Eggplant is far easier to grow and more productive than its more popular relatives, tomato or bell pepper. Eggplant (Solanum melongena) and tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) are like siblings, because they are two species in the same genus, Solanum. Eggplant and pepper (Capsicum annuum) are first cousins, because they are in different genera (Solanum and Capsicum) in the same family.
In the home garden, transplants are recommended for starting eggplants. They can be safely transplanted in mid-April in the Lowcountry, after all danger of frost is past. Although that date is still 10 weeks away, it takes six to eight weeks to grow transplants from seed.
Eggplants are classified mainly by the type of fruit they bear: globe (or Italian), Japanese (or Asian) and miniature. The typical eggplant found in grocery stores is the globe type, large, oval and dark purple. Japanese eggplants are long and slender. Miniature eggplants can be oval or elongated but are only a few inches long when mature.
Modern eggplants come in a variety of colors. In addition to purple and lavender, there are white, orange and green eggplants. Fruit that is speckled lavender and white is sometimes called the “graffiti” pattern.
In 2018, I tested seven eggplant varieties at the Coastal Research and Education Center. 'Black Beauty' and 'Rosa Bianca' produce large, globe-shaped fruit. 'Black Beauty,' an American heirloom introduced in 1902, was the standard eggplant variety for many years. 'Rosa Bianca' is a round Italian heirloom eggplant.
Two purple Japanese-type eggplants were included, 'Millionaire' and 'Hansel,' an All-America Selection for 2008. 'Millionaire' fruit are slightly longer and thicker than 'Hansel' fruit.
'Gretel,' 'Fairy Tale' and 'Patio Baby' were the miniature eggplants in the experiment. 'Patio Baby' is one of the smallest oval, purple eggplants, with fruit that measure only three inches long. 'Gretel,' an All-America Selection for 2009, has ivory-white, slender fruit. 'Fairy Tale' is a graffiti variety with fruit about four inches long.
Based on six pickings from six plants, 'Gretel' was the most productive cultivar in the experiment, as it produced the highest number of good quality fruit. 'Patio Baby,' 'Hansel' and 'Fairy Tale' were next, followed by 'Millionaire.' 'Black Beauty' and 'Rosa Bianca' were the least productive but still produced five to six fruits per plant.
It became quite clear early on that cultivars with small fruit produce a lot more eggplants than cultivars with large fruit, like 'Black Beauty' and 'Rosa Bianca.' 'Gretel' produced 12 times as many fruits as the globe-type cultivars.
The four most productive varieties also were the varieties to start producing fruit the quickest. We transplanted eggplant on April 15 and, with black plastic mulch, picked the first fruit on June 5. By June 18, all seven varieties were ready to pick.
Eggplant loves well-drained soil in full sun. It’s best to tie plants up with string and stakes or place them inside a tomato cage when they are small, so the heavy load of fruit doesn’t break the branches.
One reason eggplant is so productive is that it is less susceptible to Phytophthora blight and bacterial wilt than pepper or tomato. It is not affected by bacterial spot and is not bothered by early blight or late blight.
Eggplant, however, has one nemesis, Phomopsis blight, named after the causal fungus, Phomopsis vexans. In my 2018 eggplant test, Phomopsis blight did not show up until fall. It became progressively worse, until by the end of the season, most of the fruit had rotted.
Symptoms of Phomopsis blight appear on all above-ground parts of eggplant. Leaves and fruit caps have spots, stems have cankers and fruit has sunken, rotten spots. Black Beauty leaves and stems had the most disease, by far, of the seven eggplant cultivars we tested.
To combat Phomopsis blight, diseased plants and fruit should be removed from the garden. Eggplant should not be planted in the same spot more often than once every four years. Fungicides like Daconil, Mancozeb Flowable or copper offer moderate control, at best. Biofungicides do not work against Phomopsis blight.
Scarred, discolored, sunburned and misshapen fruit were other problems with some cultivars that made the fruit less than perfect but still edible.
With an almost guaranteed yield, eggplants are an excellent choice for beginning vegetable gardeners.