Eggplant (Solanum melongena) is a warm-season crop in the nightshade family related to tomatoes and potatoes, so if you’ve grown either of those plants before, you likely already understand how to grow eggplant at home.
Botanically, eggplants are actually berries because the eggplant plant grows fleshy fruits with many seeds. Eggplant develops from the ovary of a single flower to produce its signature purple fruit. This plant is grown worldwide for its edible and spongy fruit used in various dishes.
There are many different types of eggplant plants that grow in various shapes and colors, although many of them are purple. Some eggplant varieties are purple with white stripes or completely white or green at maturity.
Because eggplant is a warm-season crop, it thrives in the southern United States, where temperatures remain warm throughout most of the year. Despite this, it is possible to grow eggplant in the cooler parts of the U.S., though they require special care to reach maturity.
Eggplant is not known for its nutritional content, but its spongy and absorbent fruit allows it to absorb flavors in various dishes. It has found popularity in many recipes like Eggplant Parmesan or as a meat replacement for vegetarians.
Continue reading to learn how to grow eggplants in any part of the country and find answers to common questions like, “How long does eggplant take to grow?”
How to Start Growing Eggplant
Make the most out of the eggplant growing season. You can start growing eggplant from seedlings or eggplant seeds started indoors in containers or from seeds directly sown into the garden.
Using eggplant seedlings is the easiest route, but it is expensive if you purchase cuttings from a nursery. Because eggplant likes warm weather, it may be best to start from a seedling to shave off time until it reaches maturity if your growing season is short. Seedlings also limit the eggplant variety you grow.
To plant eggplant seeds indoors in an indoor veggie garden, start four to eight weeks before the last frost date in your area. Eggplant roots are susceptible to stress from transplanting, so avoid using flats to start your seeds.
Another option to minimize disturbing the roots when you plant eggplant in containers is to sow your seeds in a biodegradable peat moss pot. When seedlings are ready to move into the garden, bury the pot and allow it to break down in the garden soil.
To skip seedlings and transplanting, start your seeds directly into the garden once the last frost for your area passes. Monitor the temperature of your soil to ensure it is warm enough to support the growth of your eggplant seeds.
Planting Eggplants Indoors
Plant seeds a quarter of an inch deep in potting mix for seeds sown indoors. Since eggplant requires soil temperature to remain between 75 – 90°F to germinate, use a thermometer to check your soil temperature and a heating pad under the pot to manage the temperature. If you keep the soil moist and at the proper temperature, your seeds will germinate in a week.
An advantage starting seeds indoors brings is that you control how your seedlings grow after sprouting. Eggplants do not require light to germinate, but they seek a light source once sprouts emerge from the soil. For plants growing outdoors, this causes them to stretch out and become weak.
When starting your plants indoors, position the pots under a grow light to prevent them from stretching for light. Sprouting under a grow light allows your young plants to develop sturdy stems. Once your seedlings grow at least four inches tall, it’s a good time to transplant eggplant plants into a bigger pot or the garden.
A week before transplanting, start hardening off your plants – conditioning them to their outdoor growing conditions. Bring your potted plants outside into a sunny spot for one hour every day. Add one hour each day to your plant’s time until it spends at least six hours outside receiving full sun.
When the frost date for your area passes, you’re free to begin transplanting them into their outdoor beds. Before transplanting, test the soil outdoors to ensure the overnight temperature is at least 60°F to ensure your plants thrive in the outdoor garden. Prepare your soil by amending it with an even amount of compost. Using your own compost is an even better organic eggplant plant fertilizer as you know all the ingredients.
Starting Eggplants Outdoors
When direct sowing into your garden, consider the eggplant sun requirements. Select spots for your eggplant where they’ll receive full sun. Eggplant requires well-draining warm soil with plenty of organic matter compost to help balance your soil’s pH. Eggplant thrives in soil with a pH between 5.5 and 7.0, and getting your soil tested ensures it is at the right level for your eggplant to grow.
Eggplant requires warm soil, preferably 70°F during the day, to thrive, and while gardeners in the lower portion of the United States won’t struggle to meet this requirement, if you’re living in the north, you may need to help your soil reach the optimal temperature.
Before planting your seeds, monitor the soil temperature to determine if it is warm enough. If not, cover the garden rows with black plastic to retain heat from the sun to warm the garden soil.
Once you’re ready to sow seeds, slice holes into the plastic to bury the seeds. Follow your seed packets instructions for spacing, but the ideal space between growing plants is about two feet – thin your seeds out as they grow.
When planting seedlings, refill the hole without burying the stem of your plant. Use shears to trim off any fruit or blossoms that develop before you transplant it. After planting or transplanting, add a support structure around your plant. A tomato cage works well to keep your plant contained without overlapping with other plants.
Thoroughly water your plants and fill in the space around the eggplant plants with organic mulch to help retain soil moisture. If your garden has a drip irrigation system, you may benefit from using plastic mulch which prevents soil from clumping.
Plastic mulch retains heat and moisture, which is beneficial for growing eggplant in a colder hardiness zone.
How to Grow Eggplant
As your eggplant grows, consider adding row covers over your plants to keep them warm. Row covers are beneficial in maintaining heat focused around your plants in cooler environments until the full heat of summer arrives.
Shielding your plants with covers does not affect their ability to produce eggplant fruit, as these plants are self-pollinating. Protecting your plants with row covers also protects them from harmful insect pests.
Water your plants with at least an inch of water each week. Eggplants that don’t receive enough water develop bitter-tasting fruits. While caring for your eggplants, avoid watering the fruit itself or any of the foliage as this doesn’t provide your plant with enough water and invites bacteria to grow on your crop.
As your plants grow, add a balanced fertilizer to promote further growth. If you perform a soil test and find that your soil is high in nitrogen, you may want to avoid adding certain fertilizers. Nitrogen-based fertilizers encourage plants to grow more foliage and direct less energy to grow fruit. It’s also possible to make your own natural eggplant fertilizer with little effort and few materials.
When it comes to diseases affecting the life of your eggplant, the fungal disease verticillium wilt is the most common and severe. Verticillium wilt affects the water-conducting tissues inside plants that originate from the soil.
Verticillium wilt overwinters in soil and can live in the ground for years, infecting many seasons of crops if left unchecked. Once infected, your eggplant suffers from stunted growth and fails to produce edible fruit before dying.
The best ways to avoid this disease are crop rotation, proper cleaning of your garden of any plant debris, and cleaning all tools between working with plants. When looking for new seeds, select resistant varieties marked with a V on the packet.
Anthracnose is another fungal disease that forms on ripe fruit. The spores of this disease are easily spread onto other fruit or to the soil through water splashes. Immediately remove any infected fruit and dispose of them to avoid contamination.
While growing eggplants, you’re likely to deal with pests that want to feed on your plant. Common pests for eggplants enjoy feeding on the leaves or stems. This type of damage may not harm plants close to maturing, but for young plants, extensive damage to leaves hinders your plant’s ability to take in sunlight.
Tomato hornworms are the caterpillar stage of the five-spotted hawkmoth. Despite its name, the tomato hornworm does not exclusively feed on tomato plants, although it commonly uses them as host plants. This pest includes many nightshade crops as part of its diet and enjoys feeding on the foliage.
These caterpillars are large enough to spot, so picking them off is the fastest way to keep them from damaging your plants. These pests are also preyed on by birds.
The potato beetle originally came from the area between Colorado and Mexico, but since its discovery, this pest has spread to nearly every state in the U.S. This insect has a bright yellow body with brown stripes and enjoys causing damage to eggplant and tomato crops and potatoes.
Flea beetles are small black jumping beetles that enjoy feeding on the leaves of plants. The larvae of these beetles like to feed on the roots of plants.
Avoiding all pests for your eggplant crops involves keeping them covered with row covers until they are nearly ready for harvest. Companion planting is another efficient way to protect your plants as plants like marigolds repel common pests.
Plants like catnip and thyme also mask the smell of eggplants from pests. If you find covers are not protecting your plants, apply Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) to your plants to kill pests.
A Bt mixture loses its potency quickly, so only create what you plan on using that day as the mixture is less effective after 12 hours. Spray both sides of the leaves in your garden and reapply at least once a week. Add dish soap to help Bt stick to the plant surfaces.
Note: Follow safety instructions listed on the container or packaging for Bt.
How Long does Eggplant Take to Grow?
There are several eggplant growing stages your plant goes through after planting. Each is recognizable by its defining visible features.
After sprouting, your eggplant goes through a seedling stage as it grows more leaves and then into a plant stage with additional leaf sets growing from the main stem. Following this stage, flowers begin to bloom, and then fruit grows until they become ripe with seeds.
The time that it takes eggplants to mature is essential to knowing when harvesting them. You can harvest many eggplant varieties before they reach their full mature size without sacrificing any flavor.
Harvesting eggplant early is necessary because these plants continue to grow and produce fruit, so the more you harvest, it relays the message to the plant to produce more fruit.
The time it takes for your eggplant to be ready for harvest depends on the type you plant, but most seedlings produce fruit 50 to 80 days after they are transplanted. If your eggplant grew from seeds, allow 100 to 120 days before fruit appears.
Ripe fruit won’t grow any larger and has glossy skin. If you cut into an eggplant to test if it’s ripe, you’ll find soft seeds inside. If there are no seeds, the fruit is immature, and if the seeds are hard and dark, the fruit is overripe.
When you’re ready to harvest eggplants, use scissors or shears to cut the eggplant stem, leaving a short stub attached. Eggplants last in the refrigerator for a week at most.
Growing eggplant is something everyone can do. Though eggplant is a warm-season crop, you can create the ideal soil conditions to grow and harvest fresh eggplant in nearly every part of the country with the right tools.
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