Hartley Magazine

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Starting aubergines

Lia is starting her aubergines under lights this year, with encouraging results

One of the greenhouse crops that I have never quite cracked is aubergines. Perhaps they just need more than I’ve got: time to get them going early enough; patience and light to nurse them through late spring indoors; and then heat in the summer. Obviously with the eternal optimism of the gardener I am fairly sure that this is the year that all of this is going to change: would we even do it if we weren’t convinced that this year will be different? We are as bad as gamblers. The thing that is helping me fool myself this year is a new shiny heated propagator with its very own light source. What a revelation! Until the weather gets warm enough for them to go out into the (only very slightly) heated greenhouse by seedlings are usually crammed up against the windows, leaning perilously as they stretch for the small amounts of light that are available at this time of year. But this year they have been blasted with light at exactly the right spectrum for their growing needs from the moment they poked their heads above the soil. They are stocky and sturdy and looking very happy with the life in which they find themselves, and I am hoping that by being able to get my aubergines started so good and early, and so healthily and stockily, they will do well through the rest of the year. We will see.

A few years ago you could only buy red tomatoes in supermarkets and even greengrocers. Some of them were cherry sized, sure, but that was about where any sense of variety ended, and so the only way you could get anything different – the big solid and beefy, the yellow and elongated, the bruised purple – was by growing it yourself. That has slowly changed to the point where it is really not unusual to see the whole multi-coloured zebra-striped range in a good greengrocer, and even Tesco’s has a standard line of tasty beefsteaks alongside the bland, crisp ‘salad slicing’ types. But such a revolution has really not reached the aubergine section yet, which would have you believe that every aubergine is long, fat and deep purple. Not that I have a problem with the long, fat, purple types – quite the opposite – but there is more to the aubergine world.

A while ago I sat in a Middle Eastern restaurant as a beautiful crate of fat, round, ribbed aubergines was delivered, of a type I have never seen for sale, so of course you can buy unusual types in the UK from specialist wholesalers, and quite possibly from specialist delis, but I haven’t seen any around here. And so that is what I am going for this year, the round fat types: ‘Ronde de Valence’ to be exact, from Real Seeds (www.realseeds.co.uk) . It is a particularly early fruiting variety, which is always a good idea in our cool and unpredictable climate even under glass. It just means that the fruits have much more chance of getting around to ripening, even if summer is disappointing and short. There are others that are good and early and certainly unusual. ‘Farmers Long’ from Simply Seed (www.simplyseed.co.uk) is thin, long, purple and early fruiting, and ‘Rosa Bianca’ from Otter Farm is, as the name suggests, white with soft rose streaks: a beautiful thing. If you haven’t sown yet you might be pushing your luck now, so go for vegetable plug plants this year (try a grafted variety – from most garden centres – for near guaranteed success) and tuck these unusual beauties away to sow early next year.