Growing Eggplant

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

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.

Eggplant and catnip growing together on the left, peppers and marigolds on the right

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.


Blogger Jo said...

This is my third year trying to grow eggplants (I'm in the UK so we call them aubergines). I haven't had any success at all previously, but wonder of wonders, I went into the greenhouse this morning and theres an open flower on my plant. Now I've just got to get some fruit!

8:25 AM  
Blogger ValHalla said...

I'm in your zone, so comparing notes. I planted an eggplant seedling purchased at the farmers' market back when it was still rainy and cool, but it took off when the weather warmed up. I have flowers now and no sign of insect damage--maybe because a firefly likes to hang out on it all the time (I read they are beneficial).

1:55 PM  
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11:57 AM  
Blogger AR said...

I tried eggplants last year and had pretty good luck. The plants developed fruits, however every single one disappeared, presumably to be eaten by squirrels. I might try them of these days.

4:58 PM  
Anonymous Michele at A House Called Nut said...

Those bricks are a fabulous idea. I have some extras lying around and might give it a go.

I just found your blog while looking for chive flower recipes, and I'm charmed. Looking forward to reading more. :)

6:51 AM  
Anonymous House Raising Desoto, TX said...

Very interesting process!

<3 Lindsay

2:34 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Congrats on getting your eggplants to grow and thanks for the tips! I'd love to direct Foodista readers to your blog, if you don't mind. Just add your choice of widget to this post and you're all set!

5:00 PM  
Blogger Valerie said...

Hi, I'm in the same region as you -- outside DC.

I bought eggplant plants at a garden store and they've really taken off. I do have some bug damage, but the plants are still growing. I have many blossoms right now.

My problem is that the first few blossoms that developed did not turn into fruit. They just dried up and fell off. Anybody know why that might be? I have lots of bees around, so I'm pretty sure they would have been pollinated.

11:20 AM  
Anonymous Heather's Garden said...

That's funny that you've had trouble growing eggplants. We bought an Ichiban seedling at Walmart last year and got a ton of fruit from it. Conversely, I can't seem to grow zucchini to save my life and everyone says it's the easiest thing to grow ever. I bought 2 eggplant seedlings at a nursery this year and they're blooming and look to be setting fruit. I started 6 zucchinis from seed and I'm down to 2 weak seedlings and no fruit set. Go figure.

10:09 PM  
Blogger said...

Hello Christa;

Your post about eggplant reminded me of when I first gardened with my wife some years before we were married. The first thing she helped plant was some eggplant I had started in a home made greenhouse. Spring in Vermont often has fits and starts and cold weather is not uncommon so we put down black plastic and planted away. As the day progressed it started to spit snow but my wife never gave up despite the cold. I guess I knew she would be around a while after she lasted through the planting. Anyway the eggplant really grew and we sold bushels at the local farmers market. The only problem was that the garden was right behind an old barn and the barn was home to countless snakes. Those quickly found the plastic to provide warmth and when you went to pick eggplant, the plastic moved and so did my gardening companion. Quite soon I became the designated "picker".

I'd recommend the plastic, good soil and some epsom salt/magnesium sulphate, 2 cups to five gallons of water (same for peppers and tomatoes). We never had a flea beetle problem but I notice they are devastating the leaf crops this year because of the constant rain.

Good gardening! Thanks for the post.

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener
Vermont Flower Farm

7:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the tip about the bricks! Good one!

2:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Looking very good! I'm very jealous you can grow aubergines outside - I'm confined to the greenhouse on this side of the Atlantic (

Happy eating!

6:00 PM  
Blogger Ellen Zachos said...

Best eggplant I ever grew was on the roof of my apartment building in NYC. The black tar rooftop kept things nice and hot and I don't think we have many flea beetles in the City.

If you're growing any herbs alongside your eggplant, I hope you'll consider entering our contest:

6:16 PM  
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