Also known as eggplants, aubergines are native to the tropical regions of India, but became a staple in Mediterranean cuisine after being introduced to Europe in the 8th century. Although loved by many, aubergines aren’t a vegetable that supermarkets tend to focus on – chances are, your local food shops only sell one type of aubergine. If you’re an aubergine fan and have been missing out on all of those weird and wonderful (and incredibly delicious!) varieties out there, it’s time to start growing your own!
Growing Aubergines: A Quick Snapshot
When to Sow – Jan-Mar
When to Plant – June
When to Harvest – Aug-Oct
Average Yield per Plant – 2kg
Spacing – 60cm
Depth – 20-30cm
How to Grow Aubergines at Home
Many gardeners, especially those living in temperate climates, struggle with aubergines. Those who do manage to keep their plants alive until harvest time often only have a couple of small-sized fruits to pick. This has given aubergines the reputation of being difficult to grow, when this isn’t actually the case!
Here are the secrets to a large and flavourful harvest:
Aubergine Seeds Need to be Sown Early
With aubergines being related to tomatoes, many often sow seeds for both at the same time. However, this sets you off to a bad start before you’ve even begun…
Aubergines need a much longer growing season. They take about six to seven months to go from germination to harvest, sometimes longer. So, seeds need to be started in late winter – the end of January is ideal.
This means that you’ll need heated propagators and warm, sunny spots to grow your aubergine seedlings on, as it will still be a good few months before they can be planted out.
Aubergines Need Plenty of Sun and Heat
Another reason why gardeners in temperate climates struggle with growing aubergines is because these plants need a consistent amount of sun and heat. They love hot climates – something that gardeners in colder regions struggle to provide.
For the best harvest, you need to give your aubergine plants daily temperatures of around 20°C. Anything higher would be even more beneficial. This needs to be accompanied by full sun.
Unless you live in a very warm climate, you will need to grow your aubergines in a greenhouse or a polytunnel for the biggest harvests.
Aubergines Need a Loamy Soil
There’s no getting around the fact that aubergines love moist soil, meaning that you need to be using a loamy soil mix with high water-retention qualities.
Incorporating plenty of organic matter into your soil will help too. This not only increases moisture retention, but will also provide a slow-releasing source of feed to your aubergine plants.
How to Grow Aubergines from Seed
Aubergine seedlings can be pretty delicate – even the smallest amount of root disturbance could affect their growth.
For this reason, it’s always best to start aubergine seeds off in individual modules or pots, rather than sowing several together and pricking them out.
Module trays work well, or you could also go for 7.5cm-9cm pots. This may seem large to begin with, but your seedlings will grow quickly and will appreciate the space.
Fill your pots with a seed starting compost and then place an aubergine seed over the top of each one. Lightly cover with more compost, so that the seeds are just half a centimetre deep, before watering.
Your aubergine seeds will need to be kept in a warm location or in a heated propagator. A consistent temperature of around 18-21°C is needed in order for the seeds to germinate.
Caring for Aubergine Seedlings
If you’re able to keep your seeds warm enough, they’llgerminate in about ten days.
You’ll need to keep your seedlings moist and warm, while also giving them plenty of bright light.
After a few weeks, you’ll notice roots starting to emerge from the bottoms of their pots. This is a sign that you need to pot your seedlings up. Don’t wait too long, as you don’t want them to end up root bound.
You will likely need to pot your seedlings up twice before they are ready to be planted out. 12-15cm is probably the largest pot size that you will need, but this does depend on your location – those in colder climates will need to keep their plants in protected conditions for longer, before temperatures outside warm up enough for the aubergines to be planted out.
How to Plant Aubergines Outside
If you live in a warmer part of the world where temperatures remain a consistent 20°C during the day, then your aubergines will thrive outside. For everyone else, greenhouse-growing would be the better option.
To plant your aubergines outside, prepare your planting bed and then create holes large enough to accommodate the amount of soil in each of your aubergine pots. Space each hole 60cm apart.
Gently remove your aubergine plants from their pots, trying to lift out as much soil as possible with the roots. Place them into their new holes, cover over, and firm down.
Water well after planting, keeping the water aimed towards the base of the plant, rather than its foliage.
How to Plant Aubergines in a Greenhouse
If your greenhouse beds are in the ground, then you can follow the same steps as when planting outside.
However, if you’re going to be growing your aubergines in containers in a greenhouse, then make sure that you have pots at least 30cm in diameter. Drainage holes in your pots are essential.
Half-fill each pot with a quality, loamy compost. Place an aubergine plant inside, cover over with soil, and then firm down. Water well, making sure that the water is draining freely from the bottom of each pot.
How to Care for Aubergines
You’ll need to give your aubergines quite a bit of attention as they grow:
Water and Humidity
The aubergine is a very thirsty plant – you need to make sure that the top six inches of soil is consistently moist, but never soggy.
In addition to needing plenty of water, aubergines also require high humidity levels.
Regularly misting the leaves of your aubergine plants can help to raise humidity, but does also make the plants more prone to disease. An alternative to this would be to place wide saucers of water around your plants to increase ambient humidity.
You’ll need to provide your aubergine plants with supports very soon after planting. This will not only encourage better growth and production, but will also prevent the fruits from coming into contact with the soil, which would cause them to rot.
Aubergine supports don’t have to be complicated – bamboo canes work well, as do tomato cages, so long as you remember to keep tying your aubergine plants to their supports as they grow.
Feeding Your Aubergines
Aubergines do exceptionally well when regularly fed with an organic fertiliser during their growing season. Whether you go for a seaweed extract, blood and bone meal, animal manure, or anything else, give your aubergines a feed every couple of weeks.
Once you notice fruits appearing on your aubergine plants, it’s time to increase potassium. A high-potassium liquid fertiliser applied every two weeks will enhance fruit growth.
Weeding Your Aubergines
Just like most other food crops out there, aubergines don’t like to compete for water, nutrients, and light. Allowing weeds to creep up around your plants will inhibit growth and fruiting, meaning less aubergines for you to harvest.
Weekly weeding is key to staying on top of the weeds. Alternatively, layer a mulch around the base of your aubergine plants. This will not only help to suppress the weeds, but will also keep the soil warmer and wetter, which is exactly what aubergines love!
Pinching Out Aubergine Plants
Once your aubergine plants are about 45-50cm in height, it’s time to pinch them out. This encourages them to form a bushy, rather than a tall and lanky, shape, which will give you more fruits.
To do this, simply snip off the top of each of your plants. You’ll notice plenty of new growth in just a couple of days!
If you’re growing your aubergines outside, then chances are that you won’t have any problems with pollination. However, greenhouses with a lack of ventilation, as well as a lack of pollinating insects, will find that pollination is poor, meaning fewer fruits.
To prevent this from happening, keep an eye out for the first flowers forming on your aubergine plants. Once they appear, regularly visit your plants with a paintbrush, dabbing this into the centre of one flower before moving on to the next. This will help to spread the pollen from flower to flower.
How to Harvest Aubergines
Once the skin on your aubergines thins out and turns beautifully glossy, the fruits are ready to be picked. Do this quickly, because aubergines actually taste better when they are slightly under-ripe.
Don’t be tempted to pull at the fruits to harvest them. Aubergine stems are very woody – tugging at the fruit will end up damaging the rest of the plant. Instead, cut each aubergine at its stem to release it from the plant.
Aubergines are usually ready to harvest from August onwards, although you may end up with a few extra-keen fruits that are ready to be picked towards the end of July.
How to Store Aubergines
Unfortunately, fresh aubergines don’t store well. When kept unwashed and uncut in the fridge, a freshly-picked aubergine will only keep for a few days. Once the skin starts wrinkling, you’ll know that you’ve waited too long to eat them.
If you would like to store your aubergines long term, your best bet would be to either preserve them or freeze them. You can freeze raw aubergine if you quickly blanch it first, or you can cook them and then freeze them.
How to Prepare & Cook Aubergines
Aubergine preparation methods vary depending on how you’re planning to cook them. However, whether you may be slicing, dicing, skinning, or anything else, don’t be tempted to prep your aubergines too far in advance of the cooking process.
Just like apples, aubergine flesh discolours when exposed to the air. If you aren’t going to be using your prepared aubergines quickly enough, then you will need to salt them.
When it comes to cooking aubergines, there are so many different cooking styles and techniques from all over the world at your disposal. A few must-try’s include:
A traditional Italian aubergine parmigiana
Sliced in half and grilled to enhance its natural smokiness
Stuffing them and baking them
Roasting aubergine chunks to use in a pasta
Stir-fried in a sticky soy sauce
Pan-fried and then simmered in a spicy curry
Common Aubergine Problems
There are quite a few pests and diseases that could potentially affect your aubergine plants. Although treatments for each vary, keeping your plants as healthy as possible, providing optimum humidity, and practicing companion planting can help to keep pests and diseases to a minimum.
Aphids and whiteflies – these tiny bugs cluster on the undersides of leaves. They suck the sap from a plant, inhibiting growth and slowly killing the plant. Homemade aphid sprays can help, with neem oil being a popular ingredient.
Spider mites – if you notice that new shoots are yellowing and weak, and your plants also have a light webbing on the undersides of the foliage, then this is a sign of a spider mite infestation. Again, neem oil can help, although a jet of water can also work wonders on a light infestation.
Bacterial wilt – this disease causes all parts of the plant to slowly wilt and die. Unfortunately, there isn’t a cure – remove infected plants immediately to prevent the disease from spreading.
Early blight – this is a fungal disease that will cause your plants to turn yellow and brown, with dark brown spots appearing on the stems and leaves. The disease spreads in overly-wet and warm conditions, so improve ventilation and only water your plants at their base.
Popular Aubergine Varieties to Grow
Here are some of the tastiest aubergine varieties to grow:
Globe – also known as the American eggplant, this one is large, fleshy, and meaty
Ping Tung Long – a deep purple, elongated Taiwanese variety with tender and sweet flesh
Purple Comet – a hybrid with very thin skins and few seeds
Paloma – bell-shaped white fruits that are extremely delicate, meaning that this is one rarely available in shops and markets
Rosa Bianca – beautifully-streaked purple and white skins with delicately-flavoured flesh
Patio Baby – a compact variety that produces spineless, bright purple fruits – great for pots and containers!
Aubergines do require a little more attention than many other vegetables, but the results are more than worth it. You’ll be able to grow such a diverse range of colours, flavours, and textures, enabling you to really discover the culinary potential that the humble aubergine holds.
Alina Jumabhoy has spent several years learning about, and experimenting with, different organic growing techniques at various gardens and farms around the country. Fuelled by her quest for self-sufficiency, she’s now putting that information to good use on her own rural farm.