By Ellen Barcel
Growing an eggplant is relatively easy on Long Island. Eggplants are in the Solanaceae (that is, nightshade) family. Cultivation of the eggplant is very similar to that of the tomato. It is a perennial in tropical regions but in our climate is grown as an annual. Like tomatoes, night temperature must be warm enough (65 degrees or more) in order for eggplant blossoms to set fruit. The plant will stop fruiting when the air temperature drops below 65.
Generally, the fruit is large and a deep purple or aubergine color. In fact, in some parts of the world, it is called aubergine, rather than eggplant. Size and color of the fruit, however, vary depending on the cultivar. Some eggplants produce a cream-colored fruit, making it really look like an egg, hence its name.
There are dozens of varieties of eggplant. ‘Jade Sweet’ is smaller in size and has a pale green-colored skin. ‘Black Stem’ eggplant is an ornamental with black stems and looks more like a tomato than an eggplant. ‘Cookstown Orange’ also resembles a tomato. It has yellow, nonbitter flesh. ‘Casper’ is long and slim with ivory-white fruit. ‘Clara’ has a medium-sized white fruit. There are even varieties with long, slim fruits such as ‘Mackinaw’ and ‘Orient Express.’ Eggplant flowers in general are light to dark purple with yellow centers, but some cultivars have white flowers.
Eggplants grow best in a soil pH of 6.3 to 6.8, which is only mildly acidic. Test your soil first, but generally, on Long Island you will need to raise the pH by adding lime. If you grow the plant in a large container with potting soil, this will be less of a problem since most potting soil is closer to being neutral.
Eggplant grows best in a sunny location with well-drained soil. Make sure you water sufficiently, several times a week, especially when Long Island is going through its periodic droughts. Fertilize as you choose: compost, composted manure, compost tea or commercial fertilizer. Remember that you are going to be eating the fruit, so don’t put anything on the plants that is not rated for human consumption. Some chemicals tell the gardener to stop a certain number of days before harvest.
Mulch to keep the soil cool and conserve moisture. Space each plant two to three feet apart as these can be large plants. Like tomato plants, which usually need some support, large eggplants need support as well. Use stakes or a tomato cage.
If you decide to grow them from seed, it is recommended that you start the seeds indoors two months before you will move them outdoors. Harden the plants off before moving them permanently into the garden, in late May. That means start them in March. Since so many houses on Long Island do not have enough indoor light (plants get very leggy without enough sun), you might want to consider buying several plants from a nursery instead.
Because the raw fruit can be somewhat bitter, eggplant is usually cooked. Eggplant parmigiana is made basically the same way as veal parmigiana. Remove the skin first, slice, bread and fry. Serve with tomato sauce and mozzarella. A favorite recipe of mine is a turkey and eggplant casserole. Eggplant can also be grilled — season and coat with olive oil.
Other plants in the nightshade family include tomatoes and potatoes as well as bell peppers. Tobacco and petunias are also in the nightshade family. Atropia belladonna (also a nightshade) is toxic so pull it out if you see it growing wild in your garden. While tomatoes and potatoes are completely edible (unless you’re allergic to one or both), the leaves are not. Never, I repeat, never eat potato or tomato leaves.
Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. Send your gardening questions to [email protected]. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.