Eggplant is a fruit-bearing plant species of the nightshade family that grows wild in India and South Asia. From baba ganoush and eggplant parmesan to fritters and ratatouille, the meaty vegetable is prepared a myriad of ways in cuisines around the world. Because it's high in fiber and low in calories, eggplant is also popular for those trying to lose weight. Without too much struggle, you can grow your own crop of these unique, delicious plants.
Before heading to your local garden supply store, decide whether you'll be growing indoors or out. The most common eggplant varieties stretch to around 30 inches in height and 16 inches wide; however, some can grow up to 8 feet tall. Since eggplant thrives in warmer weather, raised garden beds or pots are ideal — the soil will heat quicker than if it were in the ground. To prevent your eggplant from becoming pot-bound, choose containers with a width and depth of at least one foot per plant.
Eggplants prefer a light, well-draining soil with a pH between 5.8 and 6.5. The best option is a sandy loam with lots of organic matter. Another common choice is a mix of one part perlite, one part vermiculite, and two-parts organic compost. If your only option is soil with lots of clumps and chunks, sift it through a mesh screen to even out its composition and remove undesirable components.
On average, eggplant seeds take between one and two weeks to germinate, but there are a few things you can do to have your seedlings on the shorter end of that time frame. Place your seeds a quarter of an inch deep in the soil inside a small pot or seed starter. Water the seed and cover with a plastic lid or ziplock bag to help it retain moisture, then place it somewhere warm. If you don't have a heating pad, the top of your refrigerator will do just fine.
For eggplant to produce large, healthy fruit, it needs a lot of light. Indoors, that can easily be achieved with properly placed grow lights outputting ample wattage — around 300 watts per plant. Outdoor plants, however, require a bit more planning. Your best bet is to choose a south-facing location where your eggplant can get at least six hours of direct sunlight per day. Even more is better, as it will ensure your plant has sufficient energy for photosynthesis.
Eggplant plants need about an inch of water per week. Naturally, this can vary depending on the temperature and humidity of the plant's environment. The water should permeate about six inches below the surface. When the weather is especially hot, check the soil a few times a week. If you don't have access to a moisture meter, press your finger down a few inches into the soil to see if it's especially dry.
Eggplants are heavy. Stake or place a cage around your plant to ensure its branches don't bend or break under the weight of the growing fruit. Additionally, you can attach the plant's foliage to the support structure to help increase airflow and allow more light to reach the lower branches.
The organic compost originally incorporated into the soil will go a long way to keeping your eggplant healthy. When the plant has well-established roots and begins flowering, you can add a balanced fertilizer such as a 10-10-10 NPK variety with equal parts nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. Don't feed your eggplant too much nitrogen in the beginning, though, because this will cause it to grow more foliage and less fruit.
Flea beetles are the most common pest you'll encounter in your eggplants. Removing debris from previous gardens is the best way to prevent them, and they do relatively little damage to mature plants. Powdery mildew, however, can do quite a bit of damage if left unchecked. Mildew can be prevented by watering the soil instead of the leaves. Additionally, ensure your plant is getting plenty of sunlight and air circulation.
Start checking your eggplants for ripeness three months after your seeds sprout. Although taste is subjective, most agree that harvesting early results in the best flavor. Press your fingernail against the fruit's skin. If it doesn't rebound to the pressure, it's ready to harvest. Using a sharp knife, cut the fruit's stem a little above the green cap.
A stroll through the produce section of most American grocery stores would lead many to believe that only one type of eggplant exists, but there are actually dozens. Japan alone has over 20 varieties. From the pale-skinned white eggplant to the long, narrow ones common in China and other Asian countries, the plant's flavor, texture, and especially appearance vary widely. Nonetheless, all are simple to grow and can generally be cooked in the same manner with delectable results.
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