While in Italy last year, I loved the amazing range of tomatoes, zucchinis and eggplants for sale in markets. Every variety was delicious – the tomatoes so ripe and juicy they’d only last a day after purchase, but it didn’t matter because they were infinitely tastier than the watery, bland ones in Australian shops. Zucchinis half the size of ours, twice as sweet and ranging in colour from almost black, to yellow, pale green, speckled and almost white… yum!
Capsicums and chillies too varied to count… swoon! And the eggplants also came in different sizes, shapes and colours, including ones streaked with white. I even bought an Italian cooking magazine dedicated to just those three vegetables! I was completely inspired, and this season planted a variety in my own garden.
Although Adelaide and its suburbs have a Mediterranean climate ideal for growing those wonderful Italian stalwarts, the region of the Adelaide Hills where I live is different. It may be only thirty minutes from the city centre, but its elevation is nearly 2000 feet higher. It has an occasional snowfall in a significantly colder and wetter winter, the soil warms later in spring and cools earlier in autumn, and throughout the year temperatures are 4-6 degrees below that of the Plains. Orographic cloud (cloud that forms due to the shape of the terrain) means that, on many days when it’s sunny in Adelaide, it’s overcast or even drizzling in the Hills. The Hills are also far enough from the sea that many areas have severe frosts. Not surprisingly, the suburb of Piccadilly in the lee of Mt Lofty a few kilometres from my place, is famous for its cherries, apples and winter vegies. Dogwoods, camellias, azaleas and other cool climate plants thrive in the area too.
Therefore (and also not surprisingly) my first eggplant experience in the new garden two years ago was a mouth-puckering failure.
The challenge, of course, is the microclimate – not just locally, but the even more specific conditions within my back yard. The southerly aspect and trees to the northeast means the soil warms very late in spring, and trees to the north/west shorten the growing season as the sun drops lower in the sky (the advantageof that is my garden copes easily with a week above 40 degrees). My garden receives the occasional snowfall and plenty of hail, but luckily no frost, as it’s towards the top of a hill and relatively steep. The absence of solid fencing also allows cold air to drain away.
To give the eggplants the longest possible fruiting time, I mostly bought advanced seedlings in individual little pots, rather than punnets; if I had a mini glasshouse seed or separating smaller plants from punnets in early spring would be fine. Instead, I bought plants in early October, soaked them in a solution of Seasol Powerfeed for twenty minutes, and then potted them into black 150mm plastic pots, placed in the sunniest, most sheltered spot I could find. The black plastic warms the potting mix inside long before garden soil temperatures increase, thereby promoting earlier root growth. In mid spring, I also removed some of the mulch on the garden beds to help the soil warm. Next year, I’ll construct a little open-ended cloche of clear plastic on a wire frame and place it over the pots in the garden. The cloche may also protect them from unseasonal hail, although not from extreme batterings such as the one we had… in the last week of November!
Soil is prepared thoroughly in late winter with plenty of rotted compost, Fishers Creek Rock Dust, blood and bone and Sudden Impact for Roses, so that vegies need no extra feeding for the entire growing season. The eggplants were transplanted in early November, which would have been perfect in 2012, but 2013 was a later season. Next year, I might try small plastic windbreaks around each plant until all chance of cold wind – and hopefully hail! – are past.
Unlike chillies, which drop their flowers when it gets too hot, this doesn’t seem to happen to eggplants (or at least not in my garden) so I put them in the places that got the maximum amount of sun. And unlike tomatoes, which in a cool season seem to catch every damn fungal spore floating around, eggplants seem less susceptible: although I did get early blight on one after the November hailstorm, it recovered faster and more completely than some of the doomed tomatoes nearby.
The long Lebanese cultivars outperformed the traditional large oval shaped ones consistently throughout the garden – I duplicated them in areas so I could eliminate local soil or shading effects in different garden beds. The Lebanese had smaller but more fruit, produced earlier and for longer than the oval. They both tasted equally good but I found the Lebanese ones aren’t as good for baba ganoush, because by the time you roast and peel them there’s not much left inside! However, both outperformed the white eggplant – the one that truly looks like, well, an egg. This may be because many white flowering or fruiting forms of plants tend to also have less chlorophyll in their leaves, and are slightly less vigorous.
The only pest that attacked my eggplants last year was a little caterpillar that ate a tiny hole in the eggplant, and then made a tunnel filled with droppings all the way through the fruit. This year, I sprayed the young fruit with Dipel and have had no trouble.
A yummy recipe is to slice eggplant and okra (or omit if you haven’t got okra: a princely sum of THREE so far from my garden with a projected total harvest of six!) and fry in a generous splash of olive oil until browned. Remove and add chilli, onion and garlic to pan. Fry for a few minutes, then add eight chopped very ripe tomatoes and squish. Simmer twenty minutes, then add a handful of green beans. Cook another ten minutes, return okra and eggplant to the pan, and heat through. Leave a few hours at room temperature or refrigerate overnight for flavours to develop. Serve at room temperature with garlic bread.
Do you grow Mediterranean or even tropical plants in a cold or cool temperate climate? If so, please share your tips and tricks!