The Practical Gardener

My gardening pal Frank McCarter doesn’t eat eggplant. Not that he doesn’t find it tasty, but he maintains that there’s no other mammal that eats eggplant, which he takes to be a solid indicator that we shouldn’t either.

Lord knows I understand the connection between edible veggies and mammals. This spring, my asparagus patch has been decimated by my neighbor’s adolescent dog, who has acquired an unfortunate taste for my favorite spring veggie. But that sad tale is best left for another day; today’s topic is eggplant, and regardless of whether the neighbor’s hound favors the meaty vegetable, I have absolutely no compunctions about growing it (not to mention enjoying it in Eleanor’s eggplant parmigiana).

One of the great things about attending gardening conferences is getting a chance to talk with people who live in other gardening zones. One gathering I still try to get to every few years is the annual regional conference of the Northeast Organic Farmers Association, which covers all the New England states. There are always some Canadians there as well, making it a great opportunity to talk to folks who have to push the limits to get production from their gardens. The last time I went, I spoke with a fellow at dinner one night who grows eggplants in big pots that he wheels into a heated greenhouse when cool weather approaches. He can do this because an eggplant will live seven or eight years if given the chance. He told me that one of his four potted eggplant bushes is nearly 8 feet tall and produces like mad.

I don’t recall what this north-of-the-border gardener did in the summer to increase the heat around his potted crop. I do know that eggplants are the most heat-needy species within the nightshade family (which includes tomatoes, peppers, tomatillos and potatoes). Eggplants, on average, require about three months of hot weather to produce. I’ve always had good luck mulching with black plastic, and I generally have added a circle of platter-sized stones around individual plants to kick up the heat factor

A Russian botanist named Vavilov, who did pioneering work back in the 1920s in figuring out the origins of cultivated plants, said the way to find the center of origin of a given veggie is to look for the region with the greatest number of varieties within the species. If that’s true, then eggplant cultivation unquestionably began in India. According to what I’ve read, that vast country is home to many hundreds of varieties; and allowing for diffusion over several thousand years, it makes sense that there are nearly as many in the warm parts of China and other Far Eastern countries.

The Oriental eggplants tend to be smaller and hardier than the Western varieties and quicker to mature, which makes them ideal for colder regions. When I was first exploring The Way, I invested much effort in procuring seeds and growing oddball Oriental eggplant varieties with unique shapes and colors and (reputedly) distinctive flavors. In the final analysis, however, they all taste pretty much the same when you bake them with a bunch of tomato sauce and cheese. The only thing Oriental about my choice of eggplant varieties now is the Taoist maxim, “The Great Way is easy for those who have no preference.” I’m always on the lookout for unique-tasting varieties of veggies that are eaten more or less unadorned, but when it comes to eggplant, I tend to grab whatever seedlings look healthy at the local garden shop and am happy with whatever comes up.

Having descended from the hotter parts of India, it’s little wonder that eggplants do very well in dry conditions, but they really thrive with regular watering, even if it’s only once a week. Too much watering is actually bad for eggplant, making the fruit taste bland; if that happens, of course, one simply avoids using them in delicately flavored curry dishes and adds more oregano and parmesan, after the fashion of blue-collar practical gardeners.

One pest that dearly loves eggplant is the flea beetle. To minimize their predations, try surrounding the plants with big tomato cages covered with a light layer of floating row cover. Besides providing a barrier that helps keep these pesky critters at bay, the fabric produces a warm microclimate that the eggplants just love. Eggplants are self-pollinating, so they don’t need reproductive assistance from insects.

Another eggplant-munching meanie is the Colorado potato beetle. Battling this critter takes persistent vigilance; patrolling daily and picking off the invaders by hand (and their eggs — oblong, yellow clusters under the leaves) will really pay off. And if you’re not big on eggplant, it’s worth growing a few around your potato patch to lure Colorado potato beetles away to a plant that they actually prefer.

Eggplants are a terrific addition to your garden — lovely to look at and relatively easy to grow. They hate cool weather and can actually be retarded from growing if you set them out before the ground has warmed up to more than 50 degrees. They’re fairly heavy feeders and need a periodic side-dressing of fertilizer, but they’ll pay you back with excellent production — and many steaming plates of yummy eggplant parmigiana.

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