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Western Pa. a good place for eggplants

| Friday, Aug. 8, 2014, 8:57 p.m.

I didn't really start to appreciate eggplant until I took a trip to Italy 10 years ago and ate some fresh-picked eggplant that had been sliced and grilled over a charcoal fire. Now, these delicious veggies find a place in my garden every year because, much like an heirloom tomato, homegrown is always the best.

Eggplants ( Solanum melongena) are a member of the nightshade family. Close cousins to the tomato and potato, this warm-season vegetable is quite at home here in Western Pennsylvania. A native of the Indian subcontinent, where its wild relatives can grow up to 8 feet tall, eggplants are true perennials. Plants can grow for years in climates that never dip below freezing, but here, they are grown as a warm-season annual crop.

To successfully grow eggplants, seeds should be started indoors under lights for eight to 10 weeks before the last expected spring frost, or transplants can be purchased from a local nursery.

Most eggplant varieties require a fairly long growing season, with larger selections taking upward of 75 days to fully mature. Be sure to select varieties that are appropriate for our region (some of my favorites are Rosa Bianca, Fairy Tale and Millionaire).

Much like other warm-season crops, including tomatoes and peppers, eggplant seedlings should not be moved out into the garden until daytime temperatures regularly reach up into the 60s and 70s and nights remain above 50 degrees, usually in mid- to late May.

Before planting, work organic matter into the soil and be sure the soil pH ranges from 6.5 to 6.0. Locate the seedings in an area where they'll receive a minimum of six to eight hours of full sun each day.

Eggplants prefer warm soil, so using black plastic to cover the ground for a few weeks before planting will speed up their growth, as will mulching the plants with dark compost.

A few weeks after planting, your eggplants will come into bloom. The flowers are white to purple in color, with bright yellow anthers. And though the first few flowers may drop off the plant and fail to produce, rest assured that the remaining flowers will each yield a single fruit, with each plant often bearing five or more fruits. The more frequently the fruits are harvested, the greater the fruit set.

During flowering and fruit development, be sure to supply the plants with adequate moisture, about 1 inch of water per week either via rainfall or supplemental irrigation.

The diversity of available eggplant varieties is simply astounding. Fruits can be dark purple, lavender, yellow, white, rose, cream, reddish-purple and even orange, depending on the selection. And their shapes are equally as diverse. Small egg-shaped varieties are perfect for single servings, while a single huge, teardrop-shaped fruit will easily fill an entire pan with eggplant parmesan.

No matter which eggplant variety you choose to grow, the fruits are ready to harvest when the skin is glossy and the pad of your thumb does not leave an impression on the skin. When cutting the fruit from the plant, leave the calyx and an inch or so of stem intact to prevent rot. Overmature fruit will be soft and slightly mushy, and the seeds will be brown, rather than white. Harvested fruit can be stored from 50 degrees to 55 degrees for up to two weeks before use.

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden: A Natural Approach to Pest Control” and “Good Bug, Bad Bug.” Her website is www.jessicawalliser.com.

Send your gardening or landscaping questions to tribliving@tribweb.com or The Good Earth, 503 Martindale St., 3rd Floor, D.L. Clark Building, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.

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