I hadn’t had much luck growing eggplant previously. It seemed a bit of a lottery as to whether I’d get any eggplants at all: some years I’d get a few and other years none at all. There would nearly always be flowers but few or no fruit. A few years back when I was clearing out the remains of my summer vegetables, I was about to pull the eggplants out in disgust (again) when I noticed that there were some little fruit setting. I left the plants there and was rewarded with quite a good crop of eggplants throughout the autumn. It was then I realised that these plants needed lots of summer heat to set fruit so I should consider them to be for autumn harvest.
For the last couple of years I have managed to get quite a good crop with a little extra care. These really are heat-loving tropical or subtropical plants so if you plant them too early in the season they will sit and sulk with cold feet. If you are growing them from seed, plant them in late winter and keep them warm indoors to give them a good start in life, and then introduce them slowly to the glasshouse or garden once the temperature rises. If, like me, you buy plants from the garden centre, then don’t be tempted to plant them too early. I have been buying them at the same time as my main batch of summer vegetables for planting at Labour weekend (last week of October for those outside New Zealand) but keeping them in my mini-greenhouse for a few more weeks until it really warms up.
Once you’ve given them a nice warm start to life and planted them in a nice sunny spot in the garden, they take little effort to grow. They can be susceptible to fungal diseases so make sure they have good airflow. They are from the same family as tomatoes and potatoes so don’t growth them where you’ve grown tomatoes or potatoes in the last couple of years or you will risk them getting blight or other fungus. Otherwise keep them well watered and once they start to fruit you will be rewarded with a good succession of fruit into the autumn.
There are lots of different types of eggplant to try: all sorts of colours and sizes. My advice would be not to try to grow the enormous dark purple eggplants that you get from the supermarket but try some of the other varieties that produce smaller but much more plentiful fruit. My favourite are the lebanese eggplants that are long and slender and can be solid purple or white with purple stripes – these are used commonly in Asian and Mediterranean cooking. This year I tried a patio variety that has masses of rounded egg-shaped fruit. Next year I want to keep an eye out for some more unusual varieties – I read that they also come in white, blue, lilac, yellow and orange colours.