High in fiber, low in calories and cholesterol free, the eggplant is a great edible to add to the summer garden. Although we think of eggplant as a vegetable, botanically it is a fruit.
In Northwest Florida, our long hot growing season is perfect for the eggplant. One of the most common problems encountered in growing eggplants is transplanting them into the spring garden too early. Cold temperatures below 50 degrees F injure this crop. Low temperatures tend to harden eggplants and stunt their growth. Since stunted plants recover very slowly, transplants should be set in the garden after the average daily temperature is above 70 degrees F.
The best temperatures are between 80 and 90 degrees F during the day and 70 to 80 degrees F during the night. Plant growth is curtailed at temperatures below 60°F. Gardeners in North Florida can put eggplant into the garden between mid-March and July. If the weather has been continuously warm, most varieties will reach their first harvest in 80 to 85 days.
Eggplants come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors. They run from large to lemon size. They may be long, pear-shaped, oblong, round or cylindrical. Their colors may be purple, yellow, white, ash, variegated, apple green, etc. Seed catalogs are filled with mouth-watering varieties and colorful options.
Varieties that will thrive in Florida include ‘Black Beauty’, ‘Dusky’, ‘Long’, ‘Ichiban’, and ‘Cloud Nine’.
‘Black Beauty’ is an heirloom variety. Introduced around 1910, this popular variety has rich flavored fruits that hold up well. Plump 4 to 5 inch diameter fruits are a beautiful, shiny purple-black. This open-pollinated type holds its fruit high above the ground.
‘Ichiban’ is an oriental type eggplant. This hybrid produces heavy yields 9 inch long by 1 ½ inch wide dark purple eggplants. Very flavorful and tender, it is excellent for Oriental dishes and for grilling and roasting.
‘Easter Egg’ is an unusual variety which produces small, egg-sized white fruit which turns yellow at maturity. This edible ornamental plant makes a fun and interesting addition to a children’s garden.
Eggplant requires a deep, rich, well-drained soil. Adding organic matter such as compost or aged-manures will help keep this heavy-feeder healthy. The soil should have a pH between 6.0 and 6.5. Always allow the soil to sit for several weeks prior to planting when adding amendments to the garden.
A constant, rapid growth is important for quality fruit production from young eggplants. Maintain vigorous growth throughout the growing season by keeping soils uniformly moist. Since eggplants will be in the garden for a long season, supply a sidedressing of a nitrogen-containing fertilizer about once a month.
Normally, eggplants are not staked, but a heavy fruit load may require some support later in the season.
Often, fruit grown in summer taste extremely bitter. The main cause of bitter fruit is lack of soil moisture. To help prevent bitterness, irrigate during dry weather. The green and white fruited varieties are usually less bitter under these growing conditions than the purple varieties.
The fruit may be harvested when they reach at least one-third to two-thirds their fully mature size. High quality fruit will have a high gloss to the skin. If you push in on the side of the fruit with your thumb, it should not spring back. Fruits that are dull, spongy and contain hard or brown seeds are overmature. Overmature fruit are of poor quality and should be cut and discarded to promote longer productivity. When harvesting, cut the tough fruit stems with a knife or clippers to avoid damaging the plant branches.