Garden to Table: Eggplant
Eggplant is a solanaceous crop, related to tomatoes, peppers and potatoes, that grow during summer. But in our warm Southern soils, the eggplant season typically spans from the end of the spring season up until the first winter frosts in early November.
Eggplant also might be the single hardiest plant we have come across — perfect in most U.S. climates. Farmers grow crops for varying qualities, including ease of growing, beauty, variety, display and customer demand. Eggplant fills all of these multiple characteristics with their bountiful harvests, hot-weather hardiness and varying scope of shapes, colors and sizes. The only real downside: a lack of high customer interest.
Luckily for us, not everyone is eggplant-shy. There are plenty of eggplant enthusiasts in our CSA subscription group and at market who get really creative with this spongy fruit. Some folks make mountains of ratatouille, others like to heap them on the grill. Or how about a fantastic Madras Pickled Relish from The Complete Book of Small Batch Preserving by Ellie Topp and Margaret Howard?
This year we planted our eggplant crop in a manner called conservation tillage, which allows us to give some of our fields a break from turning over the soil every couple of years in our crop rotation. We basically sow winter rye grasses the previous fall and roll them flat in early spring. Then we use post-hole diggers to make holes in the mulched mat of grass for our eggplant seedlings. And voila! We have planted our crop without disturbing the soil, and have also left lots of delicious, rotting roots from the folded grass for our soil microbes to eat up. Not all crops do well in this system, but eggplant has performed well every year so far.—Joe and Judith
We have streamlined our production to just grow one globe type, Nadia, and one long eggplant variety, Ping Tung Long. In years past, we have grown a tremendous diversity of eggplants including Rosita, Rosa Bianca, Prosperosa, Listada De Gandia, and Louisiana Long Green. For a fun, small-fruited variety that keeps on producing, try Fairytale from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.
What I’m Wearing
Whether the exterior is black, purple or green, globed varieties of eggplant deliver fluffy, creamy textures when cooked up. Their long purple or green counterparts tend to hold up well to high cooking, but retain a sinewy quality that delivers a tasty chew.
Eggplant could easily be described as light on the tongue and moderately sweet, but it lends itself best as a starchy supporting cast for savory, herbal or fat-infused recipes. We always tell our customers that eggplant is really all about texture.
How to Grow
- Start with young plants, or grow them from seeds in cells, in a warm, well-lit environment. We usually keep potting up our eggplant seedlings until their roots fill 4” pots. These larger transplants tend to outgrow the damage caused by leaf-chewing flea beetles.
- Due to their big size, we plant globed eggplant 18” apart, but only 12” apart for the long varieties, which tend to be less bushy. Make sure to give 3-4’ between rows for ease of harvest.
- Don’t put young plants in the ground until your last frost date has passed. If the flea beetle is a big problem, cover young plants with a woven fabric that lets through at least 90 percent of the light. Make sure to remove covers when you see the first blooms.
- Mulch them heavily right away. Some trellising support provides more harvestable fruit.
- No need to pick your plants too heavily. We pick our plants once a week, allowing the fruit to grow to full-size before harvest. However, make sure to pick them before the color dulls or grays, and the fruit becomes too tough.
- The biggest advice we can give is to not over-plant. Eggplant produces very well and over a long period.
Eggplant is the main attraction of the vegetable world: able to carry a meal on its own, say our foodie friends over at FD Dish. So instead of kicking it to the sidelines, make it the centerpiece of a healthy summertime meal. A fresher take on the classic eggplant parm, Giada De Laurentiis serves up a novel Eggplant Timbale bursting with the heady flavors of smoked mozzarella and Marsala wine. We’re also big fans of the medley of balanced ingredients in Giada’s Grilled Eggplant and Goat Cheese Salad, made with Japanese eggplant and toasted pine nuts. Feeling more Asian than Italian tonight? The try Food Network Magazine‘s Stir-Fried Eggplant, with just a touch of flavoring to play up the innate silky deliciousness of the versatile veg. The possibilities are endless when it comes to the Big E. Find even more eggplant recipes on FN Dish.
In this Garden to Table feature, farmer-bloggers Judith Winfrey and Joe Reynolds offer their tips for sowing, growing and harvesting. And then we kick it over to FN Dish for some delicious recipes using this seasonal produce.