Cultivating eggplant in Connecticut

Photos by John S. Hibma.
Nelson Cecarelli

The eggplant thrives in heat and sunshine, and the short, warm summers in the Northeast are perfect for growing eggplant. In Northford, Conn., Nelson Cecarelli grows 3 to 4 acres of eggplant each year. He mostly grows the Classic, Night Shadow and Santana, varieties that produce the desirable ovoid shape and dark purple color. He also grows a few of the long and slender Italian or Oriental varieties.

In New England, eggplant is generally planted in late May and early June when there is no longer any threat of frost. Cecarelli starts all of his plants from seed in a greenhouse and transplants the seedlings when they’re 3 to 4 inches high. Because much of Cecarelli’s farmland is sloping, he finds it necessary to plant the eggplants by hand. His crew can actually set plants by hand much faster than mechanical planters can on the sloped ground. The eggplants are planted in raised beds covered with black plastic. The plastic is used to both keep the soil warm and help retain the moisture that’s still in the soil at the time of planting. Drip irrigation lines beneath the plastic water the plants during the later part of the growing season as well as provide the ability to add nitrogen if necessary. Cecarelli limits fertilizing to just potassium and nitrogen; there are significant levels of phosphorus in the soil that will last for generations. Prior to planting, potash is applied at a rate of 120 pounds per acre, and nitrogen is applied at a rate of 80 to 90 pounds per acre. Cecarelli says the decision to add more nitrogen is made by visual observation of the plant and fruit: if the fruit’s dark purple color begins to lighten, he will add more nitrogen.

To attain a nicer, more uniform and marketable fruit, Cecarelli plants his eggplant seedlings about 30 inches apart to reduce crowding. When fully grown, each plant stands 3 to 4 feet high and tends to bush out. He also stakes the eggplants in order to keep them upright. Otherwise, as the fruit matures and becomes heavier it will pull the plant over and often make contact with the plastic. The black plastic tends to get quite warm on a summer day and will cook the fruit if it’s allowed to touch the plastic. Last year he also began pulling the suckers off after the first blossoming and finds that to be very helpful in getting a more uniform and better-quality fruit.

Cecarelli explains that weed control is essential during the first six to seven weeks that the plant is in the ground. When the plants are young and getting established, the weeds that sprout between the beds will compete for nutrients in the soil. He uses a burndown herbicide like paraquat to kill weeds and clean between beds. The use of preemergent herbicides is limited since there are only a few allowed for use around eggplants.  

Pests are also a problem for the eggplant and Cecarelli says that he has four major insect pests to deal with over the course of the season and usually just one disease. The most bothersome is the Colorado potato beetle. “They love eggplant,” explains Cecarelli. This beetle eats the leaves off of the small plant, completely stripping it and killing it. Over the years the potato beetle has become resistant to nearly every pesticide that has been applied for any length of time. “There are some good chemicals that are still effective on the potato beetle,” Cecarelli says. “The recommendation is to not use the chemical two years in a row.” Along with that, he recommends rotation of the crop to a different field on the farm every year. He will use a pesticide called Provado if beetle numbers are particularly high. It comes in two forms: one is systemic, entering the plant, and the other is foliar, remaining only on the leaves. When the beetle is in an early stage and without its hard shell, Cecarelli will use a spinosad that is a reduced-risk microbial or bacterial insecticide that isn’t harmful to the environment or most beneficial insects. The Colorado potato beetle is far and away Cecarelli’s largest pest problem.

The flea beetle is another problem for the young plants. They’ll show up mostly along field edges where the grass borders are growing. The two-spotted mite can be a problem when the weather becomes hot and dry. A fourth pest is the potato leafhopper, which will leave the leaves yellow or bronzed and reduce yields. Cecarelli noted that the bronzing from the leafhopper could be mistaken for verticillium wilt, which looks similar on the leaf. Verticillium is a fungus that remains in the ground and the eggplant is very susceptible to. Use of the black plastic has been shown to help reduce verticillium infection.

Cecarelli stakes his plants to ensure the fruits do not come into contact with the black plastic.

Cecarelli goes on to say that once the plant is growing well and the fruit is established, there aren’t too many problems to deal with. He’ll irrigate the plants when the soil requires water but likes to see the plant well established before watering to encourage a strong root system. When possible he’ll wait until the fruit is almost set before watering the plant .

Cecarelli grows many crops in addition to eggplant, including sweet corn, bell peppers, tomatoes, cauliflower, broccoli and cabbage. In 1998 he began incorporating an integrated pest management program. With the help of University of Connecticut crop specialist, Jude Boucher, and a private consultant who comes every week to scout the fields for any sign of trouble, they stay ahead of pest problems. In the case of eggplant, there are no pest traps to monitor so the plants must be scouted visually.

One of the basic tenets of an IPM program is to not spray herbicides or pesticides indiscriminately, but rather only when there appears to be the potential for a significant economic loss in a crop. Cecarelli notes that he does a lot less spraying than he did in years past now that he’s using IPM techniques. “We do things a lot more intelligently than we used to.”

The Colorado potato beetle is a significant pest for Cecarelli’s eggplants.
Cecarelli is primarily in the wholesale produce business.

He’s learned more about the beneficial insects that are out there and that there are a lot of chemicals that will not only kill pests but also kill those insects that could be of benefit to another vegetable that he’s growing. The IPM program is much more sustainable and environmentally friendly. “It’s fiscally responsible and an all-around winner for everyone out there, the consumer and me.”

Cecarelli says that he began picking eggplant around the end of July this past growing season. The weather was the deciding factor for when he was able to begin. He picks fruit through September, and it all comes to an end with the first frost. The fruit is picked every few days based upon size. The larger the fruit grows, the seedier it will get, making it unacceptable to the consumer. The markets and the consumer tend to want only a certain size and shape, and if an eggplant is allowed to get a little larger it is most likely going to be rejected. The standard marketing lot for the classic teardrop eggplant in Connecticut is a 16 to 18 count in a 1 and 1/9th bushel box. Cecarelli estimates he picked from 1,000 to 1,200 boxes per acre during the course of the season. That is about average and not too bad considering the late start he had this year due to rain.

Cecarelli is primarily in the wholesale produce business with the majority of his product going to wholesale markets. He explains that he has three levels of customers: those who come and pick up every day for their own private stands, those with larger stands to whom he delivers every day and then the two large wholesalers in Hartford and Waterbury, Conn.

Boucher explains that the eggplant market is a tough market. Eggplant is fragile; it has a short shelf life, does not refrigerate well and must be handled carefully. As with most produce in a good year, there’s often an overabundance that will push the wholesale prices down. During midsummer, it is important that you have consistent quality coming out of the field.

This past year has been particularly tough with the rising price of inputs. Costs have soared. Everything is energy-dependent, from heating the greenhouses in the winter and the plastics used to cover the seedbeds to tractor fuel. Diesel and fertilizer are up more than 100 percent from last year. The price of new equipment has doubled.

Despite the challenges, Cecarelli looks forward to another year of eggplants in Connecticut.

The author is a dairy nutritional consultant and works for Central Connecticut Farmer’s Cooperative in Manchester, Conn.