Words & Photos: Rachel Vogan
Eggplant – or aubergine – is a wonderful crop to add to your edible résumé. A stalwart in Mediterranean cuisine that surely got its common name from those egg-shaped fruit, eggplant can be enjoyed in numerous ways; roasted, grilled, pickled or puréed into sauces and dips.
Traditionally, the large dark-purple varieties were the most common, however, there is now a wide range of colours, shapes and sizes that vary from pure white through to bright yellow, pink, lavender and purple, and all available here in New Zealand.
They are fairly straightforward when it comes to growing conditions. Eggplants like and require the same things as tomatoes, chillies and capsicums: full sun, a long hot growing season, protection from wind or staking, fertile soil and plenty of water as the fruit are developing. Moisture is key as the fruit are forming, but not so much as the plant is developing, as too much water when the plants are young can cause the roots to rot. So be careful.
Shape and style guide
I find the flavour doesn’t vary a lot from one variety to another, but what does is the colour, texture and growing times. The smaller hybrids mature faster than the larger ones and provide a crop sooner, so they are good choices for those who don’t want to wait too long for the mouth-watering harvest.
‘Asian Bride’ – finger-shaped, long, narrow, lilac and rosy purple eggplants.
‘Black Beauty’ – as the name suggests, this is a very dark purple-black variety, with large round fruits, renowned for its heavy cropping capacity.
‘Black King’ – large, oval, black fruits, best in areas with warmer climates.
‘Early Prolific’ – this one produces loads of small, black eggplants with a tasty flavour.
‘Fairytale’ – pretty lavender-purple, multi-coloured, long, elongated eggplant.
‘Golden Egg’ – bright yellow, round eggplants. Ideal variety for a pot.
‘Mini Ophelia’ – a cute, dark-black miniature that is early to mature. Not much larger than a golf ball, it is a brilliant choice for pots and raised planters, where space is limited.
‘Florence Round Purple’ – Italian lavender and white eggplant. A quirky eggplant with large, fat, round, creased fruits that vary in colour from pale lavender to dark plum, with the odd white stripe.
‘White Star’ – pure ivory-white egg-shaped variety. Fruit size varies from golf-ball to tennis-ball size.
Your variety choice will affect how far apart to plant the eggplants. Bushy types are best planted 50cm apart, while the smaller varieties can be planted at 25-30cm. Ideal for containers, tubs and raised beds, too, eggplants will grow in smaller areas as long as there is at least about 25cm soil depth. They have a deepish root system. A side-dressing of tomato or strawberry food will encourage more flowers and, therefore, more fruit.
Start now by choosing the varieties you want to grow. Seed is available on all the main websites now, and most garden centres have a good range, too. Aim to have seed sown by early September. They do take a few weeks to germinate, and are slower to establish than tomatoes. Seedlings will appear in October and November, but often they are only the plain purple varieties. If you fancy a wider variety, seed is the best way.