It’s Fall. For most people who grow, this is the last stretch for the heat-loving plants such as tomatoes, peppers and eggplant. At this point, I think I’ve eaten enough fresh tomatoes to last me through the winter. One thing I haven’t grown tired of are eggplants. I never thought too much of them until I grew them and was forced to find creative ways to cook them; now I’m an addict. We grew a few different eggplants here but my favorites are a Japanese and Tuscan variety. The Japanese come in early and continue to produce and the Tuscan Globe comes in later in the summer and are prolific with heavy, strikingly violaceous fruits.
The biggest issue in growing eggplants are keeping flea beetles from making swiss cheese from the leaves. This annoying poppy seed-sized pest shows up early in the season and continues to eat away the leaves of the eggplant. I am surprised that eggplant is not considered one of the “dirty dozen” fruits - the vegetables that contain the highest levels of pesticides even after being washed and peeled. The list, compiled by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), lists celery, kale, and bell peppers as among the most contaminated. Obviously, with organic growing techniques this is not an issue.
Part of our organic practices to reduce pests and disease is to use Nutrient Density growing techniques that address the quality and health of the soil which will then translate to a healthier plant. The same reason a strong healthy immune system is integral to a healthy human being, the same logic applies for the plant. Last year our eggplants had flea beetles but the plants were so strong that they could still grow lush and produce a nice bounty of fruit in spite of the bugs. This year, the flea beetles became more of a nuisance and the plants were not able to compete with them. They did not succumb to the bugs but they were certainly not the optimum and productive plants we saw last year. Click HERE to see an example of plant stress and evidence of how a strong plant is your best defense against disease and pests. Please note how the plants at the left of the bed received optimal light and are healthy and pest free and how the plants towards the right were partially shaded and have evidence of insect damage to the leaf. The Nutrient Density growing method can take 3-4 years to really change the mineral and microbial content of the soil so we didn’t expect to see a dramatic change right away. Every season, we re-test soil and re-amend the soil and much of the amendments take seasons to break down to be utilized by plants and soil microbes. So what did we do besides watch the flea beetles have a hey day?
CONTROLLING FLEA BEETLES - ORGANICALLY
In the long term, addressing the soil health should obviate the need for “control” but in the meantime, I’m not going to sit around letting a little army of flea beetles dine on my eggplant.
1. Crop rotation. This is essential since the adults can overwinter in the soil and in plant debris. However, if your area is small, you are likely not able to plant them far enough from last season’s planting area. They emerge in the spring waiting for you to put your healthy seedlings in the ground. If your seedlings are stressed they will take this opportunity to defoliate and kill your plant. You definitely want the healthiest seedling possible and you don’t want to plant these seedlings too early since eggplants LOVE heat. Using a row-cover in the spring until the population of flea beetles die down is also helpful. It’s just a physical barrier between the plant and the environment.
2. Trap Crops - this is more applicable to farms, but the idea is to plant a more desirable plant for the flea beetles to feed on so they leave the eggplant alone. This includes planting Chinese mustard greens nearby or to interplant radishes like “Chinese daikon” or “Snow Belle.”
3. Manual Removal - There are reports that physically removing beetles can be effective. The flea beetle is so small that some people report using a small portable vacuum to literally just suck them off the plants. We have not tried it but plan on doing it next year if continues to be a problem. Time to find the old Dust Buster.
4. Botanical controls - the last option. The only one that we would advise using is a very diluted spray of organic neem oil Apply this only on a cloudy day.
COOKING WITH EGGPLANT
A few of our favorites dishes that use eggplant include a Baba Ganoush, Roasted Vietnamese Eggplant with Scallion Oil, breading and frying the slices of eggplant, grilling slices, and using them in stir-fry dishes. When laziness creeps in, we bring our Japanese eggplant to our local sushi master, Ume, at Murasaki in Nyack, New York. The first time we did this, Ume looked at the eggplant thoughtfully, brought them back to the kitchen to broil and minutes later presented us with a simple dish from his childhood in Japan. How cool is that? Here’s the recipe he used. It’s simple and sublime. It is so refreshing to find a chef that is so excited by the challenge of using local ingredients on the spot. Murasaki has become one of our favorite restaurants in town and we high recommend it to anyone who enjoys traditional artisanal sushi.
RECIPE: Yaki Nasu (Ume’s Eggplant)
4 Japanese Eggplant
3 Tbs sesame paste
1 Tbs soy sauce
1 Tbs brown sugar
2 Tbs Dashi (this is a bonito and seaweed broth). You can substitute with dashi powder which is sold in Asian markets.
garnish with 2 Tbs bonito flakes and/or thinly sliced scallions (optional)
Broil eggplant until soft (5-10 minutes). Peel off skin and cut into sections
Blend the remaining ingredients together
Spoon sauce over eggplant and garnish with bonito flakes and scallions