Eggplant is a warm-season crop that you’ll love eating, and as a bonus, it adds a lot of visual interest in the garden with its purple flowers and gorgeous fruit. Eggplant is related to tomatoes and peppers, so if you’ve ever grown either of those, you’re already off to a good start — but no worries either way. If you want to grow eggplant in your garden, here’s everything you need to know.
You can also download my How Do I Grow Eggplant? one-sheet and keep the free resource handy for your reference.
The fruit comes in all shades of purple, some with white streaks, and some varieties are all white or even green at maturity. Depending on the variety, the fruit can be egg-shaped, round, long and skinny, and even curved. It is so much fun watching them grow. In the kitchen, eggplant can be baked, roasted, grilled, pan-seared or fried. There’s nothing quite like eggplant parmesan with home-grown ingredients.
Eggplant is easier grown in the South, though it can also be a successful crop in cooler climates with a little extra care. Because eggplant and tomato are both nightshades, they run into a few of the same pest and disease issues. But don’t let any of this dissuade you from growing eggplant, which really is a pleasure.
When and How to Start Eggplant
Eggplant can be bought as seedlings or started from seed indoors four to eight weeks before the last possible frost date for your area. Buying seedlings is much easier, but it does cost more than seeds do and there is less variety to choose from when picking out plants rather than seeds.
Sow eggplant seeds a quarter-inch deep in sterile seed-starting mix in small pots; the plants are prone to transplant shock, so avoid starting seed in flats.
Use a thermostat-controlled seedling heat mat to maintain a soil temperature of between 75° and 90°F. In this optimal temperature range, especially toward the higher end, the seeds should germinate in one week.
Eggplant seeds should be started under grow lights. The seeds don’t need light to germinate, but once seedlings emerge they will begin to reach for light, and this can cause them to stretch, becoming leggy and weak. Under a grow light, seedlings will develop shorter, sturdier stems. Running a fan gently on the seedlings will prevent damping off disease, a fungus that is fatal to seedlings before they grow their first true leaves.
As the seedlings grow, they should be “potted up” to larger containers. When the seedlings begin to approach 4 inches tall, it’s time for a bigger pot.
When, Where and How to Plant Eggplant
Eggplant seedlings can be planted outdoors after the last possible frost date. Even better, wait until overnight temperatures are consistently above 60° Fahrenheit because eggplant really hates cold.
Before eggplant seedlings are planted outdoors, they should be gradually introduced to the new environment in a process known as “hardening off.” Put seedlings out in the sun for a short time on the first day — a half-hour — and gradually increase the time spent outdoors each day for a week to 10 days, so by the end, the plants will be ready to receive a whole day’s worth of sun.
Plant the eggplant seedlings in a sunny spot — a place that gets between six and eight hours of direct sunlight daily. The soil should be well draining and amended with plenty of compost.
Eggplant grows best in soil with a pH between 5.5 and 7.0, which is a range of slightly acidic to precisely neutral. Adding compost will help bring the pH into balance, but getting a soil test will remove any guesswork. The test results will include the garden’s pH and the nutrient levels in the soil, so you’ll know what amendments to make, if any.
Eggplant prefers warm soil — at least 70°. This shouldn’t be a problem in the South, but in the North, you may need to employ this trick to raise the soil temperature: A few weeks ahead of planting time, cover the area with black plastic and let it capture solar energy to heat up the soil. When it’s time to put the seedlings in the ground, leave the plastic in place but cut slits into it to allow for planting. Backfill the planting hole with the same soil that was dug out, and take care not to bury any of the stem.
Cut off any fruit or flowers that have developed prior to transplanting so the plant can put its energy into root and stem development and acclimate to the outdoor environment. The plant will then produce new flowers and fruit with a stronger foundation and in warmer weather. The yield will ultimately be higher.
Space eggplant seedlings at least two feet apart, or follow the spacing instructions on the seed packet. Support the plants with a stake or a tomato cage, installed at transplanting time or not too long after. Adding supports once plants have grown larger is a risky endeavor because stem and root damage may occur.
Water immediately upon planting and cover the ground with a layer of two to three inches of organic mulch, like wheat straw. Mulch will retain moisture between waterings and will keep the soil warm on cool nights.
Eggplant seedlings can be kept warm by covering the garden with floating row cover, like Reemay. The cover can stay up until the summer heat sets in, but be sure to adjust it as the plants grow taller. Eggplants are self-pollinating, so there is no need to remove the cover to give pollinating insects access.
Varieties of Eggplant
All varieties of eggplant — also known around the world as aubergine and brinjal — are the same species, Solanum melongena.
Black Beauty is an heirloom and the classic eggplant variety, with its large, dark purple fruit. The plants grow 18-24 inches tall and fruit is ready to harvest 74 days after transplanting.
Galine is a reliable variety in the North and very productive. It’s a hybrid with “black bell” fruit that grow 6-7 inches. It matures in 65 days.
Green Knight produces long, glossy, jade green fruit with dense flesh and few seeds. This hybrid variety grows 34-36 inches tall with 7-inch fruit.
Listada De Gandia is a European heirloom with 14-inch-tall plants that produce purple and white streaked fruit shaped like eggs and up to 8 inches long.The fruit have mild flavor and tender, thin skin. It matures in 80-90 days.
Michal is a hybrid variety that grows great in a high tunnel or greenhouse. The black, tasty fruit have few seeds. It reaches maturity in 60 to 75 days.
Pot Black is a great container variety with compact plants and 3-ounce fruits that are free of any bitter flavor. The days-to-maturity is just 58-62.
Purple Blaze has attractive neon purple fruit with white streaks. The plants grow 18-20 inches tall. The 4-inch fruit are white on the inside.
Ping Tung Long is an open-pollinated eggplant that matures in 65 days. It’s a great pickling eggplant with glossy-skinned, bright purple fruit that are best at 9 inches long, slightly curved and 1-2 inches wide.
White Star Hybrid has shiny white sweet and tender fruit. Like other white varieties, it lacks the bitterness that some purple varieties have. The plants grow 30-36 inches tall and the fruit grow 5-7 inches long.
Plants that receive inadequate water will develop small, bitter fruit. Keep eggplant happy with at least an inch of water per week, and up to two inches during the hottest stretch of summer. If it has rained any less than an inch in a week’s time, make up the difference with supplemental irrigation.
Always water under the foliage, right at ground level. (Overhead watering leaves the fruit and foliage wet, which invites disease.)
A drip irrigation system is great for growing eggplant. It will prevent vulnerable seedlings from drying out and will keep water off the foliage of mature plants.
In addition to amending the soil with lots of finished compost, adding well-rotted manure to the planting area a week or two before putting the eggplant seedlings in will give them most of the nutrients they’ll need. Alternatively, use blood meal or cottonseed meal at planting time.
Organic foliar fertilizer can be sprayed on as the plants mature, in accordance with the product’s directions. (More does not equal better.) Be sure any fertilizer you use after planting time is either balanced or lower in nitrogen than phosphorus. A high-nitrogen fertilizer will lead to more foliar growth at the expense of fruit production.
Never apply more fertilizer than the manufacturer’s instructions. More does not equal better, as over-fertilizing can cause more harm than good.
Eggplant Pests & Diseases
Without a doubt, the No.1 pest of eggplant is the flea beetle — small black or bronze jumping leaf beetles, just an eighth of an inch long. These fast-moving pests chew pin-sized holes in the leaves. Plants are most prone to attack when the leaves are young and tender. By summer, the plants will be big and strong enough to shrug off flea beetle damage, and the pests’ presence then should not raise concerns.
The best natural defense is to cover your plants from the moment you put them in the ground with row cover. You can find it at some garden centers and always online. Another strategy is to plant a trap crop of radishes, which flea beetles prefer over eggplant.
Aphids are sucking insects that are vectors for plant diseases. As they eat plant leaves they excrete honeydew, which attracts ants and other insects. They are easily controlled by knocking them off plants with a sharp stream of water.
Fruitworms and armyworms are moth larvae that bore into the fruits of eggplants themselves. Handpick eggs on stems, under leaves and on fruit, and pick off any caterpillars, which may be green or black and gray. Bt is an organic control for moth and butterfly larvae that is safe around humans and pets and will not harm other wildlife. Just be sure not to apply it around butterfly larvae host plants such as milkweed and fennel.
In the disease department, verticillium wilt is the most common issue. It’s a soil-borne fungus. So starting off with good, compost-rich soil in the ground and premium-potting mix in containers is the best defense against wilt.
Anthracnose is a fruit-rot fungus found on ripe and overripe fruit, presenting as small, round depressed areas that enlarge in time. Do not leave infected fruit in the garden, as the fungal spores will easily spread to other fruit and to the soil when water splashes around, and do not save seeds from infected fruit.
Phytophthora blight symptoms include small to large leaf spots, fruit rot, crown rot, and dieback of the growing tip. The fungus thrives in soil that’s saturated in water, so avoid overwatering. If the blight occurs, dispose of the affected plants — do not add them to compost — and remove any leaves or other debris from the garden.
It’s important to note what variety you’re growing and its size at maturity so you’ll know the best time to harvest. Most eggplant varieties can be picked when half-way to mature size. The smaller fruits often have the best flavor, and the more frequently you pick the more encouraged the plant will be to produce more fruit.
Don’t yank off the fruit — cut them off the plant carefully. The fruit are best enjoyed right away.
What are your secrets to successfully growing eggplant? Let us know in the comments below.
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Links & Resources
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joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Three popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; and seed starting!
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Seed Starting: Everything you need to know to start your own plants from seed — indoors and out.
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