a 5-gallon container for each plant and fill with moistened organic potting mix. You’ll want to use an organic, soil focused, balanced fertilizer at the time of planting and supplement throughout the season.
Rich organic granular fertilizer is a good option for container plantings since, in my experience, compost typically results in waterlogged soil over time. Plain, unamended potting soil does not offer any nutrient value to the plants. Also keep in mind that containers dry out faster, so you will need to water frequently.
Eggplants typically grow to be at least 24 inches both wide and tall, so space appropriately to allow for airflow.
Eggplant thrives in full sun, more than 6 hours a day, and fertile, well-draining soil. Consider mixing a couple handfuls of compost into each hole as you transplant seedlings into the garden. The best way to ensure fertile soil is to buy excellent Nature’s Way soil. You can get your soil tested but buying and integrating excellent compost always helps. If you forego soil improvement efforts, keep an eye on your plants. If they are thriving, great! If they are not, and it’s hot and sunny just how they like it, it may be the soil. For the long term, encourage healthy soil by rotating crops, diversifying your plantings, and adding a couple of inches of fresh organic compost each year. In the short term, consider applying 3 pounds of good organic fertilizer to every 100 square feet of planted area.
Getting the most out of eggplants
While eggplants are moderately heavy feeders, you can overdo it on the nitrogen. If lush green leaves are out of control but there are very few flowers, too much nitrogen fertilizer may be the issue.
Cool weather is the nemesis of the eggplant grower. If temperatures are consistently at or below 60°F, there won’t be much of a harvest. The sweet spot for fruit production is between 75 and 90°F. And even though eggplant is known to thrive in hot weather, if temperatures are steadily above 95°F, plants will stop setting fruit. Don’t give up, the fall will bring a whole new crop.
Be mindful to water strategically, especially when fruits are developing. Water deeply inconsistently, to a depth of 6 inches or more. This trains the plant to develop deeper roots. Use high quality mulch as well, this is different than other vegetable crops and it will help maintain moisture levels.
Fruits are heavy, so cage plants from the beginning in the same way you would cage a tomato. This will keep leaves off the ground, which will help to reduce chances for disease and keep fruits from becoming deformed. Eggplants, much like tomatoes and peppers, have flowers with both male and female parts and are considered self-pollinating. However, wind and pollinators can only help. With that said, give plants a little shake here and there to further improve chances for pollination.
Pests and diseases to know about
Flea beetles especially have a real talent for finding any and every eggplant you grow. Okay – so that might be dramatic. But seriously, their tiny holes discoloring the leaves let you know they have found your stash. But with some perseverance, and some horticultural Molasses, they are easily controlled. Other pests that like to make a meal out of eggplant include cutworms and spider mites. Cutworms, which are moth larvae, do their damage at night, which is obvious come morning. Spider mites can barely even be seen and hide on the undersides of leaves. If you turn over a leaf and see a white web-like residue, it is likely spider mites.
Fortunately, healthy plants can handle a few unwanted critters. Grow them under row covers until they are large enough to withstand damage. If action must be taken, consider horticultural molasses, diatomaceous earth or insecticidal soaps.
As for diseases, prevention is key. Powdery mildew and verticillium wilt have been known to affect eggplant and are difficult to control once present. Verticillium wilt is caused by soil-borne fungi that can survive for more than ten years, even without a host present. Once infected, remove plants immediately; and drench area with Humic Acid. Avoid growing host plants, which include other members of the Solonaceae family like tomatoes and peppers, in the impacted area for at least three years.
Worth the effort
Have you grown eggplant before? What’s your secret to success? Let us know and connect with us at HomeshowGardenPros.com.