Q: Are there any good articles around on growing eggplants? I have had trouble in the past growing them. - Bob Reeber, Raleigh
Bob, there was a heck of a great article published in The N&O in May 2003 on eggplant, but since I did it, I can't get on my soap box and go on about it - that would be an obvious example of tootin' my own horn.
Anyway, with the cool spring we had this year, if you had trouble in the past growing eggplant, you probably had a bear of a time getting them going this year. Eggplants dearly love the heat and sun of summer, so if they are set in the ground too soon, the plants will just sulk and try to survive rather than thrive. However, with the rising summer heat, now is a great time to start eggplants. And for a successful crop, remember the three "P's":
Planting A site that gets plenty of sun is the best place to plant, and be sure to amend the soil heavily with organic additives. Also at planting time, mix in a fertilizer such as 5-10-10 that is not too bulked up with nitrogen, and occasionally sidedress the plants with a liquid fertilizer such as fish emulsion. The extra nutrients will be especially beneficial during harvest time.
Picking For an extended crop through the summer season, pick eggplants often. Shiny fruit usually means the eggplants are ready to be picked. Another good sign they are ready for harvest is when an indentation is left after you press the outer skin with your fingernail. Also, to prevent damage to the momma plants, snip - don't yank, jerk, twist or pull - the fruits off.
Pests Colorado potato beetles (which to the uninitiated look like orange-ish ladybugs) and flea beetles (yep, about the size of a flea) can cause major defoliation problems on plants if they aren't spotted early and stopped. Contact pesticides such as insecticidal soap or a bug-bopper that contains pyrethrin can help control these little beasties, but additional sprayings might be necessary.
Coneflowers are a no-show
Q: I planted some purple coneflowers last year and mulched them for the winter. I still don't see any signs of growth so far this spring! Is this typical? When do they usually start coming back? If they don't come back, what could be the problem? - Benjie Brown
Lack of purple coneflowers could have been the result of how you mulched them last winter. If you mulched over rather than around them and used more than 2 or 3 inches of mulch, with the wet winter we had, you might have set your pretties up for a fatal case of crown rot. In addition, if you mulched too early last year, the warm soil could have encouraged new growth, which would have been killed off by freezing temperatures. No sign of growth by now means your coneflowers aren't being shy - they have gone to that great Compost Pile in the Sky.
Can't rush figs
Q: We have a fig that has grown into a gorgeous shrub but no fruit. We planted a new one, which will take quite a while to produce, if we are lucky. So what type of fertilizer do we use on these trees? And do they require covering against winter freeze like they did up North (NJ/Pa.)? - Agnes Laub, Tarboro
Agnes, you have to remember that young fig trees can take up to four years to begin producing fruit, so patience is the key. This also means avoiding adding fertilizer, more fertilizer and then even more fertilizer to prod Mother Nature along. It won't work. In fact, figs produce more fruit with minimal application of fertilizer - usually a healthy dose of compost around the base of a fig tree during the spring season will do the trick.
As for winter protection, well, it can on rare occasions be cold enough down here in the sunny South to kill back limbs, but I have never had the root system of a fig freeze to death, so any limb dieback that my figs have experienced were, to me, a natural form of pruning, and the next spring, new shoots eagerly sprouted in place of the dead ones.