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Summertime’s purple powerhouse

Eggplants come in solids and stripes, and all need full sun

Originally published in the U-T, May 6, 2011 at 4:37 p.m



Baba ghanouj, parmesan, roasted, curried or stir-fried with Thai basil … I can’t think of a way I don’t like to eat eggplant. Its soft, creamy texture and its chameleonlike ability to take on whatever seasoning or style I crave make it incredibly versatile and delicious.

I love growing eggplant almost as much as I like eating eggplant.

Huge, voluptuous purple Italian eggplants are a mainstay in my summer vegetable garden. I also grow ping-pong-ball-sized black/purple Indian eggplants, and long and elegantly curved Japanese eggplants. Some years back, I added the creamy-fleshed white- and-purple-striped white eggplant, courtesy of Organic Gardening magazine, for whom I test seeds each summer.

Eggplants grow on 2-to-3-foot-tall annual plants that do best when daytime temperatures are at least in the 70s, and nights are 55 degrees or warmer. Along the coast, that happens around now. Some gardeners start eggplant seeds indoors as early as March to transplant outside now. You can start seeds now, too, to transplant in six to eight weeks. Or purchase ready-to-transplant seedlings starting now to plant directly into the garden.

Eggplants require full sun. They like soil amended with both compost and worm-castings. Space plants about 2 feet apart. Mulch around the plants with aged straw.

Water regularly, using drip irrigation or a hand-held hose (and a lot of patience). Do not water with overhead spray. Fertilize with organic vegetable fertilizer through the growing season. Follow directions on the package.

Lovely lavender flowers develop as the weather warms into summer. Notice that eggplant flowers look like a larger version of yellow tomato flowers. In fact, eggplant and tomato, along with pepper, tomatillo and potato, are all in a plant family called Solanaceae. Their close relationship also makes them susceptible to the same pests, some of which hinder production. For that reason, it is best to have two garden beds. Grow tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and tomatillo together in one bed and alternate beds each year.

Potatoes take up considerable space, so if you grow them, I suggest switching them between their own pair of garden beds.

Ripe eggplants hanging on a plant are so beautiful that I often have trouble bringing myself to pick them. That said, eggplants are ready to harvest when fruits (since eggplants form from flowers and have seeds, they are technically fruits) reach mature size. Read the seed packet or plant label to see what size to expect. Mature fruits will be glossy and firm but not hard. If you aren’t sure, pick one and slice it open. If it is still greenish inside, it isn’t ripe. Each variety ripens at a slightly different time.

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