Ah, the smell of the grill fired up and cooking something delicious! Is there anything more summery than that?
But did you know that one of the most versatile and yummy grilled foods can grow right in your own garden?
Move over burgers, and make way for eggplant! Seriously, if you’re a fan of grilling, then growing eggplant is an absolute must.
But don’t be fooled: The versatile eggplant lends itself well to a number of cooked dishes:
- Stuffed with cheese, herbs or meat
- Roasted, either alone or combined with other veggies
- Baked into a casserole
- Combined with summer tomatoes and herbs for a homemade eggplant parmesan
And that’s just to name a few!
As if that weren’t enough reason to add eggplant to your garden plans, they’re actually much easier to grow than you may think. To top it all off, the color contrast between bright green leaves and purple eggplants also looks amazing.
In this article, you’ll learn how to grow eggplant, both in an in-ground garden and in a container. You’ll also discover the healthy benefits that eggplant delivers and some potential issues to avoid.
Let’s jump in!
Why Should You Grow Eggplant?
Eggplant is a member of the Solanaceae family, more commonly referred to as “nightshades.” Some close relatives include peppers, tomatoes and potatoes.
While eggplant is best known for its complementary flavor and meaty texture, this fruit (yes, it’s actually a fruit!) offers several health benefits as well.
Here are a few ways that adding more eggplant to your diet can give you a nutrional boost:
Packed with vitamins and minerals. Eggplant contains an array of healthy substances, like these:
- Vitamin K
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin A
Some of these vitamins and minerals are present in eggplant in trace amounts. But it always makes sense to take them wherever you can get them!
Assists digestion. Fiber is essential to help you maintain a balanced diet and improve your digestive system health. The average adult needs between 25 and 30 grams of fiber daily.
One cup of raw eggplant contains 3 grams of fiber. And since eggplant loses much of its volume with cooking, it’s not hard to clock 5 or 6 grams of fiber at a sitting!
May improve heart health. Fiber does more than just help keep your digestive system regular. It can also help lower your cholesterol by enhancing your body’s ability to get rid of it naturally.
Can help reduce cancer risk. Even though medical science is still learning exactly why, eggplant seems to contain elements that can help prevent or fight cancer cells.
Also, eggplant contains several antioxidants, which are substances that battle cancer-causing free radicals.
To sum it up, your health can benefit in several ways from the addition of more eggplant into your diet. And since freshly-picked eggplant has the highest nutrient levels, growing it yourself offers the best way to enjoy the full advantages.
Common Eggplant Varieties
Even though it’s native to the southeast areas of Asia, people all around the world cultivate eggplant in some form or another. Depending on the region, you’ll also hear it go by a few different names:
But all refer to one variety or another of the same nightshade fruit!
Here are some of the more common varieties you’re likely to run across:
Also referred to as graffiti eggplant, this one gets its name from its natural white and purple striped skin.
Sicilian eggplant is nearly universal in the sense that you can use it in many eggplant recipes.
As the most common variety in the United States, this is what you’re probably used to seeing at the grocery store.
Italian eggplant is very tender, and you’ll find it in many different Italian dishes.
Often referred to as American eggplant, the globe eggplant has a short, rounded shape.
It has much tougher skin and a meatier texture, so it holds its shape well in a variety of different recipes.
Also referred to as baby eggplants, Indian eggplants are known for being small and round with a tender texture.
These are normally used in stews, dips, soups, and even prepared whole.
Keep in mind that there are more varieties of eggplants out there, including some with violet or even white skin.
You may find these varieties at specialty food stores, but they’re often hard to come by. So especially if you’re interested in trying some of these lesser-known varieties, growing them yourself is the perfect solution!
What Supplies Do You Need to Grow Eggplant?
So how do eggplants grow, exactly? Given their oblong shape and sometimes-hefty size, it’s easy to picture them growing on a long, trailing vine, like squash.
But even though eggplant plants do get fairly large, they don’t form vines, and they don’t require a huge amount of space. In fact, eggplant can grow well in large containers, like a raised bed or even a 5-gallon bucket.
Now, let’s get into the supplies you need to start your eggplants off right!
A Full-Sun Growing Area
Like all nightshades, eggplants love the sun, and they also like their roots kept warm.
So how much sun do eggplants need to grow? A lot!!
Whether you’re planting in a container or in-ground, choose a spot that gets at least 8 hours of direct sun a day.
Eggplant prefers slightly acidic soil conditions, and a pH between 5.8 – 6.8 is ideal.
It’s a good idea to test your soil’s pH level. You can use a home test kit, or contact your local Agriculture Extension office for help getting a laboratory test started.
If your soil needs a little acidifying, use soil amendments to reach the pH level you need. Here are some good options you can purchase from Nature Hills Nursery:
Eggplant Seeds or Seedlings
This is where you can get creative and choose any variety you like!
If you want to start your eggplant from seed (which we’ll cover step-by-step in the next section) you’ll need to purchase your seeds at least a couple of months before you expect the last frost in your area.
If you choose to purchase pre-started seedlings, wait until your regional growing season starts.
Black Garden Plastic or Dark-Colored Rocks
Earlier, we talked about how eggplant is a sun- and heat-loving crop that grows best in warm soil.
Black plastic and dark rocks absorb can help you maintain a more constant warm soil temperature. These materials absorb and hold the sun’s heat, transmitting it into the soil. This can help your eggplant stay warmer and more comfortable even during the cooler nighttime hours.
Black plastic is easy to find at big-box stores, nurseries or online, and it’s usually not very expensive. If you choose to use rocks, look for ones that are about palm-sized. This size is big enough to retain heat but not so large that it will compact the underlying soil.
And if you’re growing your eggplant in a container, use one that’s the darkest color you can find.
Easily-Accessible Water Source
No surprise here: Your eggplants need water, and a lot of it. Either an irrigation system, a watering can or a hose gets the job done.
(But plan on getting an arm workout every day if you choose the watering can!)
Eggplant is a heavy feeder, meaning that it needs lots of nutrients to thrive and produce a good crop. This means you’ll need to get some high-quality fertilizer.
Whenever you’re growing edible plants, organic fertilizers are a good idea.
Compost and well-rotted manure are both good options, or use a commercial formula.
This option from Dr. Earth gets high marks from gardeners. The formula contains organic and non-GMO ingredients, and it’s also easy to apply.
Caring for Eggplant
Now let’s move on to how to plant eggplants and care for them properly:
How to Grow Eggplant From Seed
Using the healthiest seeds available gives you the best chances for a bountiful crop, and Botanical Interests is a fantastic seed resource.
Besides offering a nice selection of eggplant seeds to choose from, Botanical Interests also has a long-standing reputation for selling only the highest quality of seeds.
Once you’ve got your seeds, start them indoors about 8 weeks before your region’s last expected frost date. Sow seeds in a seed-starting tray according to the depth directions on the packet, and place in a sunny room that’s at least 70 degrees F.
Your seedlings should germinate in a few days. Transplant into the ground or a large pot once all danger of frost has passed.
How to Grow Eggplant From Seedlings
When shopping for eggplant seedlings, look for ones with dense, vibrant foliage, and pass over any that appear leggy or have early blossoms.
Eggplant does best with temperatures that are consistently in the mid to high 60’s or higher. Do not plant seedlings outside until it has begun to warm up and these temperature requirements are met.
If you don’t wait, you may find that your eggplant suffers from stunted growth and reduced output.
Keep in mind that eggplant gets quite large, so plant your seedlings at least 18 inches apart and leave 2 feet between rows.
It’s also a good idea to place a tomato cage around your eggplants seedlings or stake them soon after planting. Mature plants can easily collapse under the weight of their fruit, so they’ll need extra support to stay healthy and productive.
Aim to keep the soil around your eggplants moist, but avoid watering so much that the soil gets waterlogged.
Sufficient moisture is especially critical when your plant is flowering and beginning to produce fruit. If they don’t get enough water during this time, you may end up with small or misshapen fruit.
Either check your plants and water a few times a day, or automate some of the work with a soaker hose, like this one from Rocky Mountain Radar.
Like we mentioned earlier, eggplants consume a lot of nutrients.
Whether you choose to use commercial fertilizer, compost or manure, apply a layer around each plant twice during the growing season.
Apply the first layer when you plant your seedlings, and the second when your plants start to flower.
Potential Issues to Watch out For
Be on the lookout for harmful insects and plant diseases in your eggplant garden. You’re always better off to catch a problem early, so make sure to look your plants over every day.
Here are some common dangers your eggplants may face:
Flea beetles chew through plant foliage, leaving a latticework of holes in their wake. Although older plants can suffer from a flea beetle infestation, it’s particularly dangerous for young seedlings.
Often about 1-2 inches in length, tomato hornworms are definitely easy to spot! They have a voracious appetite for the foliage of nightshade plants, and they can decimate eggplant leaves in no time.
Pick off tomato hornworms by hand as soon as you see them. Don’t worry- the horn may look scary, but it can’t hurt you!
Aphids feast on the sap of vegetable and flower plants, literally sucking the life out of your plants.
Even though they’re tiny, aphids have strength in numbers. They form large groups that can stunt your plant’s growth or kill it outright.
Spray affected plants with insecticidal soap, like this one from Natural Guard.
This fungal disease attacks your plant’s foliage, causing yellow discoloration and leaf drop. If left untreated, powdery mildew can also spread to other plants in your garden.
Powdery mildew fungus loves moisture, so avoid splashing your eggplant’s leaves during watering. Also, don’t overcrowd your garden; placing too many plants close together reduces airflow and can result in disease.
If you see the whitish, granular spots that are hallmarks of powdery mildew, apply neem oil.
Ok, so you’ve successfully grown your eggplant into beautiful fruit-bearing plants! Good work!! Now it’s time to harvest your eggplant and reap the rewards of all your efforts.
Expect to have harvest-ready eggplants about 2-3 months after you plant your seedlings.
Harvesting your eggplant at just the right time can be a little tricky. Pick them either too early or too late, and you may end up with a bitter taste. But a good rule of thumb is that you’re better erring on the side of picking your eggplant slightly too early rather than too late.
Keep a close eye on you eggplants as they’re ripening, and harvest when their skins are still a bit glossy and indent slightly with gentle pressure.
Once the skin has become dull and lost its gloss, the seeds inside have begun to mature. You can still harvest and eat dull-skinned eggplants, but you’ve got far more potential for a bitter taste.
Eggplant stems are covered in prickles, so you may want to wear gloves when harvesting. Cut your fruit loose using garden scissors or pruners, and avoid squeezing or pressing on the eggplant itself.
Now all that’s left is to take your eggplant to the kitchen and get cooking or grilling!
It’s true that eggplant may not be the most common crop to grow at home. But with its health benefits and versatility in the kitchen, that needs to change!
Learning how to grow eggplant isn’t as hard as it may sound. With a little knowledge and practice, you just may become your neighborhood’s resident eggplant expert!
We want to hear from you! What’s your favorite way to eat eggplant? Do you have any other growing questions or suggestions?
Let us know in the comments!