Best Way to Grow Aubergines
Aubergine, or eggplant, is a fine plant to grow. It is beautiful, and its fruits have a high nutritional value. Long before the egg-shaped fruits appear, the plant produces gorgeous flowers, long-lasting and as attractive as any houseplant.
The aubergine is usually among the more expensive of market vegetables, so if you have a taste for it, your own crop could represent a considerable saving. Essential ingredients for making ratatouille and moussaka, aubergines are also excellent as a side vegetable, plainly cooked or spiced, and make a useful addition to casserole dishes and stews.
The plants need careful cultivation, but are not difficult to grow indoors. They make a handsome feature, too, especially through the flowering period and during the ripening of the glossy purple-skinned fruits.
Selecting aubergines for indoor growing
Black Prince is an all-female hybrid which can and does grow to 3ft (90cm) high. The special feature of this cultivar is that the fruits can be left on the plant for several weeks without becoming overripe or softened – a useful point if the harvesting time coincides with the holiday season. Another Fl hybrid, Black Enorma, produces fewer fruits, but each can weigh up to 1-1/2 lb (675g). Rather surprisingly, this plant is not as tall as Black Prince; 2ft (60cm) is the average height. But in both cases, the weight of the fruits is such that the plant will need supporting with canes and ties.
If you prefer smaller fruits, you can harvest them before they are fully grown (as long as they are mature enough for use), which encourages the plant to produce new fruits to replace them. Alternatively, you can select a hybrid called Short Tom, bearing fruits less than half the usual size. The plant itself is still quite large, growing to 2’/zft (75cm). This variety is early flowering and prolific. There is an equivalent cultivar raised in the USA, called Modern Midget, which has the same qualities.
You might like to try the golden-yellow fruits of a variety commonly called the Oriental Eggplant. It grows to 2ft (60cm), and the golden fruits are more aptly described as egg-shaped than the longer produce of the other cultivars. They are also more strongly flavoured than the purple fruits. The plant is not a female hybrid and requires hand-pollination.
Sowing and germination
Aubergines have a somewhat longer growing season than other vegetables – the period from sowing to harvest may be up to 20 weeks. If you can provide a daytime temperature of 72°F (22°C) and a minimum of 60°F (15°C) at night, you can sow the seed in early spring. The seeds cannot germinate at low temperatures and if subjected to cold and damp conditions will simply rot.
Sow one seed to a 3in (8cm) pot in a good peat-based potting mixture. The seeds take a little longer to germinate than most other vegetables, so it may be 14 days or more before you see them pushing through the surface. Nurture thein the same pots, watering regularly and spraying around the plants to maintain a humid atmosphere.
When the plants are 6in (15cm) high, they should be potted on into 8in (20cm) pots, in which they can complete their development. As they increase in size, encourage branching growth by pinching out the main growing point, so that the plant produces more lateral shoots which will bear the fruit. This should be done when the plant is about 8in (20cm) high.
Although aubergine thrives in the sun, it does not benefit from fierce midday heat beating through the window glass. While the sun is at its height, shield the plants with newspaper or draw the curtains. As soon as the hottest phase is past, allow the plants to stand in full light once again. Plenty of sunshine is essential for good development. Water daily in hot, dry conditions. If the leaves begin to wilt, you can revive them by watering generously, but it is far better to pay attention to their daily needs and not allow this situation to occur. Keep a humid atmosphere around the plants, as well as supplying moisture to the roots. Through the height of summer, spray the plants with tepid water every day. This has the advantage of at the same time discouraging red spider mite, the pest most likely to infest aubergine plants, although less likely to trouble plants grown indoors.
Fruiting and harvest
As the flower buds appear, feed the plants with liquid fertilizer, adding it to the regular watering in the amount stated in the manufacturer’s instructions. Provide the feed every ten days thereafter. By this time, each plant should have produced up to four fruit-bearing laterals, and fruits also form on the main stem and its branches. When the fruits develop, the plant is required to bear a considerable weight. To support stems and laterals, tie them to canes anchored firmly in the growing medium.
If you are not growing one of the female hybrids, the plant must be pollinated in order to set fruit. You can then enjoy the sight of the fruit slowly forming and ripening. Harvest them when they are of a good size and firm to touch, but before the skins become dulled, which indicates that they are over-ripe and may taste bitter.