Eggplants in containers
I’m kind of an eggplant addict. I know, it’s a weird thing to be addicted to but there are few things that are as delicious as just-picked eggplant, roasted with a little olive oil, salt and pepper. It tastes completely different than eggplant that has been, refrigerated and has been sitting on a store shelf.
Eggplant is easy to grow and some varieties are so beautiful they can be used as ornamentals. The flowers are gorgeous and the eggplants themselves can be sculptural.
My favorite container for the maximum yield, ease of care is to use a grow box, and my favorite type of grow box is an Earthbox. These self-watering containers provide a constant level of moisture, which is important for eggplant.
Soil – One of the great things about growing eggplant in containers is that they won’t get the nasty soil-bourne fungus, verticillium wilt, which they are prone to and is fairly common in traditional garden soil. Eggplant needs a fast draining potting soil, but also one that won’t dry out too fast. If you are using a very light soil, you will have to water enough times during the day so that they soil doesn’t completely dry out–in the heat of the summer, depending on your pot size soil, that may mean watering twice a day or more. Your goal is to keep the soil moist, not soaking wet. If you are growing eggplant in a pot or container, it is also a good idea to use some type of mulch, like straw or wood chips to cover the soil, which helps to keep the soil moist.
Fertilizer – Eggplant are fairly heavy feeders. I mix an all purpose fertilizer into my potting soil at the beginning of the season and then do supplemental feeding with a diluted liquid fertilizer every other week during the growing season. However if you are using a grow box system, you will only need to fertilize at the beginning of the season, according to the directions.
Sun – Eggplant sun lovers. Make sure they get at least six hours of unobstructed sun per day and the more sun the better. Eggplant, like tomatoes also are heat lovers. One of the reasons grow boxes work particularly well for me with eggplant is that the dark boxes heat up, warming the soil, so my growing season is extended. If you are growing eggplant in regular containers, in the spring, on cool nights it’s a good idea to protect them from the cold them by either moving them into a warm space (I use my garage) or to cover them up with a cloche or cloth.
Starting Eggplant from Seed – Eggplant are somewhat challenging to grow from seed, but it is worth the effort because of the huge variety you can buy in seed form, while nurseries often only carry a few varieties. Eggplants seeds need warmth to germinate and can’t be planted too deeply. Look on your seed packet for planting depth. While you can direct seed eggplant, I start mine eight to ten weeks before the last frost date.
Harvesting Eggplant – Eggplant come in a wide range of sizes, colors and shapes. They can be white, purple, almost black, bright green, and speckled. They can be round, long and thin or pear-shaped. You will need to know what kind of eggplant you have planted to know when to harvest it. A rule of thumb though is to pick eggplant when the skin appears glossy and it the fruit has a little give when you squeeze it. While you don’t want to pick eggplant before it is ripe, I generally pick them when they are on the small side.
Staking – It is a good idea to stake your eggplants before they get too large to avoid disturbing the roots once the plant is established. Most varieties will be fine tied to a piece of bamboo or a wooden stake sunk all the way into your pot. You can also build a bamboo cage or I also like to use brightly colored coated metal tomato cages.
Roasting Eggplant – There are about a million ways to cook eggplant, but for freshly picked garden eggplant I prefer to simply roast it. I leave on the skin and cut it into small pieces about a half-inch square. I pre-heat the oven to 400 °F. I toss the eggplant with a little olive oil, a little Kosher salt and pepper. I then lay them in a single layer in a baking pan with sides. I cook, turning once or twice, until the eggplant is brown and soft. I eat them right out of the oven, or also cold the next day.
Pests and Problems – As mentioned above, eggplant is prone to verticillium wilt but if you use potting soil, this won’t be a problem. Consistent water is key to eggplant health. Letting the pot dry out too much even once can create problems for the creation of beautiful, unmarred eggplants. If you see tiny round holes in the leaves of the plants early in the season, you could have flea beetles, but again, it isn’t as likely if you are using potting soil.
Image by Hideyuki KAMON
Eggplants are versatile fruits that are members of the nightshade family along with tomatoes and other fruits. Most are heavy, dense fruits on medium to large sized bushes which would not be appropriate for container grown eggplant. There are cultivars that have been developed to be compact as an answer to the growing number of small space gardeners. These smaller plants provide a means to growing eggplant in containers.
Container Grown Eggplant
Modern breeding programs are answering the call of the limited space gardener. With the rise of upside down gardening, traditional container gardening has expanded its previous barriers. Eggplants in pots are as easy to grow as tomatoes. They need large enough containers to support the roots of such a heavy plant, a well draining medium, extra food and consistent water and of course, the right container. Container grown eggplant require large pots to facilitate their growth and provide room for the small bushes.
How to Container Grow Eggplant
One of the most important elements of container grown eggplant is the container. Chose a large pot with a 5 gallon capacity. Growing eggplant in containers requires 12 to 14 inches of space per plant or three plants can be placed in a 20 inch container. Unglazed pots dry out more quickly than glazed pots but they also allow the evaporation of excess moisture. If you remember to water, chose the unglazed pot. If you are a forgetful waterer, chose the glazed pots. Make certain there are large, clear drainage holes.
Eggplant starts are the best way to go unless you live in a sunny climate. They will give you a jump start on the growing season. The best medium for container grown eggplant is 2 parts good quality potting soil and 1 part sand. This ensures adequate nutrients and water retention while encouraging draining of excess moisture and increasing the tilth. Plant the eggplant at the same level they were in their nursery pots and put a handful of time release fertilizer in the hole at the time of planting. Water the pots well and put in a small support system like a tomato cage.
When growing eggplant, you want to remember that planting eggplant from seed should be done indoors or in a greenhouse setting. This protects the new little seedlings from any sort of frost.
When planting eggplant, if you plant them too early, you will risk hurting the plant. The soil needs to be warm before you put them outdoors. Too early and the cold soil will kill the roots of the plants. Eggplant is more sensitive than tomatoes to the cold.
Where to Plant Eggplant
When you are thinking about where to plant eggplant, you should think about your gardening space. Eggplants need lots of space. When planting eggplant, put them about 18 inches apart in the row, and the rows need to be about 30 inches apart if not more. This is quite a large area.
You will want to fertilize your eggplants after you transplant the seedlings. Also, mid-season, when growing eggplants, side-dress them with nitrogen.
Planting eggplant is done best when you can expect most growth to happen during the summer. They thrive during the summertime heat, making the biggest fruits during this part of the growing season.
You want to be sure during the summer heat that you water frequently and make sure the soil stays somewhat moist. Don’t let the plants dry out or you will not get the results you would like.
When to Pick an Eggplant
You will know when to pick an eggplant when you see that it is six to eight inches long. Be sure when picking your eggplant that you use a knife and don’t just twist or break the eggplant off the stems. This can harm the plants for the rest of the eggplants.
Young eggplants are always best because if they get too old, the plant is spongy, bitter and not as tasty. The young ones have the best flavor.
So long as you know the growing season and best conditions for growing eggplants, you will find that knowing when to pick an eggplant will come naturally.
Follow these simple rules when thinking about, “How do I grow eggplant,” and your crop will do just fine.