Eggplant Growing Tips
How Many Eggplant Varieties Have You Tried?
You may have reasons not to grow eggplant. It’s bitter and mushy, with huge seeds. The plants are fussy. You don’t have room in your garden for a vegetable the size of a small infant. But these are only true if you let them be! You can successfully cultivate this succulent crop with a few eggplant growing tips.
I have this conversation several times every year:
“I hate eggplant.” This is said with conviction and a half-turned back. Usually accompanied by a grimace.
I ask, “What do you hate about it?”
“It’s bitter and mushy. I tried cooking it and it was gross.”
“Oh. Well, what variety did you cook?”
(The eggplant-hater shrugs at this point.) “You know … eggplant. The kind in the store!”
“Well, that’s your problem!”
I believe the key to liking eggplant is eating the right kind. Techniques to cut the bitterness — cutting, salting, rinsing, cooking with a strong sauce—are unnecessary with smaller cultivars. New hybrid types avoid bitterness altogether. And even the infant-sized grocery store cultivars taste better straight out of the garden. With a few eggplant growing tips, you might convert multitudes of haters.
The English were missing out, weren’t they? Believing all nightshades were as poisonous as deadly belladonna, they simply did not eat them. Some edible nightshades were available before exploration into the New World, but the English left consumption to people from the Middle East and beyond.
Even when Spanish explorers learned how to grow potatoes in South America, potatoes didn’t feed many Europeans until after 1700. Hot peppers were accepted a little earlier, when a physician on Columbus’ second voyage brought chili peppers back and wrote about their medicinal effects. Soon people around the world learned how to grow peppers. Tomatoes came back at the same time. Italian physician Pietro Andrea Mattioli thought they were a new type of eggplant, which suggests that, by that time, at least the Italians had caught on how tasty eggplants were. The English grew tomatoes solely as ornamentals until the mid-18th century, about the same time they started eating eggplant.
And eggplants themselves? They’d been in the Old World all along. The plant was first recorded within the Chinese agricultural treatise Qimin Yaoshu in 544AD. By the 12th century, Arabic Spain grew them and Ibn Ak-Awwam provided eggplant growing tips within his own agricultural book. The English called them “auburgine,” and the cultivars in the European 18th century were small, round, and yellow or white. Like eggs.
The English did have reason to be cautious. Belladonna can kill with just a few berries because of the alkaloids atropine, scopolamine and hyoscyamine. The alkaloid solanine, present within all nightshade foliage, can kill if you eat enough of it. But it takes a lot. To get sick, you’d have to eat an eggplant leaf salad or run the foliage through a juicer. But the English weren’t willing to take the risk.
A Rainbow of Cultivars
Eggplant are purplish-black, right? Not necessarily. Most varieties within Europe and North America are huge, glossy, and dark with off-white flesh and large seeds. They get more interesting within India and the rest of Asia: large and small, white and green, reddish-purple or yellow. Some even turn bright red when ripe, though most of those don’t taste as good.
Shapes range from the teardrop “Italian” shape to elongated “Japanese” types. Thai varieties may be round and only a few inches in diameter or deeply lobed. And as horticulturists cross desirable traits, the new hybrids offer beautiful colors with classic shapes.
The huge, dark fruits we see in grocery stores are often Florida Highbush or Black Bell. Sometimes it may be called “American Eggplant.” It’s baffling why this cultivar is so popular because it’s often picked when it’s overripe. Of all the varieties that need salting to cut the bitterness, this is it. Maybe it’s so popular because people just don’t know better.
The variety most lauded by chefs is Rosa Bianca. It’s also my favorite. Roundish with three or four lobes, it’s bicolored white and lavender. Rosa Bianca grows to the size of a softball though it can be picked and eaten earlier. My favorite way to prepare this deep, flavorful and never-bitter type is to peel and slice it, brush both sides with olive oil, then roast. Serve topped with marinara and parmesan cheese for a low-calorie “pizza.” (Or just use it as a pizza topping. It’s amazing that way.)
My friend Kathy’s favorite is Fairy Tale hybrid, white with purple stripes. And it only grows a couple inches long. For a lot of eggplant in a very little space, try Fairy Tale. Pick them at any size, but don’t expect them to get very big. For a whimsical trio, grow Hansel, a purple variety that’s best when it’s three to four inches long. And Gretel, a highly prolific and pure white type which stays just as small. Saute them up with chicken and snow peas then serve over brown rice with a teriyaki sauce.
To impress your gardening friends, go for rare heirlooms. My garden this year will have Syrian Stuffing eggplant, deep black and an elongated teardrop shape, and the two-inch-diameter Lao White. Round Mauve, which fits its name perfectly, can reach baseball size and glows among darker varieties. Deeply lobed Cambodian Giant Green is emerald on top and white on the bottom, with white spots in the middle giving it a “netted” look. Thai Long Green is … well … long and green. Though Udumalpet is yellow with purple stripes when it’s ripe, it’s much tastier if eaten when the yellow is still white.
And, of course, I’ll be growing Rosa Bianca. It’s not a good year without Rosa Bianca.
Do I have the room to grow all these? I love eggplant so much I’ll make room!
Eggplant Growing Tips
If you know how to care for tomato plants, you already know most of what it takes to grow eggplant. They like the same soil, use the same nutrients, and even pair within the same cuisine. There are a few differences. Some eggplant growing tips can help you succeed.
First of all, eggplants hate the cold. Hate it. When I grow seedlings within my greenhouse, I set the tomatoes on the perimeter, nearest the walls, and the eggplant toward the middle. If I turn on supplementary heat, the eggplants sit right beside with the basil. This is because, while tomatoes get a nip of damage in a light frost, eggplant may perish. Before I learned this, I set eggplant seedlings in random places within the greenhouse. Temperatures dropped to 38. The tomatoes didn’t care. The eggplants slumped over, so sad. I thought they had died. When I warmed them up they stood tall again, because they hadn’t actually frozen. But they sure weren’t happy.
If you transplant eggplants into the soil and a cold front moves in, run out and cover them if it’s going to get below 40 degrees, just to be safe. Your tomatoes will be fine as long as it doesn’t actually freeze, but the cold stress can stunt eggplants’ growth.
Second, eggplants don’t grow as fast as tomatoes. Since my final frost date is May 15th, I start my tomatoes March 15th. The eggplant starts March 1st. In previous years, I’d start them at the same time. But I’d plant six-inch tomatoes and three-inch eggplants. Giving them that extra two weeks made a difference. Now, my seed-starting schedule is: eggplant first, hot peppers second, sweet peppers third and tomatoes fourth.
And third, tomatoes are resilient where eggplants may not be. If you forget to cage your tomatoes when you transplant, and have to bend or break stems to get the cage on, the tomato will recover. Treat eggplants with more care. Plant in a warm location where they won’t be damaged by human or animal traffic.
Nightshades do share one frustrating trait: when it’s too hot, blossoms won’t set. As with tomatoes, eggplant blossoms can get help with shade cloth or blossom set spray.
Another important eggplant growing tip: When fruit hangs heavy on the stems, pick it. This encourages more fruit. Roast, saute, or chop and toss into sauces. Mmmmm!
What happens if you grow too much? Never fear. Eggplant is easy to preserve.
You don’t have to blanch before you freeze. It will thaw floppy because the cellular structure has been destroyed, so cut it before freezing. If you like eggplant lasagna, slice lengthwise into “noodles” and freeze individually on waxed paper. Once completely frozen, stack within a freezer bag. Pull out only what you need to make the lasagna, keeping it frozen until you layer it within the pan.
Do NOT can eggplant in a water bath unless you’re making pickles. These are a very low-acid food. It’s also dangerous to pressure can a pureed dish like baingan bharta or baba ghanoush because the food is so thick heat won’t fully permeate. If you must pressure can eggplant, do it within water. Or chop into a thinner sauce like marinara. Freeze any puree.
How to Eat Eggplant
After you’ve followed your eggplant growing tips and you have a bountiful harvest, how do you serve it to eggplant haters? These are just a few ways:
Baba Ghanoush: A Middle-Eastern and Mediterranean dip similar to hummus but using roasted, pureed eggplant instead of garbanzo beans. My husband’s favorite.
Baingan Bharta: Vegetarian Indian curry made with eggplant, tomatoes, garlic, onion, and spices. Excellent served with fresh naan.
Eggplant Lasagna: Replace noodles with sliced, roasted eggplant and make a dish that’s gluten-free and much lower in carbs and calories. Peel the eggplant before roasting so you don’t have a tough skin.
Eggplant Masala: A healthy and low-calorie Indian dish using eggplant, tomatoes, onions, and spices including garam masala. Delicious served over rice.
Grilled Eggplant: Peel and slice then brush with olive oil. Grill with onions, mushrooms, zucchini, and garlic. Serve with a thin pesto sauce.
Moussaka: Greek and Ottoman casserole using eggplant topped with meat, tomatoes, cheese, bread crumbs, pasta, or a cheesy, savory egg “custard.”
Paninis: Grilled sandwiches with cheese and roasted vegetables are amazing if you add eggplant to onions and sweet peppers.
Pizza: Do this several ways. Either peel and roast eggplant slices to use on pizza or use the roasted eggplant slice as the crust.
Ratatouille: A French dish made of stewed eggplant, tomatoes, garlic, onions, zucchini, bell peppers and herbs. An excellent vegan way to enjoy late summer’s garden bounty.
Ragu: Though this pasta sauce is traditionally meat-based, try replacing the meat with peeled, chopped eggplant to make it vegetarian or vegan. The eggplant gives it such a solid texture you probably won’t miss the meat.
What would you add to this eggplant growing tips list? Let us know in the comments below.