Purple, plump shiny and slim

Last updated 14:09 07/09/2012
golden egg
VEGETABLE VERSION: Just like chooks’ eggs, eggplant eggs make for a satisfying meal.

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Traditional warm weather favourites such as eggplants can be sown now for a late summer or autumn harvest.

Eggplants are an essential crop for vegetarians and lovers of Indian cuisine, their solid meaty texture providing a satisfying meal.

Although a perennial, eggplants are usually grown as annuals in our temperate climate. They require plenty of sunshine and warmth to grow well; a hothouse or warm microclimate is helpful to at least get them off to a good start.

Eggplants won't set fruit until daytime temperatures are consistently above 23 degrees Celsius and night-time temperatures reach 13C. Although plants may recover from cold temperatures, they are likely to be stunted and their fruit set will be poor.

Most of us are familiar with the traditional type, large purple shiny eggplants that are readily available from grocery stores.

But there are many different forms that are worth growing; small plump varieties the size of tomatoes, long skinny ones that don't look much like an eggplant at all, and cultivars that are white, yellow or speckled.

Asian Bride, for example is a compact plant that produces two or three finger-like fruit per cluster. The fruit, which is white with a rose-purple blush, can be picked anywhere between 8cm and 20cm long. With a pure white flesh, this Asian variety is thinner skinned and much more tender (less bitter) than the traditional varieties. It also fruits earlier than the traditional varieties.

The long-finger types are ideal, sliced in half lengthwise and thrown on the barbie.

Florence Round Purple is, as its name suggests, round and purple. The fruit often sports creamy white stripes though, and they can look a lot like giant heirloom tomatoes when the creamy stripes begin to show.

White Star has tear-shaped white fruit, which is fairly prolific on its one metre high frame. The fruit can be picked while young (at baby stage) or left to mature to around 15cm long and 5cm wide.

And then there's Golden Egg, which produces an abundance of fruit that resembles the goose's golden egg. Before they colour up though, they are white and look just like chooks' eggs minus their shells.

They can actually be picked when they're white, when few seeds have developed, or harvested when yellow.

Eggplants grow easily from seed, taking about 10 days to germinate. Sow them in trays for transplanting in containers or garden beds later, as they prefer a warm bottom when planting out.

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When your seedlings are around 10cm high, prick them out and plant them in individual pots to grow on before planting in the garden.

Eggplants like well-drained loamy soil with plenty of organic matter. Dig in compost before planting and add fertiliser to the soil. If you have fish scraps available from last night's dinner, dig that into the soil too. If you don't have fish, dig in some sheep pellets instead. Eggplants are heavy feeders. Throughout the growing season, apply small amounts of fertiliser on a regular basis. Aside from their initial feed, avoid fertilisers high in nitrogen or you'll get more leaves than fruit.

Position plants in a sunny spot and provide a stake for each plant. They can be left to sprawl on the ground, but I think it's much tidier and healthier to grow upright.

Give plants plenty of room in the garden - as much as 60cm between plants - to ensure good airflow and a reduction of diseases.

Traditional eggplants have a bit of a reputation for being bitter, which is why many recipe books call for them to be salted and soaked to make them more palatable. The bitterness is usually only the case when plants are stressed. Make sure you water plants well during the growing season - they have a high water requirement, especially during fruit set and when fruit is developing. Not only can lack of water cause bitter skins in traditional varieties, but it can stunt growth and result in smaller fruit. Many of the newer varieties, however, have been bred to have less bitterness regardless of how they're grown.

Your eggplants will fruit better if you pollinate them by hand. The first flowers that form often won't set at all and subsequent flowers may produce erratically. It's very easy to hand pollinate and it requires nothing more than a small, clean paintbrush. Dampen the bristles of the paintbrush by running them between your lips - don't run them under the tap or they'll be too wet. Then simply transfer the pollen from one flower to another.

Eggplants should be firm and shiny when picked. A dull skin indicates it's overripe, and the flesh will be spongy and bitter. If you press ripe fruit gently with your thumb, the flesh will bounce back. Hard flesh that doesn't give means the eggplants are immature; if the flesh presses in but doesn't bounce back, it's overripe. Use secateurs rather than breaking or twisting the stems, and leave the calyx attached to the fruit.

Eggplants don't store well, so eat as soon as you can after harvesting.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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