A Pepper Primer: Peppers Still the Hottest Thing in Gardening -- Texas Gardener

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By Brenda H. Reed
Freelance Writer

The scientific name for eggplant is Solanum Melongena. In Europe and Britain it is also known as the Aubergine. It is one of the least widely appreciated vegetables in the Western World. It is closely related to peppers, tomatoes, and potatoes. They are, as is eggplant, in the Nightshade family. Tomatoes were once believed to be poisonous, and eggplants were believed by superstitious Europeans to induce insanity, so it was known as a "mad apple" until a few centuries ago. The purple-fruited eggplant was the first variety to become domesticated in Southeast Asia. In 1550, yellow and purple varieties were introduced to Germany from Naples, Italy. By 1600, white, egg-shaped fruits, as well as oval, pear-shaped, oblong, and long were familiar varieties also. The English coined the name "eggplant" from a variety of white, egg-shaped eggplants. Eggplants were grown in the U.S. as ornamental plants until about 50 years ago.

Eggplants seem to love hot weather and grow well in all parts of Texas. As tomatoes, peppers, and the rest of a spring/summer garden succumb to the sweltering heat and relentless sun of late summer in Texas, eggplants keep producing until cool weather arrives in early fall.

Eggplants prefer well-drained, sunny locations to grow. Transplants should be bought or raised. Direct seeding is not a good idea. If you purchase transplants, choose sturdy, dark green plants that are not in bloom. Inspect the top and undersides of leaves for apparent insect problems and to make sure diseases are not present as well.

There are more than 150 varieties of eggplant, offering an inspiring array of colors, sizes, and shapes. There are bulbous eggplants, stout, channeled eggplants, and thin cylindrical eggplants. There are eggplants shaped like tear drops, fingers, eggs, water balloons, and overfed woodworms. In size, eggplants can range from 2 inches and a few ounces, to 16 inches and a few pounds. But the colors are the real show-stoppers. Try Select and experiment with several different shapes and colors.

Raising Transplants
Seed the eggplants 4 to 6 weeks prior to planting date for the garden. Plant the seeds 1/2-inch deep in a moist medium. Keep them moist to the touch until seedlings emerge, and throughout their leaf development. The temperature should be kept at approximately 75 to 85 degrees F. Damping off can be a problem, so don't over-water. Transplant seedlings to 4-inch pots when the stems have straightened and the first true leaves develop. This usually is when they are about three weeks old. The young plants should be exposed to full sunlight if possible. A greenhouse works very well for raising transplants in pre-spring. The best temperature for growing the transplants is 70 to 85 degrees F during the day and nighttime temperatures not lower than 60 degrees. If you don't have a greenhouse, a hotbed or a cold frame works well also.

Begin hardening the plants off about two weeks before you plan to plant them in your garden. This helps them withstand planting shock better. Begin by moving the plants outdoors to a shady spot, then into sunlight for short periods of time each day, increasing the time of full exposure gradually. Reduce water to slow their growth, but do not let the containers dry out, or let the plants wilt. Don't put them outside on windy days. When all danger of frost has passed they can be planted outdoors. If there is an unexpected cool front, cover the plants with a row cover or light blankets.

Planting
If possible, avoid planting eggplants where they were grown the previous year. Also, avoid planting them where tomatoes, peppers, or potatoes were grown as well. All of these plants can have the same disease problems. Eggplants are heavy feeders and may need extra fertilizer to produce a good crop. If your garden soil is low in nutrition, apply 2 to 3 lbs. of complete fertilizer such as 5-10-10, 6-12-12, or 9-16-16, per 100 ft. of garden area when preparing the soil. Barnyard manures may also be used to increase fertility. A cup of starter solution poured around the newly planted transplants helps them get off to a good start. When the plants have grown and begin flowering, side-dress around each plant with about 1/4 cup of complete fertilizer, or compost. Be sure to give your plants ample space to grow. Eggplants can reach the size of a big hedge, so they will need at least 3 feet of space between them.

Eggplants do not have the ability to develop roots along their stem as their relative the tomato does. Plant them just as deeply as they are growing in a container, just below their bottom leaves. Once your eggplants are established, mulch around them with hay, grass clippings, leaves, etc. to retain even moisture and minimize weed pulling. Eggplants need a generous amount of soil moisture, so when Mother Nature doesn't supply an adequate amount, water twice a week to dampen the soil to the depth of about 8 inches. Side-dress each plant with a high-nitrogen fertilizer. Ammonium sulfate or ammonium nitrate works well. Begin applying when the transplants have been in the garden for about a month.

Insects and Diseases
Flea beetles and spider mites can cause a lot of damage to eggplants. They will attack the leaves almost instantly as they are set out in the garden. The best discouragement I have found for these two pests is to plant herbs, such as basil and cilantro between the eggplants to confuse them. Also, psytoseiulus persimillis, a microscopic predator mite that eats the spider mite, as well as its eggs, may be purchased from a garden supply, through seed catalogs, or from sources from the Internet. You can release them into your garden for natural control of the spider mites. These tiny little pests are the worst because you can't really see them unless you are looking for them with a magnifying glass. The damage is done by the time you notice. Flea beetles leave holes in the leaves; spider mites suck the plants' juices, leaving their leaves yellowed and slightly webbed. The hotter and drier the weather, the more prevalent they are. Sticky insect traps work for control of the flea beetle, but should be used wisely because they not only attract many garden pests but also several beneficial insects. Leaf miners and potato bugs also may be a problem for eggplants, but the flea beetle and spider mite are the major concern in the midst of summer in Texas.

Anthracnose, a fungal disease that affects tomatoes and eggplants, is a common disease to be wary of in eggplants. In both fruits, this disease causes small, circular lesions underneath the skins of fruits as they ripen. This disease is best avoided by crop rotation. Also, use an approved fungicide at the onset of fruit as a good preventative and control.

Soil borne nematodes may be a problem in the garden for eggplants. Again, this problem may be avoided by practicing crop rotation. Another way of controlling this problem is drying out the soil, or summer fallowing. Remove all plants and plant roots from the garden. Spade or till during the late summer months to keep the garden dry. Nematodes need a layer of water around soil particles in order to live. Therefore when the garden is kept dried out, the nematodes die, and tilling and spading bring the nematodes to the surface where they are exposed to the sun, which also decreases the number.

Another way to help rid the garden of nematodes is to put down a cover crop such as cereal rye. As the cover crop grows, water it and fertilize it if necessary. About three to six weeks before planting your spring crops, till the cereal rye into the soil. It decomposes and kills nematodes by releasing chemicals it contains.

Harvesting Eggplants
One of the most common eggplants grown in Texas is the Black Beauty. I use this one in many delicious recipes. Harvest this variety when it appears full and glossy. A dull appearance usually is an indicator of a bitter tasting eggplant.

RECIPES

Roasted Eggplant Parmesan

2 small eggplants
   (1-1/4  pounds each) cut
    into 1/2 inch-thick slices
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 can (28 oz.) plum tomatoes,
    drained and chopped
1/4 teaspoon ground
    black pepper
1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley
4 ounces mozzarella cheese,
    shredded, 1 cup
1/2 cup freshly grated
    Parmesan cheese

   1. Preheat oven to 450F. Place eggplant on two large cookie sheets. Brush oil on both sides of eggplant and sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon salt. Roast 15 minutes; turn slices and roast until eggplant has browned and is tender, 20 to 25 minutes. 
   2. Meanwhile, in nonstick 12-inch skillet, combine tomatoes, remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt, and pepper; cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes have thickened, about 20 minutes. Stir in parsley.
   3. Turn oven control to 400F. In shallow 2-1/2-quart casserole, layer half of the eggplant and top with half of the tomato sauce; sprinkle with half of mozzarella. Repeat the layers and top with grated Parmesan.
   4. Cover loosely with foil. Bake until bubbling, about 10 minutes. Remove casserole from oven and let stand at least 10 minutes before serving.

Glazed Japanese Eggplant

5 medium Japanese eggplants
    (5 ounces each) each cut
    lengthwise in half
1 tablespoon minced, peeled
    fresh ginger
3 cloves garlic, crushed with
    a garlic press
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon cornstarch
3 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon seasoned
    rice vinegar
1/2 teaspoon Asian sesame oil
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 cup plus
    2 tablespoons water

   1. With knife, lightly score cut side of eggplants in crisscross pattern, about 3/4 inch apart, being careful not to cut all the way to edge. 
   2. In a small bowl, combine ginger, garlic, brown sugar, cornstarch, soy sauce, vinegar, and sesame oil until mixed.

   3. In nonstick 12-inch skillet, heat 1 tablespoon vegetable oil over medium-high heat. Arrange half of eggplant, cut side down; in skillet; add 1/4 cup water. Cover and cook until tender and lightly browned, 7 to 10 minutes. Transfer eggplant to plate; keep warm. Repeat with remaining 1 tablespoon vegetable oil, remaining eggplant, and 1/4 cup water.
   4. Reduce heat to medium. Add soy-sauce mixture and remaining 2 tablespoons water to skillet. Heat to boiling, stirring until sauce has thickened; boil one minute. Pour sauce over eggplant. Makes 5 accompaniment servings.

Caponata

2 small eggplants
    (1 pound each) ends
    trimmed and cut into
    3/4 inch pieces
1/2 cup extravirgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 small red onions,
    thinly sliced 
1-1/2 pounds ripe tomatoes
    (4 medium) peeled,
    seeded, and chopped
1 cup olives, such as Gaeta,
    green Sicillian, or Kalamata,
    pitted and chopped
3 tablespoons capers,
    chopped
3 tablespoons golden raisins
1/4 teaspoon coarsely
    ground black pepper
4 stalks celery with leaves,
    thinly sliced
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons sugar
1/4 cup fresh flat-leafed
    parsley

   1. Preheat oven to 450F. In two jelly-roll pans, place eggplant, dividing evenly. Drizzle with 1/4 cup oil and sprinkle with salt, tossing to coat. Roast eggplant ten minutes, stir, and then roast until browned, about 10 minutes longer.
   2. Meanwhile, in nonstick 12-inch skillet, heat remaining 1/4 cup oil over medium heat. Add onions and cook, stirring, until tender and golden, about 10 minutes. Add tomatoes, olives, capers, raisins, and pepper. Reduce heat; cover and simmer 15 minutes.
   3. Add eggplant and celery to skillet and cook over medium heat, stirring until celery is tender, about 8 to 10 minutes. Stir in vinegar and sugar and cook 1 minute longer. Cool to room temperature, or refrigerate overnight. To serve, sprinkle with parsley. Makes about 5 cups.

 

EGGPLANT SEED SOURCES

Willhite Seed Co.
P.O. Box 33TG
Poolville, TX 76487
www.willhiteseed.com

Harris Seeds
355 Paul Road
P.O. Box 24966
Rochester, NY 14624-0996
www.harrisseeds.com

Seed Savers Exchange
3076 North Winn Road
Decorah, IA 52101
www.seedsavers.org

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
2278 Baker Creek Road
Mansfield, MO 65704
(417) 924-8917
www.rareseeds.com




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