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So, you want to grow eggplants?

The National Garden Bureau has picked eggplant as the vegetable to showcase for 2008. It is easy to grow from seed, is widely adaptable, and is genetically diverse with several types to choose from that you may not be familiar with. Although eggplant can often be found for sale in garden outlets, many more varieties are available from seeds you can start yourself. Look for these in retail seed racks, catalogs, and online seed sources. The most common varieties in North America that people know are the large, oval eggplants, somewhat pear or egg-shaped, and deep purple. They are good for stuffing, baking, and grilling. Their reputation for tough skin and bitterness usually comes from the fruit being overripe, as those freshly harvested and cooked usually lack these problems. In addition to this shape, there are varieties that are globe-shaped, cylindrical, pea-like, and specialty. In the classic shape and deep purple, look for Black Beauty with eight to ten-inch fruits weighing up to a pound. Dusky hybrid is an improved variety with fruits five to seven-inches long. It matures in about 60 days compared to about 80 days for Black Beauty, so is better for shorter northern seasons. Black Beauty is an heirloom vegetable, bred in 1910. Two recent varieties have won the prestigious All-America Selections Award. Fairy Tale hybrid, maturing in about 51 days, won this award in 2005 for its purple fruit with white strips. Plants are compact, so well-suited to containers. Fruits can be picked small for miniature eggplants. Hansel hybrid is a winner for 2008, producing clusters of dark purple fruits over a long season. These fruits too can be harvested small, at only two inches long, or left on to mature at six to ten inches. Japanese varieties typically have thin skins, a beautiful purple sometimes with light colors blended, and a variety of shapes. Since the skin is tender, fruits dont need to be peeled. Many of these varieties mature in about two months. Look for them in specialty seed sources. Since eggplants need warmth to grow, similar to their relatives the tomato and pepper, plan to plant outside after last frost in early summer. Work back in the calendar about six to eight weeks to start seeds indoors. Give seedlings as much light as possible, bottom heat if possible, and warm room temperatures. Start in individual two to four-inch diameter containers, as seedlings transplant poorly from trays or flats. When planting outside, consider large containers or raised beds in addition to the traditional garden. Space plants according to the mature plant size about 18 to 24 inches apart for the larger varieties, and about 12 to 18 inches apart for the smaller ones. Make sure the soil is well-drained, and that plants get at least six to eight hours of direct sunlight a day. If a field soil, work in plenty of organic matter, manure, or compost before planting. If a container soil, incorporate a slow-release fertilizer. Protect young plants from cold with hot caps or a row cover fabric during night, removing during the day. Since eggplants are mainly water, they need at least an inch of water on the soil each week while growing. An inch or two of organic mulch will help maintain soil moisture. Watering especially is crucial when fruits are forming. Stake large-fruited varieties to support plants from the weight of the fruits. Stake the long, slender-fruited varieties so that they will produce straighter fruits. Check weekly or more often for holes in leaves, commonly caused by flea beetles or Colorado potato beetles. Exclude these with fabric row covers put on at transplanting. Control these pests with biological insecticides, such as a new one based on soil-bacteria that is relatively non-toxic to beneficial insects such as ladybugs and predacious mites. Other pests to check closely for on undersides of leaves are aphids and mites. Both can be dislodged with a forceful stream of water, or controlled with insecticidal soaps. Use the water stream daily for a week for the mites. Spot them as they create a fine webbing under leaves. The main disease to watch for is verticillium wilt. This soil-borne fungus causes plants to wilt, turn yellow, and die. If stems of dead plants are brown on the inside, this is a clue the plants succumbed to this disease that also attacks potatoes, peppers, and tomatoes. To prevent wilt disease, rotate eggplant and these related crops to different parts of the garden, or change container soils, yearly. To learn more about this often overlooked and less common vegetable, as well as how to prepare it for best taste and appearance, read the online fact sheet from the National Garden Bureau (www.ngb.org). If you already grow eggplants, consider a new variety this year. If you havent grown them before, consider trying some either in your vegetable or ornamental gardens, or in containers. Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor, University of Vermont

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