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Great for kids

Aubergines Growing Guide

Great for kids

Aubergines Growing Guide

Aubergines are an everyday sight in kitchens on the Med and in South-East Asia – but do you need the corresponding warm weather to grow a decent crop? Thankfully not, says expert Anthony Bennett, who explains how Brits can get impressive results with this ultimate aubergine growing guide.

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Aubergines quick links

How to grow Aubergines

There’s a certain degree of mystery surrounding aubergine growing conditions, with many people asking ‘can I grow aubergines in the UK?’ The answer is, of course, yes! Many gardeners are put off the subtropical crop thanks to its reputation for disappointing results, but this is unfair. With plenty of warmth and light, aubergines are surprisingly easy to grow.

If you’re looking for aubergine growing tips, you’ve come to the right place. While aubergines are relatively straightforward to grow, the best results will always be had by growing aubergines in a polytunnel or in a greenhouse. This is particularly true in cooler, northern areas of the UK.

How to grow aubergines outdoors in the UK

If you have a sunny, sheltered garden, you can try growing aubergines outside; just make sure the chosen site is well out of the wind. The ideal aubergine growing temperature should be quite warm – around 21°C.

Aubergines grown against the backdrop of a south-facing brick wall will fare best. 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.

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Growing Aubergines 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 aubergines 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 aubergine 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.

Must do this 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 settle into 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. If you’re growing aubergines in a greenhouse, mist the 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.

How to grow Aubergines from seed

Ensure the longest growing season for your aubergine plants as possible by sowing as early as you can – the more sun they can get, the greater their chances of success. If you’re growing crops in the warmth of a greenhouse or polytunnel, sow these from mid-February through to March. Those that are left outdoors may be started off from mid-March to early April.

Sow aubergine seeds into 7.5cm pots filled with seed compost, then cover with a 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, you can grow aubergines indoors at first. Simply cover the pots with a clear polythene bag, secure an elastic band around them, and then place the plants on 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 aubergine 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.

Pricking out Aubergines

Once your seedlings have each reached about 3cm in height, they can be transplanted into individual 7.5cm pots. Pricking out is one of the easiest aubergine growing stages to master, as long as you’re careful!

Ease out the seedlings using a dibber 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 aubergine 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 aubergine 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.

Caring for your Aubergines plants + problems

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.

How to harvest Aubergines

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.

Varieties of Aubergines

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. You could opt for long and curled ones, oval examples, or baby aubergines, and a variety of colours including purple, white, cream and even striped. Combine this with the handsome, almost furry-textured foliage, and you have a recipe for a decorative plant worthy of any border, let alone the kitchen garden or greenhouse.

The choice of aubergines available to grow increases almost yearly, offering the home grower an ever-expanding range to choose from. If you’re growing aubergines outdoors, it’s safest to pick a variety described as ‘early’, which basically means fast-growing. This significantly raises the chance of a good crop of fruits setting before the autumn weather takes hold.

Look out for modern aubergine varieties described as ‘bitterfree’, as these will be easier to prepare in the kitchen, requiring less salting to draw away the bitter taste.

Most aubergine 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 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.

Moneymaker

This early variety of aubergine 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 aubergine 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.

Cooking with Aubergines + Aubergines recipes

You’ll be pleased to hear that aubergines are good for you: they’re packed with antioxidants which fight free radicals: unstable cellular properties that are linked to aging and disease. Fresh eggplant is also great for looking after your heart health, as it is high in fibre and low in calories, helping to keep heart disease at bay.

If you’re unsure about how to cook aubergines, here’s a top tip: don’t peel aubergines if you can help it. In purple varieties, the antioxidant nasunin is found in the skin, providing its colour, and a whole host of vitamins and minerals.

Store aubergines in the fridge once you have cut them off the plant; ideally, use them as fresh as possible. If you’re wondering what aubergines taste like – try them! They have a mild, slightly earthy flavour, and their soft, spongy texture makes them ideal for soaking up sauces.

Here’s a really simple, delicious recipe: cut the aubergines into slices, pour a little olive oil into a frying pan, and watch the aubergine flesh turn slightly golden. Sprinkle over some salt and pepper, and you have a seriously satisfying snack!

Alternatively, why not make a simple baba ganoush? Grill your aubergines for 20 minutes until they are soft enough to mash, then mix in tahini, lemon juice, garlic and some spices, et voila!

Stuffed Aubergines

Gluten-free

If you’re wondering how to cook baby aubergines, look no further than this mouth-watering vegetarian-friendly recipe from Veggie. With preserved lemon and spritz of lemon juice, this tangy recipe is sure to become a family favourite.

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Ken Hom’s Braised Spicy Aubergines

Vegan

The subtle flavour of eggplant is receptive to a zesty sauce, which you’ll find in this delicious recipe from Western China.

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Stuffed Aubergines

Gluten-free

This tasty recipe couldn’t be easier: preheat the oven, score your aubergines, and pour Belazu tomato sauce over the top with roughly chopped mint.

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