Eggplants, also called aubergines, are members of the nightshade family and are thought to have been domesticated independently in two separate regions of Asia. Actually a perennial in the tropics, eggplants are more commonly grown as annuals in temperate climates like those found in most of the US. Technically a berry, the fruits of this plant are harvested before full maturity to avoid the many hard seeds which will eventually form inside. Plants have large, lobed, coarse leaves and white to purple flowers. Because some people can have a mild allergic skin reaction after handling eggplant, you might want to wear gloves when harvesting this glossy and meaty fruit.
The hybrid Orient Express eggplant is a fast growing and early maturing cultivar which can set fruit in cooler weather than other eggplants, making it ideal for growers with cool or short summer growing seasons. It’s also adaptive and does well in heat, making it a good choice for gardeners in many areas. Fruits are 8-10″ in length, slender, and a deep purplish black, with a purple calyx topping it off. An Asian-type eggplant, it has thinner skin and a milder flavor compared to some other eggplants.
Seed Depth: 1/4–1/2″
Space Between Plants: 18″
Space Between Rows: 24–36″
Germination Soil Temperature: 65–85°F
Days for Germination: 5–20
Sow Indoors: 10–12 weeks before average last frost date. When transplanting, bury plants up to their first leaves.
Sow Outdoors: 2–4 weeks after average last frost date in areas with a long growing season.
Vegetative: Can be propagated by taking stem cuttings. Eggplant can also be grafted.
Grows best in warm, tropical to subtropical climates, where they can survive year round as a short lived perennial. If growing in an area with a short warm season, start plants indoors early, grow in dark-colored raised containers, and use row covers. Plants will do best and set the most fruit when temperatures are between 65 and 90°F.
Natural: Full Sun.
Artificial: Will grow well under high output fluorescent or HID lamps. Needs at least 8 hours of light daily; however, more is better.
Soil: Prefers well-drained sandy or loamy soil. A pH of between 6.0 and 6.5 will keep plants healthy and nourished.
Soilless: Germinate seeds in a soilless mix.
Hydroponics: Will thrive in a hydroponic media-bed system using gravel or clay pellets.
Aeroponics: Will thrive in aeroponic systems.
Water: Requires low to moderate levels of water. Aim for about 1–1.5 inches of water per week. Tolerant of drought but will produce more fruit with consistently moist soil. Use drip irrigation to avoid getting water on the leaves.
Nutrients: Requires moderate to high levels of nutrients. Use a balanced organic fertilizer every 2 weeks during the growing season.
Foliar: Feed with compost tea or liquid kelp once a month during the growing season.
Pruning: You can pick off flowers to keep only 4–5 actively growing fruits per plant if you want bigger fruit. If growing eggplant as a perennial in tropical areas, prune plants heavily at least once a year.
Mulching: Use mulch to suppress weeds, keep soil moist, and retain warmth as temperatures begin to drop in the fall.
Support: Use cages or stakes to provide support for larger plants.
Deficiency(s): Nitrogen or potassium deficiency may result in slow growth and reduced production. A calcium deficiency can result in blossom end rot.
Rotation: A 4-year rotation away from all plants in the Solanaceae family is recommended. Plant eggplant after nitrogen-fixing legumes like peas or beans.
Companions: Grows well with beans, peppers, peas, and potato. Avoid fennel.
Harvest: Cut ripe eggplants with a knife or garden shears, leaving 1/2–1″ of stem attached to avoid damaging the plant or the fruit. It’s important to harvest at the right time, so look for firm fruit that has stopped growing with dark, unblemished, glossy skin. If you have sensitive skin, you may wish to wear gloves and long sleeves when harvesting your eggplant.
Storage: Store whole, fresh eggplants in the refrigerator for 3 days to one week. If cut, use lemon juice or vinegar on the cut ends to keep the white flesh from getting discolored.
SEED SAVING: Be sure to only grow one variety at a time if you’re interested in saving seeds for next season to avoid cross-pollination. Harvest seeds from at least 6 plants, allowing fruit to ripen completely. Mash the ripe fruit in water to separate and clean seeds. Dry seeds and store in a cool, dry, dark place.
Preserve: Sliced eggplant can be blanched or grilled and then frozen for later use. You can also make sweet preserves, pickles, or confit (olive oil preserves).
Prepare: Commonly used in Mediterranean, Indian, and European cooking. Try it grilled, baked, sautéed, stuffed, or fried. No need to peel, just rinse your fruit before using. Many recipes suggest salting sliced eggplant, leaving it to sit, then rinsing and drying to soften the flesh and remove any bitterness. It will absorb a lot of fat when cooking, so this process can also reduce sogginess. Eggplant is a great meat substitute due to its texture.
Nutritional: Provides B vitamins, potassium, copper, magnesium, phosphorus, niacin, and folic acid. Also a good source of antioxidants and dietary fiber.
Medicinal: The juice of eggplants has been studied for its ability to reduce weight and cholesterol levels. The antioxidants, found especially in the dark skin, may have anti-cancer properties.
Warnings: Eggplant contains relatively high levels of nicotine, with about 20 lbs of the plant containing the same amount as an average cigarette. Some people may have an allergic reaction to eggplant. Symptoms include itchy skin, headache, and upset stomach. Thorough cooking can reduce this reaction in some. Skin contact with leaves may also produce itching or discomfort.
Try making this recipe for Chinese Eggplant with Spicy Garlic Sauce with your beautiful Orient Express eggplants.