They may look tough, but eggplants play nice, and with the right amount of TLC, says Mat Pember, they just keep on giving.
Post-silly season, you may well be a little strung out, but the vegetable patch isn't suffering from any such New Year hangover. In fact, the party is just warming up and, if your patch has yet to reach full capacity, there are still a few vegetables left on the invite list. Eggplant is one variety that really knows how to get its groove on in the summer heat.
Sometimes, just by looking at a plant you can tell it copes well under duress, and eggplant is a formidable-looking vegetable. The plant's tough leaves grow broad, effectively shielding the soil beneath against overheating, the fruit itself has dark, leathery skin and the annoying spikes on its neck seem to announce inedibility.
Let the timing of the season help you determine which variety of eggplant to grow. Long thin varieties, such as Lebanese, develop earlier than large round varieties and cope better earlier in the season, so choose accordingly. It's a good idea to stagger planting for a prolonged harvesting period.
Growing eggplant happens easily in the summer garden, particularly in an A-grade position in the sun. Prepare free-draining soil mixed with growth-boosting nitrogen before planting. Compost or a handful of chook-manure pellets, or both, should do the trick and plant seedlings 30 centimetres apart; mature plants need closer to 60 centimetres, but planting extra seedlings will mean more survivors.
Seedlings will need water every day; twice a day if the temperature is above 30C. If you need to water in the heat of the day, direct the flow around the root area rather than over the foliage, which would be burnt in the strong sun.
Given that it's summer, plants will appreciate mulching immediately. Use a mulch that provides nutrition as it breaks down and apply around two to five centimetres in depth (see below). If your eggplants are exposed to wind, the root zone could be damaged, so consider installing protection in the form of a windbreak or by staking the plants.
At four to six weeks, thin the patch if necessary, but healthy seedlings should be established. Reduce watering to three to four times a week, but for longer so the moisture penetrates deep into the patch. This will encourage the roots to reach further for a drink and ultimately help a stronger plant to develop.
Soon after, your plants will begin to form fruit, growing out from the purple flowers which are surrounded by protective spikes. Eggplants differ from others in the Solanaceae family - which includes tomatoes, capsicums and chillies - in that they develop their colour immediately. So, in terms of determining ripeness, look for glossy firm fruit; if you press your eggplant and it bounces back, that's a good sign. If it doesn't spring back, the flesh is likely to be aerated and bitter. You can look for signs of ripeness in the flesh, too. If you cut into an eggplant and discover it has next to no seeds, it's probably too young, while older fruit will have large, brownish seeds that have separated from the flesh. Here, we apply the Goldilocks principle - that is, somewhere in between is just right. Small, slightly yellow seeds surrounded by flesh mean the eggplant is at the ideal ripeness.
When harvesting, use scissors for a cleaner cut rather than twisting the eggplant loose, and wear gloves to protect your hands from the spikes (and cursing). Picking fruit frees the plant's energy to put into the remaining fruit and developing more flowers, so harvest regularly to promote production.
In warm regions, and even temperate climates, eggplants can be pruned back to the bones once they've finished fruiting and left in-ground. Next season they'll give back, bigger, better and stronger.
Mat Pember is co-founder of The Little Veggie Patch Co.