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All you need to know

Aubergines

They're an everyday sight in kitchens on the Med and in South-East Asia – but do you need the corresponding warm weather to grow decent aubergines? Thankfully not, says Anthony Bennett, who explains how Brits can get impressive results too

There’s a certain degree of mystery surrounding the cultivation of the aubergine. Many gardeners are put off the sub-tropical crop thanks to its reputation for disappointing results. This is unfair, as with of plenty of warmth and light they are surprisingly easy to grow. If you’ve grown tomatoes you should have no problem with aubergines, which are started off and brought on to harvest time in much the same way.

The supermarket shelves are stocked with just one choice of aubergine – those glossy, purple-black fruits we accept as the norm. Grow your own aubergines, however, and you could be enjoying all manner of varieties, including long and curled, oval, or baby-sized, and in a variety of colours including purple, white, cream and even striped. Combine this with the handsome, almost furry-textured foliage and you have the recipe for a decorative plant worthy of any border, let alone the kitchen garden or greenhouse.

While aubergines are relatively straightforward to grow, the best results will always be had by growing plants under the cover of a greenhouse or polytunnel. This is particularly true in cooler, northern areas of the UK.

Gardeners enjoying a sunny, sheltered position can try growing aubergines outside. Make sure the chosen site is well out of the wind and as warm as possible. Aubergines grown against the backdrop of a south-facing brick wall will fare best as it will act as a storage heater, soaking up the sun’s rays during the day and releasing the warmth at night when temperatures fall. Extra protection can also be given using fleece, cloches or a cold frame.

Aubergines – like peppers, tomatoes and potatoes – are members of the Solanaceae family so consider your crop rotation and site them in an area where these plants have not been grown in the past two years. Prepare the soil by digging it in winter and adding plenty of compost or well-rotted manure to enrich it. Position cloches over the site two weeks before planting out, to warm the soil.

Aubergines do well in containers, which allow them to be moved into a cold frame or greenhouse during cooler weather. The pots can also be repositioned on a patio to take advantage of any suntraps. For season-long greenhouse crops, grow plants in the border, digging in fresh compost a few weeks before planting time, or in grow bags or containers.

Ensure the longest growing season for your plants by sowing as early as possible – the more sun they can get, the greater their chances of success. Crops to be grown in the warmth of a greenhouse or polytunnel can be sown from mid-February through to March, while those left outdoors may be started off from mid-March to early April. Sow seeds into 7.5cm pots filled with seed compost then cover with a under cover very fine layer of compost or vermiculite. Water, then label the pots and place them into a heated propagator set at 21°C.

Alternatively, if you do not have a propagator, cover the pots with a clear polythene bag, secured around them with an elastic band, and place onto a warm, indoor windowsill. This will help to guarantee the humid conditions necessary for germination, a process which should take about 10 days. Once the seedlings have emerged, take them out of the propagator or remove the bag and allow them to grow on at a minimum temperature of 16–18°C. Keep the compost moist and maintain high light levels for good, even growth and sturdy young plants.

Once the seedlings have each reached about 3cm in height they can be transplanted into individual 7.5cm pots. Carefully ease out the seedlings using a dibber (a pencil will do) while gently holding them by the leaves, to lower the risk of harming their delicate stems. Fill the pots with multipurpose compost and use the dibber to make a hole into the middle of each pot. Transfer one seedling into each hole and feed back the compost around them. Tap the pots to settle the compost and ‘water in’ the seedlings. The young plants may appear to ‘sit’ for a few weeks without putting on any new growth but in this time they will be establishing the root system. Once this has occurred, top growth will restart at a good pace.

As the plants fill their containers, transplant them again into pots 12cm across to give them more room to grow. From mid-May they can be transferred to their final growing positions. Greenhouse, cold frame or patio aubergines may be grown in 23cm pots filled with soil-based John Innes no. 1 compost, which holds moisture well. Space the pots 50–60cm apart to give them plenty of room. Alternatively, plant the aubergines up into grow bags at two or three per bag. Dotting French marigolds in-between the aubergines will help to naturally ward off whitefly while at the same time attracting pollinators.

Outdoor plants should be planted out 50–60cm apart, and kept under cloches for at least two weeks so that they can gradually acclimatise to the outside temperatures. Whenever cool weather follows, drape your fleece over plants to keep them growing. A simple framework of bamboo canes can be used to create the frame for a very effective fleece ‘house’ for inground plants.

Aubergines love warmth and high humidity, so use a water spray to regularly mist greenhouse or polytunnel plants in hot weather. Setting dishes or buckets of water in-between plants will help to raise humidity and facilitate flower set. This will also reduce the chances of red spider mite attack, which can sometimes occur in enclosed environments, particularly when watering is irregular.

Support plants by staking each one with a bamboo cane and loosely tying them on to it as they grow. When they reach 30–40cm in height, pinch out the growing points to encourage bushier growth. Allow just four or five fruits to develop per plant – any more and they will be smaller and less likely to ripen satisfactorily. Baby-sized aubergines can be left to produce more fruits per plant. Once the desired number of fruits have set, remove any new flowers that form and pinch out any extra side-shoots that develop, as these will simply draw energy away from what you want the plant’s main activity to be – increasing fruit size. Remove old flower petals from developing aubergines as these are susceptible to contacting botrytis or mould which can then spread to other parts of the plant.

The fruits will grow larger if a high-potash liquid feed is applied once the first one has set. Use any organic tomato feed or try liquid comfrey fertiliser. These may be applied at the manufacturer’s recommended rate but for the best results you should use them little and often. Apply just one quarter of the recommended amount of feed per watering but add the feed at four times the usual frequency.

Aubergines take up to six months from sowing to be ready to harvest, which is the main reason for starting them off early in the growing season. The first fruits may mature from the end of July but the main cropping period won’t begin until August and will continue well into September. Cut fruits from the plant using a sharp knife or secateurs as soon as they have reached the desired size. They should still be glossy and plump, as those left much longer may begin to develop an unpalatable, bitter taste.

Crops grown under cover should have no problem ripening before the cold weather gets underway, but plants outside may need a helping hand. If progress is looking slow by the end of summer, cover them with fleece to raise the temperature underneath another degree or two. The fruits can keep for up to a fortnight in the fridge but are best enjoyed fresh from the plants for an unrivalled flavour.

Month-by-Month

  • January

    Continue preparing the site for your aubergines. Order in sufficient compost and pots so that you're ready to begin sowing seeds under cover in February.

  • February

    Start sowing this month for crops to be grown under cover. Select a reliable, early variety for the best results.

  • March

    This is the main month for starting off aubergines. Sow seeds into pots placed into a propagator or into pots which should be covered with polythene and placed on a windowsill. Maintain a temperature of 21°C.

  • April

    Finish sowing by the middle of the month and transplant the seedlings that have germinated into individual 7.5cm pots.

  • May

    Maintain a minimum temperature of 16–18°C as the young plants grow. Begin supporting them once they reach 20cm in height and plant out from mid-month.

  • June

    Finish planting the aubergines into their final locations – both outdoors and under cover. Protect those outside with a cloche for at least two weeks to help them properly acclimatise to their new position.

  • July

    Keep plants moist and warm throughout the growing season. Mist greenhouse crops to help the flowers successfully set fruit.

  • August

    Keep plants moist and warm throughout the growing season. Mist greenhouse crops to help the flowers successfully set fruit.

  • September

    This is the peak cropping time for homegrown aubergines. Keep feeding the plants with a high potash liquid fertiliser as the fruits ripen, and drape fleece over outside plants if progress is slow.

  • October

    Finish picking the last fruits from the stems this month and uproot the old plants to add to your compost heap as the season draws to a close.

  • November

    Begin planning for next year. New seed catalogues will soon appear and with them more varieties to try.

  • December

    Start preparing the outdoor site or greenhouse bed for next season's aubergine crop. Incorporate plenty of compost to enrich the soil and improve its water retention abilities.

Next
Egg Plant

Egg Plant

The aubergine originates from the Indian subcontinent and was cultivated as long ago as the 5th century BC in China. In these warmer climes the plants can live for three or more years, as they are actually perennial shrubs. But as there is no chance of them surviving the winter in much of the western world, they are treated as annuals – grown, cropped and dead within the year. In the wild they grow on hot, dry slopes to produce spiny plants that bear bitter, yellow fruits. The first cultivated varieties to be grown in the UK had smaller, round fruits with a cream or white colour. It was these early varieties that gave aubergine its other common name of egg plant – one which is still used in the US and Australia.

Related Forum Topics

Aubergines: Varieties To Try

  • Calliope F1

    Try this hybrid variety for compact plants ideal for container growing on patios. It yields a heavy crop of baby fruits about 5cm in diameter and if the oval fruits are left to grow on to 10cm, they will mature to an attractive purple-cream streaked colouration.

  • Monemaker

    This early variety is regarded by many as the most reliable cropper in the notoriously fickle British climate. It produces many fruits of the colour and shape supermarket shoppers will be used to – but has a much improved flavour.

  • Slim Jim

    Its compact growth makes ‘Slim Jim’ one of the easiest varieties to plant outside in pots. The violet fruits crop heavily and form in bunches like bananas. They should be picked when approaching 10cm in length.

  • Thai Long Green

    Pick this heirloom variety from Thailand if you like bags of flavour in your cooking. It’s widely considered the best tasting aubergine available, boasting slender, lime-green fruits up to 30cm long that are both mild and sweet.

Which Variety?

The choice of aubergines available to grow increases almost yearly, offering the home grower an ever expanding range to choose from. If you are growing aubergines outdoors it is safest to pick a variety described as ‘early’, which basically means fastgrowing and so significantly raises the chance of a good crop of fruits setting before the autumn weather takes hold. Also look out for modern varieties described as ‘bitterfree’, as these will be easier to prepare in the kitchen, requiring less salting to draw away the bitter taste and turn the aubergines into useful ingredients. Most of the plants tend to have slightly spiny stems. While this won’t be a problem during their day-to-day care, it may prove uncomfortable when you come to pick the fruits. If this causes you concern then opt for a spine-free variety such as ‘Calliope’ F1.

Aubergines

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