Whether you call it aubergine, eggplant, or brinjal, Solanum melongena is interesting to grow and great fun to eat. Ben Vanheems has covered growing aubergines in cooler climates, but even if you have plenty of heat, aubergine can be a tricky crop. After growing aubergines in several different places, I have learned five valuable tips worth sharing.
1. Try growing small-fruited aubergine varieties
Just as petite cherry tomatoes are easier to grow compared to varieties with huge fruits, aubergine varieties that produce modest-size fruits are the most trustworthy types for gardens. Long, slender Asian varieties like ‘Ping Tung Long’ never disappoint, or you might like the shorter fruits of ‘Millionaire’, ‘Bonica’, or another oval-shaped aubergine.
Compact varieties that do well in containers or square foot gardens are great fun to grow, whether you try heirloom ‘Morden Midget’ the European favorite called ‘Pot Black’, or ‘Patio Baby’, which won an All America Selections Award in 2014. These bushy aubergine varieties produce numerous secondary branches as the growing season progresses, which gives them staying power in the garden.
2. Start seeds late
There is never a hurry to start aubergine seeds, because the plants grow best under warm conditions. Thanks to their broad leaves, aubergine seedlings grow quickly, gaining size faster than tomatoes or peppers. If you have a long, warm growing season and use a split season planting plan, you can start seeds in midsummer for a fall crop. Set out the seedlings out during a spell of cloudy weather.
3. Anticipate aubergine flea beetles
Growing aubergines would be ridiculously easy if not for aubergine flea beetles. These tiny hoppers make minuscule holes in leaves of nightshade family plants such as potatoes and tomatoes – but aubergine is their favorite food.
The first tip I ever learned for sidestepping flea beetle problems was to grow the plants on a raised table, in dark coloured nursery pots, for as long as possible. Container grown plants often escape damage, because aubergine flea beetles don’t venture onto decks and patios in search of host plants, and the dark containers help warm the roots on sunny days. I pot up the seedlings as they grow, and set them out when their roots fill a 4-inch (10cm) pot and the plants are quite stocky.
Aubergines are among the few vegetables that don’t mind warm roots, so they grow well in roomy containers provided the plants are given plenty of water.
Large, vigorous plants can outgrow modest flea beetle damage, and young plants are easy to protect with row covers made from tulle (wedding net), which keeps out most flea beetles but does not retain heat. When the plants begin to bloom, remove the covers so bees can reach the flowers. This is a good time to install stakes to keep the plants from falling over as they load up with fruits.
4. Invite native pollinators
Self-fertile aubergine flowers can be fertilised by wind alone, but buzz-pollination by bees improves fruit set and fruit size. Many of the best pollinators are solitary bees – carpenter bees, bumblebees, and little sweat bees – who vibrate the blossoms to shake out pollen. If pollinators are absent or you have only a few plants, you can hand pollinate them by dabbing a dry artist's paintbrush in the open blossoms. Or, touch the back of the blossoms with a vibrating toothbrush to simulate a visit from a buzzing bee.
5. Provide timely feedings
About six weeks after planting, when the plants bloom and set their first fruits, they benefit from extra nutrients. You can side-dress the plants with organic fertiliser or composted manure, or give them a deep drench with a water-soluble plant food. Fertilise again in late summer, when the plants are holding a heavy set of fruits.
Container-grown aubergines need almost constant feeding, though you must look out for excessive salt buildup, which can cause the plants to stop growing. Every two weeks or so, drench the containers with clean water to leach out accumulated salts. Fish or kelp based organic fertilisers leave behind fewer salts than most synthetic products.