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Best ways to grow and eat eggplant

Growing eggplant is easy where summers are long and warm. Where summers are short, varieties that mature quickly and produce medium to small fruits can easily be grown in containers. If you grow peppers, you can grow eggplant. The fruits may be purplish-black, white or all shades in between — some varieties even bear orange or green fruit.

Eggplant varieties differ in size, shape, color, growth habit and even maturation time.

Oval to oblong eggplants produce the large, oval-shaped, purplish-black eggplants seen in most supermarkets. Most varieties produce best in warm climates.

Japanese eggplants mature faster than oval eggplants, producing numerous long, slender fruits.

Small-fruited eggplants are the best type for compact spaces. Some varieties produce fruits in attractive clusters, which may be green, white, lavender or purple.

Novelty eggplants include unusual varieties from around the world, such as orange Turkish eggplant, green Thai eggplant, or egg-shaped white eggplant.

When to Plant Eggplant Start eggplant seeds indoors about six weeks before your last spring frost, or about two weeks after tomatoes and peppers. Eggplant seeds germinate best at temperatures above 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Bottom heat is useful in getting the plants up and growing. Keep these members of the nightshade family growing under bright fluorescent lights for 14 to 16 hours each day, and transplant them to 4-inch containers when they have three leaves. Move plants outdoors on warm, sunny days, but bring them indoors when temperatures drop below 55 degrees.

Set out hardened-off seedlings when they are about eight weeks old. When planning your garden, allow one plant per person, as a healthy plant will produce about 5 pounds of eggplant over two months or more. If you don’t have the time to putz with seeds, you can find eggplant at most greenhouses or garden centers.

How to Plant Eggplant Choose a sunny, well-drained site with fertile soil (pH between 5.5 and 6.5). To reduce pest problems, choose a spot where nightshade family members (eggplants, tomatoes, potatoes or peppers) have not been grown for at least two years. Two weeks before planting, loosen the planting bed and mix in a 2-inch layer of rich compost along with a standard application of balanced organic fertilizer or composted poultry manure and water well. In cool climates, cover the prepared bed with black plastic film to help warm the soil.

Allow 24 inches between plants and plan ahead for stakes or other supports. In most regions you’ll need to cover newly transplanted eggplants with row covers to exclude flea beetles and other pests. Once plants are about 14 inches tall they are tough enough to fend for themselves and at this height you can remove covers to admit pollinators.

Growing Eggplant in Containers Another way to keep pesky flea beetles at bay is to grow eggplant in containers. Compact eggplant varieties work especially well in pots. Keep your eggplants on an outdoor table to keep them out of range of ground-dwelling flea beetles. Plants produce best in 16-inch-wide pots or planters. Dark-colored pots help accumulate heat in cool climates. Growing eggplant in containers requires fertilizing as often as needed to maintain steady growth and good leaf color. Plants that need to be watered often also need to be fed more frequently.

Harvesting and Storage Begin harvesting eggplant when the fruits reach full size and pressing firmly produces a thumbprint that bounces back quickly. Underripe eggplants are too hard to take a thumbprint, and overripe ones are so soft that a thumbprint leaves a permanent bruise. Eggplant skins should be tender and glossy. Use pruning shears to harvest eggplants with their cap (calyx) intact.

Storing eggplant is easy; simply keep the fruit at cool room temperature or in the refrigerator for no more than three days before cooking or preserving.

Tips for Growing Eggplant Wait for warm weather to set out young eggplants, which will not thrive until soil temperatures rise above 60 degrees. Water deeply — provide 1 to 2 inches of water per week after plants are producing fruit. Allow the soil to dry slightly between watering to discourage verticillium wilt.

Midseason fertilization keeps eggplant productive until cool fall weather stops their growth.

Eggplant requires no pruning beyond removing old, withered leaves. As the plants grow tall, numerous side shoots will form along the plant’s main stem. These side shoots will bear flowers and fruits later in the season.

Eggplant contains fiber, potassium and folate. Become a culinary star by learning how to cook eggplant in caponata and ratatouille. Eggplant slices can be grilled or breaded. When fried, they make delicious veggie sandwiches or casseroles. To make a spread called baba ghanouj, grill or bake whole eggplants that have been pierced with a fork until they cave in. Purée the cooled pulp with garlic, tahini, lemon juice and olive oil. Raw eggplant starts browning immediately after it’s cut, so work quickly. Many recipes involve salting eggplant slices before cooking to remove bitterness, but this step is seldom necessary with young, garden-grown eggplant. Try as many recipes as you can to taste the goodness of eggplant.

The best way to preserve eggplant is to freeze slices that have been blanched, pan-fried or grilled. Nothing beats fresh, so enjoy it when it is in season.

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