Ask a Master Gardener: Eggplants offer beautiful, delicious addition to gardens

There is one plant that I used to plant but do not use very often: Eggplant.

Every year, I would put out a couple of plants, thinking I am going to find a recipe I like and last year I found one. Why did I keep growing something I do not eat? I can't resist the way they look in the garden.

I usually grow a variety called black beauty. These eggplants produce big purple flowers followed by large deep purple fruits. Who can resist growing something like that? And now I will eat them, too!

Eggplant seedlings should be started in late March. But if you would like to grow some of these beautiful (and edible) plants, they are readily available at local nurseries or other places that sell plants.

Eggplants are part of the nightshade group of plants, which also includes tomatoes, peppers and potatoes. They prefer warm weather, so the middle of May is a good time to put them out in Mid-Missouri. It's important to rotate where you plant eggplant and other members of the nightshade family to help prevent and avoid soil-borne pests and diseases. Wait at least two years between plantings of the nightshade family.

There are several "types" of eggplants to chose from. Globe eggplants (like I mentioned above) are traditional large purple or white oval fruits. They produce best in warmer climates. Small fruited eggplants are more compact and are perfect for small spaces or containers. Japanese eggplants have long slender fruits that mature quickly; a good choice for an earlier harvest. I tried the Japanese type last year. They were good but I am going back to large type this year.

Eggplants need lots of sun. Make sure the area you plant them in gets 6-7 hours of full sun per day. Eggplants do best when given plenty of room to grow, so space them about 2-3 feet apart. Like most garden plants, they will need about one and a half inches of rain per week, so be ready to water them during our hot dry spells. The critical period for moisture is during fruit set and fruit development. Mulching can help to provide uniform moisture, conserve water and reduce weeds.

Apply a balanced fertilizer (10-10-10) twice during the growing season. Side-dress when the first fruits are about the size of a quarter, using 1 ounce of calcium nitrate per plant. Side-dress again in about two to three weeks.

Most varieties will need a stake or cage for support, especially the varieties that produce larger fruits.

Flea beetles, which chew many tiny holes in leaves, are eggplant's worst pest. To avoid this problem, cover outdoor plants with floating row cover or dust the foliage with diatomaceous earth or kaolin clay (reapply it after rain). Interestingly, when eggplants are grown in containers that are at least a foot-and-a-half off the ground, the flea beetles don't seem to find them as easily.

Don't wait too long to harvest! Eggplant tastes best when harvested young and the plant's energy will go into producing new fruit if you pick while young. Check on your eggplants every two to three days once harvest starts. Fruits are ripe when their skin first fails to rebound to fingernail pressure. Harvesting takes some finesse, fruits can taste bitter if picked when under ripe or overripe. The skin of the fruit should look glossy and have a uniform color. If you cut the eggplant open, the seeds should be soft but formed. If the skin looks faded and the seeds inside are dark and hard, the fruit will taste bitter.

Japanese eggplant may be ready to harvest when the size of a finger or hot dog.

Cut the fruit off with a sharp knife or garden shears (the stem is tough) close to the stem above the green cap on the top, leaving about an inch of it attached. That cap can be prickly, so gloves are helpful.

I hope you will try some eggplants in you garden this summer, for the beauty if nothing else.

Happy gardening!

Peter Sutter is a lifelong gardening enthusiast and a participant in the MU Extension's Callaway County Master Gardener program. Gardening questions can be sent to [email protected]