The eggplant experiment
My chef wanted me to grow eggplant, something I’d never done before. She picked a variety named "Fairy Tale" that was said to yield good quantities of small lavender-purple fruits with white stripes on compact (18-to-24 inch) plants. Like a lot of first-time experiences in the garden, there were a couple of bumps along the road. Here’s what happened.
Seeds were started in peat pots in mid-March indoors, then thinned after three weeks to the best seedling per pot. The seedlings grew slowly but steadily under florescent lights. Around the first of May the plants were hardened off by exposing them to sun and wind for increasing times each day. They went in the ground May 10, and initially grew well.
Early in June I noticed something eating the leaves. Diagnosis: eggplant flea beetles, shiny black insects less than 1/8 inch long that hop like fleas. The plants’ leaves were decimated. First I sprayed the leaves with insecticidal soap, but that didn’t stop the beetles completely. So then I dusted the plants with carbaryl (Sevin®).
New healthy foliage began to appear a week or two later, and the plants started to blossom. By mid-July several fruits had set, and harvest began later that month. But I had to keep using carbaryl until early August to stay ahead of the beetles. The pesticide label told me how to apply, how often, the maximum number of applications per season, and the minimum number of days between the last application and harvest.
Flea beetles can have multiple generations each year. One of the best controls for eggplant is to plant later in the season, after that year’s first generation of beetles has hatched and gone elsewhere looking for food. Putting spun row cover over the plants until the blossoms open should also help. That’s the strategy we’ll try next time. If the beetles appear I’ll catch them early with insecticidal soap, sprayed when they are feeding early in the morning or late in the afternoon, making sure to cover all leaf surfaces. Chemical or botanical insecticides will only be used as a last resort.
Overall we were pleased with "Fairy Tale;" it won a blue ribbon at the county fair. Even the smallest fruits were good for making ratatouille, which we froze for winter use. But next time we’ll put in one or two plants, not four. We just don’t eat that much eggplant.
Jim Janke is an Extension Master Gardener Volunteer in Haywood County. For more information call the Haywood County Extension Center at 456-3575. © 2012 NC State University.