How to grow aubergines

By Val Bourne , Wednesday 29 May 2013

Aubergines are not the easiest crop to produce in Britain. They need warmth and heat, but they can make perfect plants for a greenhouse, a polytunnel, or a cold frame filled with warming manure to create a hot bed.
Growing auberginesMore usually found in Mediterranean Europe, aubergines can be coaxed into life in the UK with plenty of warmth

Given good conditions they will make tall, vigorous plants bearing lots of fruit. Most British gardeners would not be able to grow them outside and they will always do much better in good summers under glass.

A hot bed covered by a cold frame

This is the most economical way to grow aubergines without the expense of buying a greenhouse, or a polytunnel. The manure creates warmth as it decomposes underground and this warmth is kept in by a cold frame that covers the ground. It isn’t easy, but a keen gardener can manage it. You can use a cold frame on its own, but the manure provides extra heat.

Aubergines in a hot frame by Val BourneThe ancient roots of the hot bed/cold frame concept

The Moors used hot beds widely to start plants off from 961 AD and the practice spread. They began to be used in Europe in 1305 and eventually found their way into Britain in 1577. Gerard included instructions in his herbal of 1597 although Parkinson was the first person to coin the phrase hot bed in 1629. The Romans invented the cold frame, which used to be known as the Roman Frame. John Evelyn had the idea of marrying up the two - a hot bed protected by a frame - and presented a paper to the recently-formed Royal Society in 1661 explaining the idea.  The same principle was used to raise pineapples, melons and other fruit. Sometimes the heat was generated by stoves, but often muck was used. If manure is hard to come by, decomposing green matter can also be used. Once decomposition starts, the inside temperature is usually much warmer than outside and this promotes early growth.

Aubergine-growing tips

  • Seeds need to be sown in February (in nodules) and placed in an electric plant propagator if you wish to produce your own plants.  Prick them out into small pots and plant in the frame in May or early June.
  • Ready-produced plants can be acquired in May or June. Delfland Plants sell seed-raised and grafted plants - www.organicplants.co.uk
  • Once planted out, feed weekly with a liquid plant food and water as necessary.
  • Once the plants become taller pinch out the tops.

Pests and diseases that affect aubergines

  • Aphids can be a problem, but predators are able to deal with this once the glass covers are permanently off.
  • Slugs and snails are partial to the fruit and the young plants, so slug hunts at dusk are a must.
  • Pick the fruit regularly even if it’s small. Aubergines will go on cropping until the first frosts.

Good varieties of aubergines to grow in the UK

‘Black Enorma’ F1 (Thompson & Morgan)
Large, heavy oval fruit with each dark-skinned oval fruit weighing 8 oz. One plant should give up to 20 fruits. (Height 4 ft)

‘Bonica’ F1  AGM (Thompson & Morgan) 
Shiny, purple oval fruits on compact, bushy plants. Recommended for patio containers. (Height 4 ft).

‘Bellezzanera’ (Johnson’s ‘World Kitchen’ Seeds)
Fluted, wide fruits, very large and dusky purple rather than black. (Height 4 ft).

‘Ophelia’ F1 Hybrid
A compact aubergine producing golf-ball-sized baby aubergines with no bitter aftertaste. Ideal for growing in containers on the patio. (Height 24”).

Aubergine facts

  • The aubergine (Solanum melongena) is a member of the tomato family and it enjoys similar conditions -  moisture, warmth and light.
  • Like all members of the solanum family it is pollinated by bumble bees.
  • The fruit is actually a berry.
  • It is thought to be a native of India and it arrived in Spain in the 6th Century and was planted in English gardens as a curiosity. It was also cultivated in China in the fifth century.
  • During the Renaissance (14th-17th century) the Italians thought the aubergine was poisonous and evil. It became known as Mala insana - the unhealthy apple.
  • In various parts of Europe, eating aubergines was suspected of causing madness, leprosy, cancer and bad breath and many treated it as a decorative plant.
  • Louis XIV asked La Quintinie (1624-1688) a famous French gardener to grow them at Versailles. By the 18th century it was an established  food in Italy and France.
  • The influential cookery writer Elizabeth David brought the aubergine to the attention of the British in the mid-twentieth century.

Nutritional content of aubergines

Aubergines are a good source of viscous fibre which has been shown to reduce the absorption of cholesterol. They contain Vitamins E and K and are high in potassiumfolate and magnesium. The colour of the skin is a result of the presence of anthocyanins - compounds with antioxidant properties.

How to cook aubergines

  • Fresh aubergines are rarely bitter and do not need soaking in salt. Just cut the aubergine into thick slices and brush liberally with good olive oil. This will be soaked up by the slices.
  • Fry in a griddle pan at a low to medium heat and turn once the oil begins to seep out of the slices.
  • Alternatively coat with a good batter before frying to reduce the amount of oil absorbed.

Aubergine recipes

Aubergine and chickpea curry
Smoked aubergine and yogurt purée
Aubergine and red pepper layer toasts
Stuffed aubergines in olive oil
Stuffed aubergine with tomato and bulghur pilaff
Eric Lanlard's Mediterranean tart

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