One of the things I'm most looking forward to from my garden this summer is eggplant. We tried growing eggplant at the community garden several years ago, but we were terribly unsuccessful with it. At best, we got one marble-sized fruit from a plant that had leaves as lacy as a bridal veil because of persistent flea beetle damage. I came to the conclusion that it just wasn't possible to grow eggplant around here.
But I've since heard that others have had success growing eggplant in our Zone 7, and so I decided to give it another go this year. This time, I did more research and wanted to try out a few tactics I'd read about:
1. I sowed seeds early -- indoors in February -- so that I would have good-sized plants to put outside after any danger of spring frost had passed. Flea beetles are less attracted to eggplant foliage that has toughened up. They prefer to feast on young, tender seedlings--something I witnessed first-hand with my own past plantings.
Eggplants, like peppers, are tropical plants that need a long growing season. So I started my seeds under grow lights around the same time I started my pepper seeds, in February. Eggplant plants like to stay warm, so I used a heating mat under their pots. By the time I put my plants in the ground in mid May, they were about 6 - 8 inches tall.
Admittedly, they weren't the healthiest looking plants I'd ever grown. The long stay indoors and the extended hardening off process, repeatedly interrupted by this spring's cold snaps, made the plants suffer. But these were still the earliest and biggest eggplant plants I'd ever started with, and that's progress.
2. I put bricks near the base of the plants when I planted them outside. Somewhere I read that putting stones near the base of eggplant plants will help them stay warm. The stones absorb warmth from the sun in the day and then give off residual heat in the night, creating a cozy micro climate for these sensitive plants that don't like to be in anything below 55 degrees Fahrenheit. The plants have grown up enough now that the bricks are shaded during much of the day, so they probably aren't helping much anymore. Early on, though, perhaps they helped.
3. I made catnip the companion. Catnip is said to be a natural deterrent to flea beetles. I divided the catnip I grew last year (which, by the way, my cat wanted nothing of) and I put it to good use in the bed where I put my eggplants. The two companions are growing well--and I think they look nice together too.
So here we are today and I'm happy to report that I have my best-looking eggplant plants ever. There's even a blossom on one of them!
I do see a few flea beetles around, and there is evidence that something even bigger has been sampling the leaves, but the damage overall is far less severe than what I'd seen in the past when we sowed very young seedlings.
I can't say for sure if this conquering-of-the-bugs success can be attributed to any or all of the above tactics, but something seems to be working. We added mushroom compost to our soil, too, this spring, and that seems to have helped all of our plants come along. I just hope all goes well from here on out. We are already daydreaming about eggplant meals.