Heat-loving Harvest

By Susan Littlefield

August is a time of bountiful harvest, especially for those crops that revel in the heat. Tomatoes, beans, corn, and zucchini are picked by the bushel. But other, less commonly-grown crops also thrive in the warmth. One of the plants that basks in the midsummer sunshine is eggplant. While it may start slowly when spring weather is on the cool side, by now plants are hung with their beautiful fruits in an enticing array of colors. Another crop that relishes summer temperatures is okra. In addition to an edible harvest, its pale yellow flowers and beautifully colored pods add beauty to the garden. Heat also brings out best in tomatillos, tomato relatives that produce cherry tomato-like fruits in a papery husk that add flavor to Mexican dishes.

Planning Ahead

Eggplant planning starts in early spring. To grow your own seedlings, sow seeds indoors about 8 weeks before before you plan on setting them out in the garden. Supplying bottom heat will help with germination. Keep seedling vigorous by making sure they don't dry out and moving seedlings to larger containers as needed so they are never potbound. Wait until the soil is thoroughly warm, all danger of frost is past, and nights are reliably above 55 degrees before planting outside.

Okra also needs warm soil and air to flourish. Southern gardeners can plant seeds directly in the ground once it's warmed up to at least 60 degrees. Northern gardeners can start seeds indoors four to five weeks before it's time to set plants in the garden. Soaking seeds overnight before planting will improve germination.

Heat-loving tomatillos are much the same. In warmer climates, you can sow seeds directly in the ground when the soil is at least 60 degrees. In shorter-season areas, start seeds indoors about five to seven weeks before planting out.

Here are some of our heat-loving varieties that are great for adding interest to your late summer harvests:

'Black Beauty' Eggplant (74 days) - The rich, purple-black fruits of this very productive open-pollinated variety may weigh as much as 3 pounds.

'Purple Panther' Eggplant (60 days) - This variety produces 8 to 9 inch long, smooth, non-spiny, blackish-purple fruits.

'Burgundy' Okra (49-60 days) - These attractive, 4 foot tall plants have green leaves and burgundy stems, branches, and leaf ribs.

'Clemson Spineless #80' Okra (55 days) - A home and market garden favorite with tapered, medium dark green pods.

'Cowhorn 22' Okra ( 55 days) - Very tall (6-8 foot) plants with green pods of variable lengths.

'Lee' Okra (50 days) - 6-7 inch long, dark green pods on a semi-dwarf plant make for easy harvesting.

'Annie Oakley' Okra (57 days) - The pods of this widely-adapted hybrid variety are slightly ribbed and spineless.

Growing and Harvesting

Growing Eggplant Give them full sun, warm, fertile soil, and make sure plants have a consistent supply of soil moisture for the biggest, best tasting harvest. Eggplants also need a steady supply of nutrients, so give them a half-strength feeding with a soluble fertilizer like fish emulsion every two weeks once they begin to set fruit.

Flea beetles love eggplant as much as we do, so be sure to keep an eye out for these tiny black beetles that jump like fleas when disturbed and can chew so many small holes in leaves, they look like they've been riddled with buckshot! Cover plants with row covers to protect them. Young plants are most vulnerable, but because eggplants are self-pollinating, you can leave covers in place all season if you choose.

Harvesting Eggplant Pick fruits young for the sweetest and most tender harvest, when they've reached about one-half to two-thirds the mature size of the variety you're growing. Select fruits with shiny skins that spring back when pressed gently with a finger. Use a knife or scissors to cut the tough stems to avoid breaking branches.

Growing Okra When direct-sown seedling are about 8 inches tall, thin them to stand 24 inches apart. Sidedress plants with fertilizer when they begin to set pods. Be careful when weeding near plants to avoid disturbing their roots. Make sure plants have a consistent supply of water. If plants in long-season areas begin to peter out in late summer, prune them back to 2 inches above secondary buds and give them a feeding with a soluble fertilizer. They'll put out new growth that will bear in the fall.

Harvesting Okra Cut pods when they are 2 to 4 inches long. Bigger pods will be tough. If some pods get away from you and grow too large, pick them anyway in order to keep the plant producing new pods. Pods taste best when used soon after they've been harvested.

Growing Tomatillos Space plants at least 2 feet apart; 3 feet is better in warm climates. You can let plants sprawl or support them in cages or with a trellis. If you choose not to support them, lay down straw mulch so ripening fruits won't rest directly on the soil.

Harvesting Tomatillos Pick the fruits when the husks that surround them turn from green to tan, but the fruits are still firm and green. Overripe tomatillos are tough and bitter.

Question of the Month: Yellow Leaves on Eggplant

Q: The leaves of my eggplants are covered with yellowish speckles and some are drying out and dropping. What's wrong?

A: Your eggplants are infested with tiny pests called spider mites. Related to spiders, they feed on the leaf undersides by sucking out the plant's juices, resulting in the yellowish stippling you've noticed on the leaves. You may also see fine webbing on the leaf undersides and where the leaf stalks join the stem. Hold a piece of white paper under a leaf and tap the leaf sharply. If you see tiny specks on the paper that begin to crawl around, you'll know you're dealing with mites.

Spider mites thrive in hot, dry weather and can have a midsummer population explosion if conditions are right. A light infestation can be controlled by spraying the undersides of the leaves daily with a strong stream of water from a hose to dislodge the mites. Heavy infestations can be controlled with sprays of insecticidal soap or neem.

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