All About Eggplant
Have you ever noticed that people have strong feelings about eggplant? They either love 'em or hate 'em. Me? I love 'em. They're a nice meaty vegetable that tastes great prepared simply on the grill or in more complex dishes.
Eggplant belongs to the Nightshade (Solanaceae) family of plants, as are peppers, tomatoes, potatoes and about 2,000 other vegetables and plants. It's tough to track down the actual origin of the term "Nightshade." There are lots of guesses out there - maybe they're more active at night than day or maybe it's an allusion to poisonous berries. If you have a definitive etymology for why these plants are called Nightshades, please post it in the comments - I'd love to know.
Many Nightshades are actually inedible or poisonous (even tobacco is a Nightshade plant). Nightshades contain alkaloids. Although these are considered toxins, solanine alkaloid, which is most prevalent in the fruit of Nightshades, is found in such minute levels that they are not toxic for you to eat. If you've ever had potatoes turn green, that's likely due to temperature changes and overexposure to light which increases the production of solanine. But don't worry, you'd have to eat about 20 lbs of green potatoes in a day to be impacted by the solanine content. There is much speculation about the effect Nightshades have on causing inflammation in the body, particularly in the joints. Nothing I've read supports that with scientific evidence and the Arthritis Foundation refutes the claim that solanine in Nightshades aggravates arthritis. I'll leave the debate for others, but for me...eggplant and other Nightshade vegetables are a welcome edition to my garden and kitchen.
I've grown different varieties of eggplant each year - this year I'm growing Classic Eggplant and Ichiban Eggplant. I'm growing them in wine boxes, as I have each year. They seem to do well this way with simple supports (like these).
Starting Seed Indoors
If you're starting eggplant from seed indoors, plant them in seed starting containers in a warm place about 6-8 weeks before the last frost date (or a couple of months before you intend to transplant them outdoors). I use seed starting systems that water from the bottom and have covers to contain the moisture - I find these work well, but there are many ways to start seeds. Eggplant seedlings won't need light until they've started to germinate, but I tend to start all of my seedlings under grow lights from the beginning with about 14-16 hours of light. Putting the seedlings by a window in winter isn't ideal as the temperature fluctuates too much and there isn't enough natural light in winter here in the northern U.S. for most seedlings.
Tip: Use seedling heat mats if starting seeds indoors to keep the temperature warm and consistent.
Plant seedlings in the ground after the threat of frost has passed. Eggplant doesn't like the cold, so wait a couple of weeks past the average last frost date. Plant the seedlings in healthy soil and compost - eggplant likes slightly acidic/low pH (around 6.5 pH) soil. Transplant seedlings into containers or in the ground/raised bed about 18-24 inches apart in rows 30-36 inches apart. Make sure the planting area has adequate drainage and full sun.
Tip: Don't wait too long to add your supports/stakes. If you wait too long, you may risk damaging the root system that has grown since initial planting.
Eggplant can be cut when the fruit is firm and the skin is smooth and glossy - anywhere from about 12-24 weeks from the time of transplanting. I just harvested the first crop of Ichiban this week, which is about 14 weeks after I planted them in containers. Cut them about an inch from the stem. I like to use them as soon as I've cut them, but they should keep for about 2 weeks in temperatures above 50 degrees.
Are you growing eggplant? Share your tips or dishes you like to make with eggplant in the comments.