Welcome to our fifth Get Growing entry. This series will span 12 months, and is designed to help aspiring vegetable gardeners get out of the kitchen and into the garden. On the first of each month, we will discuss one garden project for the novice vegetable gardener. Because we are located in Houston, Texas, our growing conditions differ from many parts of the English-speaking world. To help guide gardeners in cooler climates, our Get Growing partner is Daphne of Daphne's Dandelions. Daphne gardens in Boston, and she will be providing monthly advice for Northern gardeners (although her excellent site is a wonderful resource for gardeners everywhere). For Get Growing in April, Daphne discusses growing brassicas. Regardless of where you live, her advice is invaluable.
A BIG Seed Giveaway
We are very excited to offer a giveaway this month sponsored by Hometown Seeds. We will select one winner from our site, and Daphne will also select one winner. The prize is an amazing assortment of vegetable seeds from Hometown's Survival Seed collection, a total of sixteen packages of vegetable seeds ranging from beets and pole beans to butternut squash, cucumber, zucchini and sweet peppers. The winner will receive almost a pound and a half of seeds, specially packaged to keep a minimum of 5 years. All the vegetable varieties are non-hybrids which is wonderful if you like to collect and save seeds.
To qualify, you must live in the continental U.S. and you must post a comment here at any time between now and April 15th and mention the Hometown giveaway. You may also send an email directly to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you post a comment, please enable us to reply so we can retrieve your details if you are the winner. Seeds will be shipped directly to the winner from Hometown Seeds later this month.
Get Growing in April
April is a great time to start eggplant seeds in Zone 9. Eggplants are part of the solanum, or nightshade, family which also includes tomatoes, sweet and chile peppers, and tomatillos. These plants all love the heat, making them well suited to our hot, humid climate. You'll find that many vegetable plants sputter out when our long summer drags on, but eggplants remain extremely productive during even the hottest summer months. In fact, eggplants started now should produce constantly from June through the first hard frost (which occurred last year in late November). That's six months of harvesting pounds and pounds of eggplants, enough to fatigue even the most ardent eggplant lover by the end of the growing season.
How to Grow Eggplants
Eggplants are easy to start from seed. See our sidebar for our favorite seed suppliers. We prefer to start our seeds in pots, but direct sowing is also fine. The seeds are fairly small, so don't plant too deeply. Keep moist until germination, and then be sure to protect the seedlings from any late frost. Temperatures must be warm for the seeds to germinate, so you may consider starting seeds indoors if the ambient temperature is still chilly in your area. Here in Houston we're already hitting the high 70's and low 80's during the day making it perfect eggplant-starting weather.
Grow your eggplants in full sun in rich, fertile soil, and plant in a section of the garden that did not include solanum species last year to prevent the spread of disease. Because eggplants have a long growing season in Zone 9, the plants will become quite full and tall. Leave adequate space in between seedlings to accommodate this growth.
We are a bit eggplant crazy in our family and have grown as many as 24 plants at one time, but realistically, just a few plants will supply enough eggplants for a family of four throughout the summer. The plants should not have any significant pest problems, but keep an eye out for leaf footed bugs which like to congregate on the fruits.
Eggplant plants are quite attractive in the garden, with small purple flowers that are extremely ornamental. Once the fruits appear, they add extra beauty and color to the plants. For this reason, eggplants can easily be included in a flower border. Just be sure they're planted somewhere that receives a full day of sun, and grow the plants somewhere that is easy to access for harvesting.
Part of the reason for our excess when it comes to growing eggplants is the amazing variety available. Green, lavender, orange, white, purple, variegated. Long, round, oval, and bite-sized. It is truly hard to select just one type of eggplant to grow. In fact, last summer we grew 12 varieties, admittedly a bit much. But, we have a few favorites that we are happy to recommend:
- Thai Long Green -- this is our hands-down favorite. It is an Asian-style eggplant, with few seeds and a dense texture that cooks beautifully. The plants are highly productive, and the long bright green eggplants are gorgeous. These eggplants are tasty when picked while small, or when they reach maturity at 8 inches or more. The only drawback is that this variety is a hybrid, which means that you cannot collect and save seeds.
- Cloud Nine -- this is the most prolific eggplant we have grown. In fact, it became almost impossible to keep up with the never-ending supply produced by just 3 plants. The small white fruits glow in the summer garden, making for an attractive and easy harvest. If you wait too long, the fruits turn bright yellow. At this point, they are full of seeds and not particularly tasty, but the color is wonderful. This is another hybrid variety not suitable for seed collection.
- Rotunda Bianca Sfumata di Rosa -- the prettiest eggplant we grow. This is a round, Italian-style eggplant in amazing shades of purple, white and lavender. The fruits are so big and heavy, staking the plants is a good idea or your plants will start growing horizontally as the fruits weigh down the branches. This is an heirloom variety, great if you like to collect and save seeds.
- Thai Hybrid Tiger -- this is a bite-sized eggplant that matures to the size of a golf ball. Covered in green and white stripes, these are extremely ornamental in the garden before harvesting. They can be sliced like other eggplant varieties, cooked whole, or stuffed. As the name suggests, this is a hybrid variety.
Pollination to Increase Production
Eggplants have "perfect" flowers. This means that there are no female and male flowers to mess with, making the job for pollinators such as butterflies and bees fairly easy work. But we have found that eggplants respond particularly well to hand pollination, and productivity is dramatically increased. In addition, eggplant flowers are large enough to make this an easy and quick task. When your plants start flowering, you should read all about hand pollination.
What to do with Eggplants
When you see just how productive eggplants are in Zone 9, you will understand why eggplant recipes are so popular in regions with climates similar to ours. Grab any Middle Eastern, Italian, Indian or Chinese cookbook and you'll find a long list of recipes in the index under "eggplant". Eggplant is also popular in many French, Turkish, Thai and Vietnamese dishes to name just a few.
Eggplants are best when used soon after harvest, so don't pick them only to store in your refrigerator for a week. You can harvest your eggplants at any time from quite small to fully mature. Baby eggplants are actually wonderfully delicate and delicious. Harvest often to keep up your plants' productivity even if you're not dying to eat yet another eggplant dish. You'll have no problem finding grateful recipients if (and when) you are harvesting more eggplants than you can possibly eat.
Other Posts in the Get Growing Series
Determining Your Gardening Zone and Growing Peas
Garden Planning, Planting Methods and Seed Selection
Starting Seeds Indoors
Compost: What is It, How to Make it, How to Use It
Growing Snap Beans
Spinach, Row Covers and Peas