How to Plant, Grow, and Care For Eggplant in Your Garden
Eggplant is a very common vegetable that's part of the nightshade family. These easy to grow veggies are quite popular in many gardens around the world. In this article, organic gardening expert Logan Hailey takes you through each step you'll need to follow to successfully plant, grow, and care for eggplant in your garden.
Whether cooking up a cheesy eggplant parmesan, roasted baba ganoush dip, or a simple grilled side, eggplant is a summer staple. These glossy purple vegetables are widely used in Italian, French, Indian, Mediterranean, Chinese, and Japanese dishes. In fact, they come in a vast range of colors and shapes that we don’t often see in the supermarket.
Eggplant (or “aubergine” in Europe) is simple to grow and a joy to eat. This warm-weather garden crop bears heavily and withstands even the hottest summers. In the kitchen, eggplant has a mild flavor that can readily adapt to the oil and seasoning of any dish. The spongy, creamy texture is reminiscent of squash.
Requiring just over two months to mature, eggplant is a fast-growing and rewarding nightshade vegetable. It’s the perfect veggie to add to your summer abundance of zucchini, tomatoes, and bell peppers. If you’ve been wanting to try your hand at growing one of the dozens of unique purple, white, pink, striped, or green varieties, spring is the best time to get started. Let’s take a closer look at everything you’ll need to get started growing eggplant in your own garden.
Eggplant Plant Overview
Plant Type Tender Perennial Grown as Annual
Family Night Shade
Species Solanum melongena
Hardiness Zone USDA 5-12
Season Late Spring or Early Summer
Maintenance Low to Moderate
Plant Height 1-3 feet
Fertility Needs Heavy Feeder
Temperature 60 to 85°F
Plant With Peppers, Garlic, Spinach
Soil Type Rich, Well Drained, Slightly Acidic
Plant Spacing 18 inch plants and 18-24 inch rows
Watering Needs High, Consistent
Sun Exposure Full Direct Sun
Days to Maturity 60-100 days
Pests Colorado Potato Beetle, Flea Beetles
Diseases Verticillium Wilt
History and Cultivation
Most of us think of eggplant as a shiny purple rounded fruit sliced up in lasagna or eggplant parmesan. But long before eggplant made its way to Italy, this nightshade-family crop grew wild across Africa for millions of years. It is suspected that it was first domesticated in Asia and later spread across the globe as an economically important food plant.
What is Eggplant?
Eggplant is a warm-weather vegetable known by the Latin name Solanum melongena. The edible portion of is technically a fruit. S. melongena is a tender perennial in its native Africa and Southeast Asia. However, it is most commonly grown as an annual in temperate gardens. As a member of the Solanaceae, or Nightshade family, they are closely related to potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and tobacco.
Also known as aubergine or Guinea squash, eggplant is an upright bushy plant that often has spines along its stem. The leaves are large and somewhat fuzzy, often with a purplish hue.
Eggplant flowers are vibrant purple and hang like pendants downward. From the flowers grow egg-or-banana-shaped fruits with glossy skins that can be purple, fuschia, white, yellowish, or striped, depending on the variety. The European varieties tend to be the plump, egg-shaped types whereas Asian and Middle Eastern varieties are elongated and banana-shaped.
Eggplant is used in a vast variety of global cuisines. It’s most well known for the signature eggplant parmesan of Italy, the Middle Eastern relish dip called baba ganoush, Greek moussaka, and the spicy Indian eggplant curry called baingan bharta.
Where Does Eggplant Originate?
Recent genetic sequencing of eggplant (or aubergine as Europeans call it) has revealed that sometime in the last couple million years, it split into two distinct lineages. One of the wild African type. The other into the ancestor of what we now know as domesticated Asian and European eggplants.
Believe it or not, the spread of eggplants out of Africa and into Asia was likely facilitated by African elephants and impala feeding on the Solanaceous fruits and pooping out their seeds as they migrated!
As the elephants carried on with their eggplant feasts, Southeast Asian and Indian farmers began domesticating aubergine plants several thousand years ago. The antiquity of eggplant is shown by its wide range of names in Sanskrit, Bengali, Hindustani, and Chinese languages. The oldest known records of eggplant come from a 5th-century Chinese cookbook.
These ancient eggplants were likely far more similar to the heirloom Thai, Chinese, and Japanese varieties we see at local farmer’s markets today. They were long, slender, and curved somewhat like a banana, with violet, fuschia, white, or dark purple skin.
As we’ll explore below, the diversity of Asian eggplants far surpasses that of European types. The delicately sweet flavor and denser texture of Asian types have converted even the most adamant eggplant-haters into aubergine lovers.
When Did Eggplant Come to the Western World?
Fast forward to the 16th through 18th centuries, when Moors carried the eggplant westward. Upon its arrival and establishment in Spanish cuisine, many Spaniards began calling them berengenas, or “apples of love.” This was based on the Medieval idea that eggplant could be used in a sort of love potion. Meanwhile, other European botanists called them Mala insana. This translates to “mad apple, because they thought eating the nightshade would make you go insane.
A similar sort of folklore traveled with eggplant to the Americas in the 1500s. But the crop did not catch on. For centuries, colonists were very suspicious of eggplant because it was a member of the Nightshade family (along with tomatoes and potatoes). Nightshades have many toxic relatives. Many Americans thought that eggplants, tomatoes, and potatoes were poisonous and even associated with the devil.
It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that large purple Italian eggplants finally became popular amongst European gardeners and later amongst commercial vegetable producers. Interestingly, eggplant was primarily considered an ornamental plant before it became accepted as a food crop.
Finally, sometime around the 1960s, the smaller, more slender Asian varieties made their way to the United States. Though we were quite behind in discovering the abundance of shapes, sizes, flavors, and colors of eggplant, modern gardeners have a whole world of eggplant samplings at their fingertips.
Eggplant is usually propagated from seed. The flattened nightshade seeds look very similar to tomato seeds because they are actually from the same genus (Solanum). They are extremely heat-loving plants, so the seeds need plenty of warmth to germinate.
For this reason, it’s best to start seeds indoors in seedling trays. If you don’t have a greenhouse or seed starting setup, consider purchasing starts from a local nursery to make your life a little easier.
How to Seed Eggplant
Eggplant seeds should be started indoors in flats or cell trays about 6 to 8 weeks prior to planting outside. Fill your trays with a high-quality well-drained potting mix and sow 1-3 seeds per cell about ¼” deep. Lightly cover with soil and maintain consistent moisture until germination.
The soil temperature should be between 80-90° until the seedlings emerge (use a temperature probe to check). A heating mat is the easiest way to ensure even germination. After the seeds come up, the soil temperature can be reduced to around 70°F. Anything colder than this will result in poor germination or stunted plants.
After the seedlings have 1-2 sets of true leaves, thin to one plant per cell. If you started in smaller plugs, you can up-pot the seedlings to 3” pots. This allows them to get larger and stronger before transplanting. Keep the ambient temperature above 70°F for adequate establishment.
After 6 to 7 weeks, eggplant starts should be large enough to prepare for planting. Be sure to harden off your seedlings about one week before planting out in the garden. You can do this by reducing the amount of water (but still maintaining adequate moisture) and lowering their temperature exposure to around 60°F. You can move plants to a sheltered outdoor space under row cover to allow them to get accustomed to night time temperatures.
Eggplants aren’t ready to be planted in the garden until several weeks after the last spring frost. In some regions, you should wait until early summer. The weather needs to be thoroughly settled and consistently above 60°F.
Eggplants are very tender and sensitive to the cold. Too much cold exposure will significantly reduce plant vigor and yields. Practice companion planting with your eggplants to help with pest and disease prevention.
How to Transplant Eggplant
Once the weather is right and your eggplant seedlings have been hardened off, you can prepare your garden beds for transplanting. Check that the seedlings are thoroughly rooted in their pots and have robust above-ground growth.
Use a garden trowel or hori hori plantain knife to make a hole in the soil that is slightly larger than the root ball. Grasp the plant gently from its base and wiggle out of the container, placing it in the soil. Backfill the hole, but avoid pressing down and compacting the soil. Eggplants really like plenty of drainage in their root zone.
Water the young transplants thoroughly with a diluted kelp solution to encourage quick establishment. Check that the water doesn’t pool up around the base of the plants. This can be an indicator of poor drainage that may cause problems down the line.
Most eggplant varieties do best when planted 18” apart in rows 18-24” apart. Check your seed packet to see if your cultivar is a compact or larger bush type. But, it’s a good bet that if you plant them at these distances, you shouldn’t have any problems in your vegetable garden.
Using Row Cover
Row cover should be used in growing zones 8 or colder to help protect eggplant from any late spring cold snaps. Use hoops or lay the row cover lightly over the top of the plants and secure with sandbags or landscape staples. This will add extra warmth while simultaneously protecting the young eggplants from insect pressure.
In addition, many gardeners prefer to plant in beds covered with landscape fabric to help cut down on weeds and maintain higher soil temperatures. Whatever you choose, remember that eggplant loves and needs the heat. If you don’t want to go through the trouble of using row cover or landscape fabric, just plant later in the season.
How to Grow Eggplant
Eggplants are heavy feeding, heat-loving crops that absolutely love rich, fertile soil and consistent water. Once established, the plants aren’t super needy or time-consuming. As long as you take the time to give eggplants the proper conditions to thrive, they will reward you with loads of glossy fruits.
Plant aubergines in an area of your garden that gets at least 6-8 hours of direct sunlight. Avoid areas that may get morning or afternoon shade from trees or structures. Eggplant is a true summer crop that thrives in the sunshine and heat of the south. In northern zones, it is especially important to make sure eggplant gets the light and warmth that it craves.
Eggplants need consistent irrigation all summer long. Automated drip irrigation or soaker hoses are the easiest way to maintain soil moisture. Constant irrigation is a must in extremely hot climates, which will result in the fastest-growing, fattest eggplants you can imagine! Landscape fabric or shredded leaf mulch can help conserve moisture at the base of the eggplants.
Eggplants absolutely need fertile, well-drained, rich soil that has been generously amended with compost. Be sure that your garden beds are loose and friable, with plenty of drainage and an abundance of decayed organic matter. A pH between 6.2 and 6.8 is ideal for eggplants to thrive.
Remember that eggplants need soil temperatures around 60-70°F. Use a temperature probe before planting to ensure that the garden beds have thoroughly warmed. Raised beds tend to produce the best eggplant because they warm faster in the spring and have better drainage.
Climate and Temperature
Like their potato, pepper, and tomato cousins, eggplants have absolutely zero tolerance for frost. These tender babies need warm ambient temperatures to thrive. Anything below 50°F can cause plants to drop their flowers, resulting in less eggplant parmesan for you! When in doubt, use row cover or plant later in the summer.
The ideal temperature is between 70 and 80°F. They perform best in USDA growing zones 5-12. Cooler zone gardeners may opt to grow eggplant in a greenhouse or under a mini low tunnel for better yields. This tender annual is eager to please as long as it has sufficient heat days. In warm zones 10 and 11, eggplant can even be grown as a perennial!
Eggplant is a hungry, heavy-feeding plant just like tomatoes and peppers. They require plenty of fertility to grow those dense fruits we crave in our favorite recipes. Use a balanced eggplant friendly fertilizer at the time of planting to ensure an abundance of nutrients. You can also apply a diluted fish emulsion before fruiting to give the plants a boost.
As a caveat, avoid over-fertilizing with nitrogen, as this can lead to bushy, leafy plants that only produce a small set of fruit. Balance is key! Eggplant thrives in soils with plenty of fertility and biological activity, so don’t forget the compost!
Some gardeners prefer to prune and stake up their eggplants so that they don’t fall over, however, I have never found this to be necessary. Sometimes the plants will be weighted down by a heavy fruit set, but they shouldn’t topple over unless you are in an exceptionally windy area or your soil is extremely loose. In any case, wooden stakes with twine or small tomato cages will do.
If you hate waiting for tomatoes and peppers to properly ripen, you’ll love eggplant because even the babies are edible and ready to go. Most varieties mature in 70 to 90 days. Tha majority of Italian or American eggplants are harvested at 4-6” for baby eggplant and 6-10” long for full-size. Asian eggplants are best pickled around 6-10” long.
Just be sure to pick regularly so you can encourage the plants to keep putting out those gorgeous violet flowers to produce more fruit!
Contrary to its bland public image in the grocery store, eggplant is a shockingly diverse crop with dozens and dozens of varieties of all shapes, sizes, colors, textures, and flavors.
From the long slender purple Japanese varieties to stout squatty Italian heirlooms to the classic Italian-American jumbo egg-shaped fruits and beyond, there is something for everyone to try in the eggplant world. If you thought you didn’t like eggplant, be sure to try some of these unique cultivars that may change your mind!
Best Italian Varieties
- ‘Black Beauty’
Best Asian Varieties
- ‘Asian Delight’
- ‘Orient Express’
Best Unique Types
Pests and Diseases
Similar to other nightshades, eggplants have a few issues with Colorado potato beetles, flea beetles, tarnished plant bugs, and Verticillium wilt. All of these issues can be dealt with organically and are easily prevented with a little bit of scouting, crop rotation, and preparation.
Colorado Potato Beetle (CPB)
These nasty striped or spotted beetles are major pests of eggplant, potatoes, peppers, and tomatoes. Their large round bodies can be found commonly feeding on potato leaves, but they quickly transfer over to eggplants as well. The damage results in large holes on the leaves that can quickly reduce yields or even knock out your plants.
Scouting and Hand-Picking
Colorado potato beetles overwinter in the soil, which is why crop rotation of Solanaceae family crops is so important. You will first notice CPB in the spring as the weather warms. The orangish-yellow eggs are laid on the undersides of leaves in massive quantities. They are fortunately very easy to spot, so inspecting under your eggplant leaves is a breezy way to prevent an outbreak from the start.
The humpbacked larvae begin their ravenous feeding shortly after hatching. They can really do some damage! The red-headed, black-and-white striped (or spotted) beetles begin showing up in late spring or early summer.
Both adults and larvae are fairly easy to grab by hand they don’t usually fly away. Once you begin seeing CPB, put on some garden gloves, get a bucket of soapy water, and start plucking them from your plants and drowning in the solution.
The easiest way to prevent CPB from the get-go is simply using row cover over your eggplant all the way up until the flowering stage. Once flowers begin to develop, you will have to remove the row cover to ensure they get pollinated. At this point, the plants are usually strong enough to withstand a little beetle feeding.
Nonetheless, I prefer to continue scouting once a week. Kids find it especially fun to “scavenger hunt” for the potato beetles and crunch them between their fingers or drown them in the bucket.
Flea beetles aren’t nearly as problematic as CPB on eggplants. Nonetheless, they do exist and can hop over from nearby brassica crops or weeds. Flea beetles are best prevented with row cover or treated with a diluted neem solution spray.
Tarnished Plant Bug (TPB)
Tarnished plant bugs (also called Lygus bugs) are mostly a problem in the eastern United States. The generalist pests attack over half of the cultivated plant species in the U.S., including eggplant.
The copper-colored oval bugs have bronze-tinted wings with yellow and black markings. Their eggs look like tiny yellow bananas laid right at the tips of young growing eggplant leaves. Once hatched, they suck the sap from the buds and flowers of eggplant, resulting in reduced or completely lost fruit yields. They can also transmit a lot of different plant diseases. Most of the damage happens mid-April through late June.
Symptoms may include dropping buds, flowers or fruit, browning foliage, or ragged-looking leaf margins. Dropped flowers are the most common sign for gardeners. Scouting for TPB is as simple as laying white cardboard under a few plants and shaking them to see if the light green nymphs or copper-colored adults fall from the plants.
Small populations typically aren’t too harmful, but if there is a large quantity, you may want to consider releasing a biological control agent like lacewing larvae or using an organic insecticide like horticultural oil.
If you notice your eggplant leaves yellowing, dropping leaves, or curling up at the edges, you may be dealing with verticillium wilt. This fungal disease is most common in the early season and spreads in damp, stagnant conditions. Resistant varieties, wider spacing, and plenty of airflow are the best means of prevention. Remove infected plants and practice crop rotation to keep verticillium wilt at bay.
Eggplant is an economically and culturally important food crop. The glossy-skinned fruits are used in a wide range of dishes. Eggplant should always be consumed cooked due to the potentially toxic alkaloids present in raw nightshades.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is eggplant easy to grow?
Eggplant is an easy-to-grow warm-weather crop that requires rich, well-drained soil and plenty of fertilizer. They enjoy consistent moisture and regular harvesting throughout the summer. The hardest part about growing them is protecting from cold weather and bugs. That’s why most gardeners prefer to use row cover on their crops.
How long does it take to grow an eggplant?
Most varieties mature in 70 to 90 days. This fast-growing nightshade crop produces fruit even more quickly in warm weather conditions. The quickest yielding eggplant varieties include patio eggplants, Asian eggplants, and stout Italian varieties.
What month do you plant eggplant?
Eggplant is best sown indoors in mid to late spring. It is most commonly planted into the garden around May or June once the weather has thoroughly warmed and settled.
Does eggplant need a trellis?
Eggplant does not typically need a trellis, but it may benefit from staking supports in areas that have a lot of wind or extra loose soil.
Eggplant is a dazzling and vibrant crop in the garden and the kitchen. As long as it has enough heat and water, eggplant will yield in great abundance throughout the summer. This culturally-loved classic is so diverse and unique that you won’t want to grow a garden without it! Just remember to keep your nightshade plants rotating around the garden each year so you can avoid any major pest or disease issues.