Eggplants are one of my favourite vegetables and feature in our summer garden every year. Homegrown eggplants taste so much fresher and nicer than store bought ones. Eggplants can be very expensive in supermarkets and greengrocers, so they are a valuable addition to the home garden. Eggplants are very versatile in cooking. They don’t have a lot of flavour in themselves, but are great paired with herbs, spices and condiments such as olive oil and black cracked pepper, which really create a taste sensation in your mouth. Eggplants can be used in Italian dishes such as pizza, pasta and parmigiana, added to Indian and Asian cuisine, served grilled in sandwiches and antipasto platters or simply thrown onto the BBQ. Eggplants are a little trickier to grow than tomatoes, but they are relatively disease resistant. Armed with the right information, you’ll be picking your own fresh eggplants in no time at all.
Traditionally, eggplants can be planted outside in New Zealand by Labour Weekend, which is a long weekend with a public holiday falling on the Monday after the weekend. Labour Weekend usually falls towards the end of October. This year, Labour Weekend starts on 21 October. While it’s natural to want a head start on the season, my advice is to not be in a rush to plant out seedlings. There is often a dramatic difference between day and night time temperatures at this time of the year and the weather can still be quite temperamental. Young seedlings are particularly tender. Once they’ve been hit by a sudden cold snap or exposed to consistently low temperatures, they never really recover. It’s therefore a good idea to wait until the beginning of November to plant eggplant seedlings into your garden, when temperatures are warmer. This way, the seedlings you plant out will be a bit more established and strong enough to survive any setbacks along the way.
Sowing eggplants from seed
As mentioned above, it’s too early to think about planting eggplants outdoors. However, I wanted to write a guide to growing eggplants now because it’s not too late to start sowing them from seed. In fact, the timing is perfect. It takes about eight weeks from the time of the germination of an eggplant seed to produce a plant that is large enough to transplant outside. It’s really easy to grow eggplants from seed and it allows you to grow unusual varieties which aren’t found in garden centres.
Eggplants can be started from seed indoors in July and August. In the past, I have started eggplants as late as September and even early October, but they will produce a crop later in the season, in March and April. For a continuous supply of eggplants from January through to April, successive sowings are recommended. Eggplant seeds need warmth in order to germinate. I germinate seeds in plastic punnets filled with seed raising mix from Gardn Gro. I like Gardn Gro’s seed raising mix as it is very fine in texture, enabling seeds to push through the mixture easily as they rise to the surface. I place the punnets inside plastic incubators which you can purchase from garden centres. I then place the incubators on a heat pad indoors and spray plants with water twice daily. If you don’t have a heat pad you can also use your hot water cupboard which will also provide seedlings with a warm environment.
How to care for eggplant seedlings
For new gardeners, those who don’t wish to start their eggplant seedlings from seed or if you’ve simply left it too late, plants are available for sale in nurseries from September onwards. Palmers stock a great range of eggplant seedlings. Look out for Gellert’s grafted eggplants in store in October. These large, established eggplants are grafted onto vigorous rootstock and will bear fruit without fail. They are very easy to grow, making them ideal for beginners. Gellert’s grafted eggplants are also suitable for gardeners in more temperate zones around New Zealand characterised by shorter, cooler summers. Awapuni also sell high quality, large grade eggplant seedlings delivered direct to your door. If you order 7 or more bundles of seedlings, delivery is free.
I plan to sell a variety of different eggplant seedlings in my own boutique nursery later in the season. Keep an eye out for details in my newsletter, on Neighbourly and my Facebook page as to when they become available. During October and November, I will also circulate updated lists of available stock in my plant nursery to subscribers of my free weekly gardening newsletter. To be added to my mailing list and receive these notifications, please email me at email@example.com.
Take care to keep plants undercover until early October as eggplants are frost sensitive. The weather can be temperamental in spring and the nights are often still quite cool. From then on, start “hardening them off”. This is the process of exposing plants to the outdoors incrementally, for example, for two hours in the middle of the day for the first week, increasing to four hours per day for the next week. Continue to bring the plants indoors at night. By the third week of October, it should be safe to leave plants outdoors overnight.
If you’re planning to grow eggplants from seed, you’ll find that they come in an impressive array of shapes, colours and sizes. Traditionally, eggplants are purple and round. However, it is also possible to find yellow and white varieties which are usually smaller in size but are incredibly prolific. For yellow eggplants, try growing Golden Egg (Kings Seeds) and for white eggplants, sow White Star F1 (Yates Seeds and Kings Seeds) and Ivory F1 (Egmont Seeds).
The most reliable and traditional eggplant variety in New Zealand is Black Beauty (Italian Seeds Pronto). Black Beauty resembles the shape of eggplants found at the supermarket and is a firm favourite in my vegetable garden each summer. For something a little different, try growing the Italian varieties Prosperosa, Tonda Bianca and Violetta Lunga from Franchi Seeds. Franchi is a range of magnificent heirloom seeds imported from Italy and supplied in New Zealand by Italian Seeds Pronto, owned by my friend Gillian Hurley Gordon. Last summer, I grew all of these varieties with great success. Prosperosa is an extremely productive variety with shiny, lavender-purple skin and medium sized round fruits. Tonda Bianca is an early to mid-summer variety which produces large round white eggplants with beautiful lilac shading. Violetta Lunga produces long glossy deep purple fruits that are perfect for grilling on the BBQ.
You may have also noticed long, light purple eggplants in ethnic greengrocers in New Zealand. They are normally imported from Fiji. For reasons unbeknown to me, these Asian-style eggplants are actually easier to grow and are more vigorous than their rounded and deeper purple counterparts. My favourite Asian-type varieties include Dok F1, Asian Bride F1 (please excuse the very politically incorrect name!) and Tsakoniki. Seeds for Dok eggplant are becoming increasingly difficult to source in New Zealand, so I plan to purchase seedlings from Awapuni as I have done in previous years. This year, I am also growing Purple Comet F1 (Kings Seeds) and Ping Tung (Egmont Seeds) for the first time, so it will be interesting to see how these new varieties fare for me.
To order seeds from the Egmont Seeds range, visit http://www.egmontseeds.co.nz/.
To find stockists for Franchi Seeds or to order Franchi Seeds directly from Italian Seeds Pronto, visit http://www.italianseedspronto.co.nz/. Those living overseas can source the wonderful Franchi range through their own local distributor online (for the UK see Seeds of Italy’s website http://www.seedsofitaly.com/ and for the US see Seeds From Italy’s website http://www.growitalian.com/) or find stockists in your home country.
How to care for eggplants
Eggplants need at least 6 hours of sunshine per day, so be sure to plant seedlings in the sunniest spot in your garden. Before planting eggplant seedlings, take the time to prepare the bed properly so plants receive adequate nutrition. Dig the area over that you wish to plant your seedlings in. Mix plenty of compost and some sheep pellets into the ground. I highly recommend Gardn Gro’s Wonder Nuggets, which are 100% organic and function as an excellent fertiliser. Rake the ground so that it is nice and level. Add some tomato fertiliser to each plant’s hole at the time of planting, to give plants a strong start to life. As eggplant fruits can be heavy and weigh plants down, some support is recommended. It is a good idea to stake and tie eggplant seedlings at the time of planting to avoid injury to the roots of your plants later on.
Eggplants can also be grown in containers. It’s actually my personal preference to grow eggplants in large black pots, as I’ve never managed to grow them successfully in the ground. The truth is out! My theory is that containers are ideal for such heat-loving plants. The temperature in a pot is warmer than soil in the ground, which can still be quite cool in late October and early November, when seedlings are traditionally planted. Black also radiates the heat. Be sure to use a high quality potting mix and use fresh mixture each summer. Gardn Gro’s Premium Potting Mix is ideal as it contains a slow release fertiliser which lasts for 8-9 months, a wetting agent and trichoderma disease protection.
Be sure to water plants generously every day, preferably early in the morning or in the evening. In November and December, plants are in their most active growing phase. Liquid feed eggplants weekly to encourage the growth of healthy leaves and the formation of flowers, which will develop into fruit.
Did you know that eggplants are self-pollinating? Bush movement from the wind is sufficient for pollination. Bees are therefore not important for the pollination of chillies and capsicums. However, hand pollination can increase your potential yield. Personally, I’ve never bothered as I’ve always found myself swamped with an abundance of eggplants from January through until the end of April.
Harvesting your eggplants
Eggplants need a lot of sunshine in order to produce fruit. Be patient. Always remove fruit with a pair of scissors or secateurs rather than pulling them off the plant. Enjoy!