Elegant Eggplant

Credit: Kevin Summers

Once tried, however, I discovered how good eggplant could taste, and I’ve been growing these gourmet treats ever since.

The Chinese were enjoying this tasty vegetable as early as the sixth century B.C. The first eggplant brought to Europe in the 12th century by Arab caravans was a small, white, oval-fruited variety – hence the name.

White, rose-coloured, striped, green, jet-black or pale to darkest purple, round, oblong, cylindrical or long and skinny – there is an eggplant for every cuisine. After trying several different types my favourite remains ‘Dusky,’ an early variety that never fails to produce a crop, even during rainy summers. The compact 60-centimetre plants bear pear-shaped, deep-purple fruits that grow to about 13 centimetres long. My second choice is ‘Rosita,’ a long cylindrical type (20 centimetres long) with rose-coloured fruits that attain usable size two weeks later than ‘Dusky.’

Being of tropical origin, eggplants like plenty of heat and will not tolerate chilling. I start the seeds in a light mixture of sterilized perlite and potting soil in mid-March. Germination takes five to 10 days and requires an average temperature of 26°C. If you don’t own heating cables for germinating seeds, pop the containers into a plastic bag and set them on top of the refrigerator to germinate.

Eggplant is satisfying to grow, as the large, sturdy seedlings grow vigorously right from the start. The drawback? Eggplants require transplanting into larger pots two or three times before they are ready to go into the garden. Plants that are allowed to become rootbound in small pots rarely amount to anything. They should be kept moist but not wet; over-watering may cause damping off.

Meanwhile, choose the sunniest spot in the garden and prepare a raised bed. Enrich the soil by working in plenty of compost and manure, as eggplants are very heavy feeders. Cover the bed with black plastic to warm the soil and to keep the weeds from taking over.

Don’t be in a rush to transplant your eggplants outdoors. Here on the Sunshine Coast, I harden the seedlings off by moving them from indoors to a cool greenhouse about the end of April, but cover the plants with a floating row cover at night. Gardeners in cooler areas should probably wait another week or two, depending on the weather. By late May each eggplant will be 20 to 30 centimetres tall and have six or more large leaves. Now is the time to move them into the garden, barring an unusually cold spring (nighttime temperatures should be at least 10°C).

There is no need to remove the plastic from the planting site. Simply cut a hole in the plastic about 30 centimetres in diameter for each plant. Scoop out some of the soil to create a hollow (to hold water and fertilizer), then transplant an eggplant into the centre. Space plants 60 centimetres apart in rows 90 centimetres wide. I cover the rows with a simple plastic cloche, wind-tunnel style, open on both ends. The plastic can be left in place as long as necessary to protect the plants from cool nights and rainy weather.

After the eggplants are established they should be given a feed of fish fertilizer every two weeks and a good soaking of water about once weekly. Very prolific plants must be staked to prevent the weight of the fruit from breaking the branches.

If growing eggplant sounds like a lot of fuss and bother, don’t worry; it’s only damp spring weather and cool nights that cause problems. Otherwise, eggplant is a trouble-free crop that rarely suffers from pests or disease.

Harvest eggplants when they are firm, young and tender. A soft fruit is usually past its prime, and if the interior seeds are brown (they should be yellow), the eggplant is definitely over-ripe and may be bitter. Using eggplant when they are small gives you the pick of the crop and stimulates continued growth.

Now that your eggplants look like small trees loaded with fruit, what do you do with them? Be adventuresome! There are countless good recipes to try. Some cookbooks refer to eggplant as “aubergine,” but whatever you call it, eggplant tastes great in stir-fried dishes and vegetable lasagna or other pastas. Or brush thick slices of eggplant with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and grill on the barbecue.

More than a culinary ingredient, eggplant make great container plants for a sunny patio or balcony. One plant in a large pot or tub, underplanted with basil, parsley and thyme, makes a beautiful and useful conversation piece.

Vonnie Kovacic is a strictly organic gardener who has developed a passion for starting plants from seed.