Elegant Eggplant

Eggplant has a rich history. It originated in India and was widely grown in the Far East. In Arabia it was the choice food of Sheiks and Shahs. High-society Chinese women would stain their teeth purple using eggplant skins to make themselves look more fashionable. In Europe during the Middle Ages, eggplant succumbed to the same fate as tomatoes. Since it was related to the deadly nightshade family of plants, many thought eggplant poisonous and shied away from eating it.

Even though eggplant's reputation has been restored, it's still more popular in India and Asia than in North America. That's a shame because eggplant can be used in many types of dishes: stir fries, salads, soups, and stews, not to mention grilled, and stuffed. As Americans get more adventurous in their eating habits, they are discovering international foods, such as baba ganoush, that feature eggplant.

Of course, as with any vegetable, the best quality fruits are those you grow in your own garden. Eggplants are as easy to grow as tomatoes, and with all the unusual varieties to choose from, eggplant is not only a tasty addition to your garden, it's a colorful one, as well.

Eggplant Varieties

Eggplant varieties are generally grouped by shape and skin color. Most gardeners are familiar with the large, purple-skinned, oval-shaped types, such as 'Black Bell' and 'Black Beauty'. These produce fruits up to 3 pounds at maturity. But with the availability of varieties from around the world, gardeners now can grow green, red, white, or striped fruits, as well as smaller-fruited varieties with either an elongated or round shape. Elongated-shaped varieties tend to produce more fruits in the heat than round or oval-shaped varieties. 'Megal' is a purple-skinned, cylindrical-shaped variety that grows to 6 to 7 ounces in weight and has excellent disease resistance. 'Harabegan' is an elongated, green variety that forms 7- to 10-inch-long fruits with few seeds. 'Raavayya' is a small (2-inch-diameter), round, reddish-skinned variety that grows on a compact plant. 'Rosa Bianca' features lavender and white stripes on 5- to 6-inch-diameter, round fruits. 'Cloud Nine' features a 7-inch-long, teardrop-shaped, white-skinned fruit.

Growing Eggplant

Like their relatives -- tomatoes and peppers -- eggplants love the heat. Don't rush to get them into the garden in spring. In northern areas, cover the eggplant bed with black plastic mulch two weeks before planting to preheat the soil. Poke holes in the plastic to plant the seedlings. Eggplants also like a fertile, well-drained soil, so amend your garden bed with a 2- to 3-inch-thick layer of compost in spring and work it in. Since they are beautiful plants, you might want to grow eggplants amongst your flowers. Amend each planting hole with a small shovelful of compost.

If starting eggplants from seed indoors, start the seed in pots filled with soilless potting mix eight weeks before the last expected frost date in your area. Transplant the seedlings into larger pots when the height of the plant is three times the diameter of the pot. Harden off plants one week before transplanting and wait until the soil temperature is above 60° F. to plant. Space plants 18 to 24 inches apart. Keep the plants well watered.

Side-dress plants monthly with an all-purpose fertilizer to keep the fruits coming. Protect the plants from any early and late cold temperatures with hotkaps or floating row covers.

Pests and Diseases

Eggplant seedlings are often attacked by black flea beetles. These small, hard-shelled insects hop when disturbed and eat small holes in eggplant leaves. If the infestation is severe, they can stunt a plant. Control them with sprays of insecticidal soap. Colorado potato beetles also love eggplant. Control this devastating pest by crushing the masses of orange eggs found on the undersides of the leaves, hand-pick the young and adults, and spray the organic product, Bacillus thuringiensis var. kurstaki (Btk) on plants.

Verticillium wilt is a destructive disease of eggplants. To avoid this fungal disease, plant in areas where nightshade-related plants, such as tomatoes, potatoes, and peppers, haven't been grown in the last four years.

The Eggplant Harvest

Eggplant fruits can be harvested when they're only a third of their mature size up until full maturity. Most varieties are fully mature 50 to 80 days after transplanting. To determine the optimum maturity, press your thumb against the eggplant skin. When it just barely leaves an indentation, it's time to harvest. Don't worry if you miss the prime harvest time. The fruits can stay on the plant for days after they're mature before they will turn bitter and be inedible. As long as the skin is still shiny, the fruit quality remains good.

Cut the fruits above the cap with a sharp knife. Watch out for any sharp spines on the eggplant leaves and stems. These are especially prominent in heirloom varieties.

For more information on growing eggplant in your garden, go to the Virtual Vegetable Guide on Willhite Seed Company's web site at (www.willhiteseed.com)


Wilting Tomatoes

Q. Not knowing any better, I planted my tomatoes within 50 feet of a black walnut tree. The plants are wilting badly. Can I transplant them to a better location and get them to continue growing? If I cut down the walnut tree, will the roots in the ground still affect any tomato plants in the future?

A. Unfortunately, black walnut toxicity will kill your tomatoes as well as related plants, such as eggplants and peppers. The majority of the toxin is exuded from the roots, so cutting down the tree will not solve the problem. In relocating the garden area, keep in mind that the tree's root system often extends out from the trunk about one and a half times its height and will persist in the soil for some years. If the tree has been cut and is no longer shedding leaves and twigs over the area, however, you might consider using raised beds to avoid the roots. In addition, maintaining a very healthy soil with ample amounts of organic matter also seems to help plants in the "somewhat sensitive" range fight the toxin.

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