Eggplant is easy to grow, and some varieties are so beautiful they can be used as ornamentals. The flowers are gorgeous, and the eggplants look like little (or big) molded sculptures. This makes eggplant a popular vegetable to grow in containers because you can always move them around for the best view.
Growing eggplant from seed requires some care, but it is worth the effort because there is a huge variety you can buy in seed form, while nurseries often carry only a few types. Seedlings can be transplanted to the garden in about two months, or they can be grown to maturity in a large container.
Germinating Eggplant Seeds
If you intend to transplant your seedlings to the garden, start the seeds 8 to 10 weeks before the last frost date in your area. You have more flexibility with container-grown plants, but the same general timeframe is recommended, to take advantage of the full growing season.
Start the seeds in small pots or cell packs filled with a bagged or homemade seed-starting mix. Place a few seeds in each cell or pot, and cover gently with 1/4 inch of soil. Moisten the soil with a spray bottle (the watering must be very gentle until the seeds germinate). Cover the planters with a plastic bag or film, and set the pots on top of the refrigerator or on a heat mat; the ideal temperature for germination is 75 degrees Fahrenheit.
Keep an eye on the plastic covering. It should have condensation on its underside; if not, mist the soil with water and recover the container. Once the seeds have germinated (typically 7 to 14 days), uncover the container and move it to a sunny window for maximum sun exposure.
Nurture your eggplant sprouts for 8 to 10 weeks before moving them to the garden or taking them outdoors in permanent containers. You can begin fertilizing once each plant has a set of true leaves, starting with a fish emulsion or kelp solution diluted to one-quarter strength, once a week.
Potting or Planting Eggplant Seedlings
Once the plants start to grow, it is a good idea to stake your eggplants before they get too large. This avoids disturbing the roots once the plant is established. Most varieties will be fine tied to a piece of bamboo or a wooden stake sunk deeply into your pot. You can also build a bamboo cage or use a coated metal tomato cage.
Repot eggplant seedlings into larger pots filled with potting soil or the same mix the seeds were germinated in. When the weather warms to daytime temperatures of 70 degrees Fahrenheit, harden off the plants by moving them outside for a few hours during the warmer time of the day. Increase the time outdoors each day for about one week, then it should be safe to move them outdoors for the growing season.
Watering and Fertilizing Eggplant
Eggplant needs a fast-draining potting soil, but also one that will not dry out too fast. If you are using a very light soil, you will have to water enough times during the day so that the soil does not completely dry out. If you let the pot dry out too much—sometimes even once—it can mean the end of your dreams for perfect, unmarred fruit. In the heat of the summer, depending on your pot size, that may mean you need to water your plant twice a day or more.
Your goal is to keep the soil moist, but not soaking wet. If you are growing eggplant in a pot or container, it is also a good idea to use some type of mulch, like straw or wood chips to cover the soil, which helps to keep the soil moist.
Eggplant requires a lot of nutrients. When potting mature seedlings or purchased starts, mix an all-purpose fertilizer into your potting soil at the beginning of the season. For general feeding, apply a diluted liquid fertilizer every other week during the growing season.
Keeping Eggplant Warm
Eggplants are sun lovers. Make sure they get at least six hours of unobstructed sun per day—the more sun the better. Also, eggplant, like tomatoes, are heat lovers. Diligently protect outdoor plants from cold in spring. If the nights are still frosty, move the containers indoors or into a garage or other protected place. If the conditions are too cold, the plants will fail to thrive.
Common Pest and Diseases
Prone to nasty, soil-borne verticillium wilt, this disease should not be a problem if you use a high-quality potting soil. This disease is fairly common in traditional garden soil. Also, consistent watering is key to continued eggplant health.
If you see tiny round holes in the leaves of the plants early in the season, you could have flea beetles, but again, this is not likely to happen with potted plants that use a sterile potting soil.
Eggplant comes in a wide range of sizes, colors, and shapes. It can be white, purple, almost black, bright green, and speckled. It can be round, long and thin, or pear-shaped. You will need to know what kind of eggplant you have planted to know when to harvest it. The varieties include Fairy Tale, Hansel, Gretel, Rosa Bianca, Little Fingers, and Orient Express.
A good rule of thumb is to pick eggplant when the skin appears glossy and the fruit has a little give when you squeeze it. You do not want to pick eggplant before it is ripe. Generally, pick it when it is on the smaller side.
There are so many ways to cook eggplant, really, there is no best way to cook it. But, if you want to experience the full flavor of a freshly picked garden eggplant, simply roast it. Leave on the skin and cut it into small pieces about a half-inch square. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Toss the eggplant with a little olive oil, some kosher salt, and pepper. Lay it in a single layer in a baking pan. Turn the pieces once or twice until the eggplant is brown and soft. You can eat it right out of the oven or cold the next day.