I will be the first to admit that eggplants are not my favourite vegetable to cook or eat.
I am just not all that creative in the kitchen and to me, the eggplant requires a lot of creativity to make it taste like, well, something.
So, I was definitely interested to learn if eggplants were a popular market farm vegetable, because I have been surprised before, ahem..radishes..ahem.
Low and behold, after checking out Pam Dawling’s Sustainable Market Farming, and JM Fortier’s the market gardener, I was surprised yet again and learned that eggplants are a crop that is becoming increasingly popular at farmer’s markets.
Eggplant is a warm-weather veg, so if you live in the right climate, or can create a micro-climate using landscape fabric and season extension, you might want to try to grow eggplants on your market farm.
Let’s learn from some expert techniques on growing eggplants from our friends JM and Pam, shall we?
Types and Varieties of Eggplants
There are two basic types of eggplant. The first is the classic large-fruited, pear-shaped dark purple kind, often with a green calyx (top end).
The second type is often called “specialty eggplant.” This includes a huge array of shapes and colours and sizes.
Asian eggplants generally have a purple calyx.
Specialty eggplant is no more difficult to grow than the classic kind, but maybe more difficult to market.
Most people seem to prefer the standard dark purple glossy pear-shaped kind.
On Pam’s farm, they grow Nadia which has 67 DTM (days to maturity) which is a variety they like a lot.
JM, on the other hand, grows a variety of eggplants including :
- Beatrice (round)
- Millionaire (Asian type, very early)
- Nadia (classic thick fruit)
- Fairy Tale (purple and white)
Your market will determine which cultivars are right for you. This will most likely require some experimentation and trial-and-error.
Eggplants benefit from fertile, well-drained soil that is high in organic matter, with a pH of 6 to 7 (ideally 6 to 6.5).
Average moisture with plenty of warmth and sunshine are also needed.
Ideal daytime growing temperatures are 70 to 85°F (21 to 29°C).
Eggplants grow fastest in hot conditions with constant irrigation. They are perfect candidates to be grown under plastic mulch, which enhances these effects.
JM and team grow their eggplants under landscape fabric which they burn holes in according to the crops spacing.
They usually grow 3 to 4 beds of eggplants per season and use a fabric that covers the whole area, thereby keeping weeds to a bare minimum.
Just like all of their other vegetables grown under plastic mulch, they water the eggplants by installing drip tapes set to a water clock.
Sow in the greenhouse 8 to 10 weeks before your last frost date, at temperatures of 70 to 90°F (21 to 32°C).
Starting too early is counterproductive, wait until you can guarantee a greenhouse minimum temp of 60°F (15.5°C).
Protect the seedlings from flea beetles, either in the greenhouse or on benches outside.
Flea beetles cruise at low altitudes, so setting your flats 3 feet above the ground may be all you need to keep them away.
To harden seedlings off for planting out, reduce moisture levels rather than drop the temperature, as this crop is easily stunted by cold temperatures.
Transplant the 8 to 12-week old plants one to two weeks after the last frost date.
The transplants should be 6 to 10” tall, without any buds, flowers, or fruit.
To help warm the soil, you could spread black plastic mulch two weeks before transplanting.
Avoid organic mulches at planting time, as they cool the soil.
Placing row covers on hoops is a good idea for new transplants, both to keep the plants warm and to keep flea beetles away.
Plant spacing of 18 to 24” in-row and 32 to 36” between rows are usually recommended.
Caring For The Crop
Once the soil is fully warm, you can cultivate and apply a layer of organic mulch.
Because the plants will be in the ground for a long season, and organic mulches break down, eggplant beds are a convenient place to drop off finished crop residues or weeds.
However make sure they are only healthy, non seeding material.
In hot dry weather, weeds can be pulled from the mulch and lay it on top to die.
Any stress from cold weather, disease, or low fertility will cause the skin to thicken and become bitter.
If your soil fertility is low, feed monthly with fish emulsion or side-dress with compost.
Try not to overdo the nitrogen or you will get lots of leaves but few fruit.
As with most crops, the critical time for irrigation is during flowering and fruit formation. Insufficient water during this stage can lead to blossom end rot, misshapen fruit, and reduced yield.
If your eggplant variety is tall and winding you may want to stake the plants so they are off the ground. This may produce better-shaped fruit as well as more upright bushes.
Growers in marginal climates for eggplant sometimes prune low branches and leave just two main stems for the ripe fruit.
This is because fruits on lower branches can rot where they touch the ground.
In the fall, the big plants can continue on maturing existing fruits, if row cover is used to keep the first few touches of frost off.
No new fruit will set once the temperature drops below 70°F (21°C).
The main pests of eggplant are flea beetles. These are small shiny black insects that jump when poked.
It should be noted that Nightshade flea beetles are not the same species as Brassica flea beetles and if you have one of these pests, you don’t always have the other.
Covering the soil with plastic mulch reduces this problem.
As well, beneficial nematodes can be bought to help prevent future attacks.
The technique that Pam uses on her farm for minimizing flea beetles while transplanting is to set out hoops for row cover and sticks to hold it down on either side of the bed.
One or two people transplant while a third person with a hose and spray head gives the plant a strong spray, directing the flea beetles out of the bed.
A fourth person follows close behind, unrolling the row cover and battening it down quickly.
Colorado potato beetle can also be a big pest.
Hand-picking will deal with small numbers of these pests.
Aphids, lace bugs, and red spider mites can be a problem, especially for young plants.
Check twice a week.
The most effective natural enemies of aphids are parasitic wasps, predators such as ladybugs, and fungal diseases.
A strong water spray can dislodge most aphids and get numbers down to a manageable level.
Mites are tiny and feed on the leaf undersides, so they are hard to see.
The damage they cause appears as a white stippling of the upper surface of the leaves, which later become bronzed in appearance.
Soap sprays will deal with mites, as well as aphids.
Eggplant is susceptible to several fungal diseases, each a reason to practice good crop rotation.
Remove and destroy all diseased plants and promptly till in crop debris.
Verticillium wilt is a soil fungus that attacks many crops. The leaves wilt and yellow and can even die.
A Phytophthora blight can affect infect eggplant, causing damping-off of seedling, spotting of leaves, colour of the main stem, fruit rot, and death of the plant.
It is only active above 86 to 90°F (30 to 32°C) and in wet weather.
Eggplant is mature 100 to 150 days from seeding or 65 to 85 days from transplanting.
Harvest once or twice a week.
Deciding when eggplant is ripe is quite a skill. This may be a task better suited to a more experienced grower.
It helps to know the usual mature size for the variety you are growing.
A general rule of thumb is to look for large shiny eggplants and squeeze them gently.
Ripe eggplant has some give or springiness to it. You may see a slight indentation remaining after you press on the side of the fruit.
Pam prefers to use pruners to cut eggplant rather than trying to pull it from the plant, as this causes less damage to fruit and plant.
Be sure to also pick any damaged fruit, any calyx parts remaining on the branches, and any overly mature fruit.
This will ensure that the plants keep cranking out more new fruit and don’t die.
An overly mature eggplant loses its shine and develops bronzy green streaks.
Later the streaks become golden patches.
Eggplant should ideally not be refrigerated. Below 45°F (7°C) it suffers from chilling injury, which presents as surface pitting and decay.
Large quantities will require forced cooling with fans. Do not use ice or chilled water to cool this crop.
Eggplants harvested in mid-summer can be stored at 54°F (12°C) for up to a week with 90 to 95% humidity.
When harvested in the fall under cooler growing conditions, it can be stored for up to 10 days at 46°F (8° C) and the same humidity.
Eggplants are definitely an intriguing crop but maybe one for more experienced growers.
As first-time growers, I think we are going to take a pass at growing this somewhat needy crop.
Its long DTM, as well as its fertilizer and water requirements, are just a bit too much to put on our plate this year.
However, it is a crop to keep in mind for the future, if our customer base dictates it.
Do you grow eggplants on your market farm? Let us know in the comments below.
Kathy & Jon
your friendly neighbourhood growers