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Florida and eggplant were made for each other

Eggplant, a widely cultivated member of the nightshade family, grows well in Florida gardens, even during hot summer months. Frost-sensitive, it should be planted outdoors after all cold weather danger passes. However, it can be started in pots indoors and planted in the garden area during spring. Eggplant, with its purple, glossy, egg-shaped fruit, makes an attractive addition to any vegetable plot.

Well-drained, loamy soil, rich in organic matter, produces eggplant abundantly. The plant dotes on high temperatures for growth and cultivation, making Florida gardens almost ideal for its production.

Sow seeds indoors four to six weeks before planting in the garden area. Germination requires 10 to 12 days. After seedlings grow 3 inches high, they may be transplanted to individual pots where they'll be easier to set out in a permanent garden location.

Space transplants about 30 inches apart in fertile, moist, well-drained soil. Mulch to retard moisture evaporation. Keep plants well-watered at all times. They'll produce "eggs" in about two months.

Feed growing plants manure tea, providing it at two-week intervals. Growers who do not have access to the fresh variety can use dehydrated cow manure, available from garden centers. Insist on purchasing the dried, pulverized material rather than composted cow manure.

To make manure tea, place a cupful in a gallon container and add water. Let the mixture stand overnight. Stir and pour the solution (about a cupful or perhaps a little more) around each plant where it will soak around the roots.

Keep plants moist at all times, especially during fruit production. Drying roots may produce inferior quality eggs.

Pick regularly to encourage further production. Texture and taste are much better when harvested young and the skin has a high gloss.

Eggplant, suitable for container gardening on a porch or patio, produces well in five-gallon pails or large pots. Place about 3 inches of fine gravel or beach sand at the container bottom to keep soil from becoming soggy. Keep plants in sun whenever possible. Stake to prevent possible wind damage.

Seed catalogs offering a wide range of choices, either hybrid or open-pollinated.

The eggplant, a native of India, has been cultivated for centuries. One of the most important vegetable crops of China, Japan and India, as well as a staple in the Mediterranean and Balkan areas, only in recent years has it become popular in the United States.

Leo Van Meer's book, Natural Gardening, is available from Van Meer Publishing, P.O. Box 3431, Palm Beach, FL 33480 ($10.95 post-paid, plus 77 cents sales tax). Address questions to Garden Naturally, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg 33731.