Growing aubergines

Growing aubergines

Aubergine is a Mediterranean vegetable. With these helpful tips you will be able to grow aubergines in the comfort of your own garden.

Aubergines (Solanum melongena) are still quite a rare find in gardens with moderate climates. For the most part, people tend to buy them simply in the supermarket instead of growing them at home, which is a shame. Interestingly, the cultivation of aubergines has a long history and cultural significance. Aubergines belong to the family of nightshades (Solanaceae) that originally comes from East Asia. Over the centuries it has spread as far as the Mediterranean, where it still domineers in countless traditional dishes. If the right measures are taken, aubergine can be effortlessly cultivated in temperate climate zones too. Here are a few tips and tricks on how to make aubergine cultivation a success in your own garden.

Is aubergine a fruit or a vegetable?

The unusual appearance of aubergines makes many people wonder whether aubergines are fruit or vegetables. The exact definition of what makes a plant a fruit or a vegetable is a subject of many debates. Aubergines, also referred to as eggplants (because of their shape and egg-white colour of the young aubergines), are generally considered to be fruit vegetables. Although scientifically speaking, aubergines are fruits, they are mostly thought of as vegetables. Aubergine plants are usually cultivated perennially and are closely related to tomatoes and peppers. The fact that aubergine is not eaten raw and it definitely does not taste sweet is another reason why it is for the most part considered to be a vegetable.

When are aubergines in season?

Unlike many other types of vegetables, aubergine seeds should be sown early. The season for sowing aubergines begins already in winter (January to February). At first, sow the seeds into pots. Aubergines are plants with a rather long period of growth and can be harvested from late summer to autumn. Aubergine is a nightshade plant which (like the closely related tomato) reacts sensitively to cold. Therefore, gardeners who live in temperate climate zones should cultivate aubergines in greenhouses. Alternatively, aubergines can be grown in a warm and sunny spot on the south side of buildings. In any case, make sure that the location is sufficiently warm.

Planting aubergines correctly

Because aubergines are slow germinating plants (2-6 weeks), their seeds should be sown from the end of January to the beginning of March at the latest. The best place to keep the seeds while they germinate is on a windowsill. A temperature of 20-25 °C is vital for seed germination. Sow the seeds 1 to 2 cm deep and then press the soil a little. As soon as the seeds germinate and the first leaves (not cotyledons) appear, the young aubergine plants should be replanted. Use pots that are larger in size because the plants will spend quite some time in there.

Growing aubergines outdoors or in a greenhouse

Just like all other cold sensitive plants, the young aubergine plants should be planted outdoors from mid-May after the Ice Saints (May 11th until May 13th). Aubergines love a nutrient-rich soil, so it is best to incorporate compost into the soil before planting them. A greenhouse is perfect for growing aubergines because the plant gets more heat there than it would in the open field. Young plants should be planted at a distance of 60 x 60 cm. Aubergines tend to grow large and bear heavy fruit. For this reason, we recommend to support the plants with a climbing aid such as a stick or a rod. If you are planning on cultivating aubergines in the open, use black mulch foil at the beginning of the season so that the plant is sheltered from the elements.

Planting aubergines in a nutshell:

  • Sowing indoors from the end of January to the beginning of March (1-2 cm deep; at least 20°C)
  • Replanting after first leaves appear
  • Planting out in the open from the end of May at a protected location or in the greenhouse (distance 60 x 60 cm)
  • Support the plants with a climbing aid (a rod or a stick)
  • Use black mulch foil at the beginning to protect against the cold

Growing aubergines in a pot

Aubergine plants are also ideal for growing in pots on balconies or terraces. However, aubergines should be planted in a sufficiently large pot or a container (at least 10 litres capacity) because they require a decent amount of space for growth. Make sure to place the potted aubergine plants right next to the house wall so that the plants can benefit from the warmth radiating from the building.

cultivating aubergines
Aubergines can be just as easily cultivated in flowers pots on balconies or terraces [ vallefrias]

Maintaining aubergines

Here are some tips for aubergine care that are guaranteed to lead to a successful harvest of large and healthy fruits:

Pruning aubergines

Aubergines should be pruned. As a result of pruning some side shoots, the plant will have more energy to supply the other shoots and will not become too bulky. How to prune aubergines: let only 2 to 3 main shoots grow and remove further side shoots regularly. Lower leafy shoots should also be removed. The unnecessary aubergine shoots should be cut off with a sharp knife to prevent infection. As soon as the flowers form, make sure that just 2 to 3 fruits are formed per shoot. This allows the plant to use its energy for the development of fruits.

Watering and fertilising aubergines

Aubergine plants should be watered regularly, otherwise the fruits will remain small. It should be noted that when growing in pots, watering must be done more often, as the soil dries out more quickly. Nevertheless, you should not water the plants excessively, neither in the open nor in the pot, in order to minimise the risk of root rot. Aubergine plants are heavy feeders, which means that they can tolerate a nutrient rich soil in the garden. Therefore, adding compost into the soil before planting the young plants out is recommended. Similar nutrient enhancement should be done in summer. In the summer months, aubergine plants enter the main growing phase, and for this reason their development should be supported by using a tomato fertiliser or stinging nettle manure. Fertilise aubergines several times during summer.

Summary of tips for aubergine care:

  • Remove side shoots and allow only 2 to 3 fruits per shoot to grow
  • Water the plants regularly, but not excessively
  • Use compost at the beginning; use tomato fertiliser or nettle manure as fertiliser several times during summer

Aubergine varieties

When an aubergine is mentioned, everyone conjures an image in their head of the usual elongated deep purple vegetable. And although this association is not unfounded, there is a lot more to aubergines than meets the eye. There is a great variety to aubergine plants. Aubergines come in various shapes, sizes, colours and patterns ranging from the classic purple to white and even striped varieties. Here is a selection of some of the most popular aubergine varieties:

Classic aubergine varieties

  • Adria (F1): a newer variety with club-shaped, dark purple fruits; excellent aroma.
  • Anet (F1): has the classic aubergine appearance with elongated, richly coloured (deep purple to black) fruits; enjoys warmth; suited for cultivation in greenhouses or in a polytunnel.
  • Money Maker (F1): a modern variety favourite of many hobbyist gardeners; precocious with heavy harvest; very elongated, dark purple fruits; needs less warmth than other varieties.
  • Ophelia (F1): a variety which, due to its compact growth, is particularly suitable for cultivation on the balcony or terrace; smaller, club-shaped and purple fruits with an exquisite flavour; bears abundant yields.

Unique aubergine varieties

  • Bambino: forms small, round fruits with a violet colour; perfect to grow in a pot.
  • Casper: a club-shaped aubergine variety with striking white skin; particularly tender and fine flesh.
  • Prosperosa: a traditional variety from Italy with round, deep purple fruits (with a white edge on the sepals); excellent taste.
  • Violette di Firenze: has white to pale violet round fruits; a traditional variety from Northern Italy with medium heat requirements.

Harvesting and storing aubergines

Depending on the variety and the individual development of plants, aubergines can usually be harvested from the end of July until the first night frosts in autumn. It is very important to harvest aubergines at the exact right time as they should not be eaten if they are harvested too early or are too ripe. When green and unripe, aubergines are poisonous. The fact, that the young fruits of aubergine are poisonous is caused by the toxin solanine. In this article, you can learn more about the toxicity of aubergines. Then there is the other extreme: if the aubergines are too ripe, they turn brown and soft on the inside, which is far from appetizing and therefore not really recommended for eating.

Aubergines taste best when eaten immediately after harvesting. They can be stored for a short time in the refrigerator at low temperatures. However, we always recommend eating them within a few days after harvest.

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