3 Ways to Solve Eggplant Pollination Problems

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Eggplant fruits

Six years ago, after I wrote 5 Tips for Growing Excellent Eggplant, questions started coming in from gardeners with healthy, well-tended eggplant that refused to bear fruit.

“I’m getting flowers but no fruit, plenty of bees from my own hives. Have fertilized, used composted soil and plenty of water, and they’re in a good, sunny spot,” wrote Bev, one of many frustrated folks who reported eggplant pollination problems.

What could be wrong?

Eggplant flowers
Eggplant blossoms with long styles (left) are more likely to set fruit than those with shorter styles (right)

1. Hand-Pollinate Eggplant

It’s normal for the first few eggplant blossoms to drop, but after that you want to see some cute little fruits forming. It could be a lack of insects visiting the flowers, because even though eggplant flowers are self-fertile, the vibrational buzzing of bees helps move pollen grains about inside the flowers. Should you want to hand-pollinate eggplant blossoms, touch the stem behind the flower with a vibrating toothbrush several times during the morning hours. Repeat the next day.

While you’re checking your eggplant blossoms up close, see if the stigma, at the end of the style, protrudes from the center of the flower, as shown in the left photo above. Eggplant flowers with long styles like this one are usually ripe for pollination, but some varieties have shorter styles that barely show, as seen in the photo on the right. These are less fertile flowers. To further complicate things, eggplant varieties with normal styles may get moody about reproduction and switch to short ones. This is one of the ways eggplant responds to stress, especially drought.

The plants are not being grumpy, but rather responding like resilient perennials, which is what they are. Though we grow eggplants as annuals, in semitropical and tropical climates they are short-lived perennials. When the weather gets too hot, dry, dim, or cold, they hunker down and wait for better days.

Row of young eggplant
After a healthy start under row covers, these eggplants are ready to have their lower side branches pruned to support strong growth of the vertical leaders

2. Prune Eggplant to Improve Pollination

Okay, so eggplant want to be a bushy tropical perennial, which may not work out well in a summer garden. Left to their own devices, eggplant seedlings will produce one or two upright primary stems, and then start bulking up with side branches that emerge near the base of the plant. When these are pruned away, the plants recalibrate by channeling energy back to the upright stems and new flower clusters. When their plans to grow into big bushes are thwarted, the plants get more serious about producing fruit. Give pruned plants sturdy stakes or a cage, and they are ready to go.

Consider this report from a reader on pruning eggplant to improve pollination. “I had flowers falling off for almost two months. I plucked out all the flowers and trimmed off the leaves at the bottom levels of the plant. After doing that, the plants finally produced flowers with strong stems that developed into eggplants.” Success at last!

Eggplant has become a popular crop for vegetable farmers to grow in high tunnels, and quite a bit of research has gone into best pruning practices to maximize productivity. Many high tunnel growers prune plants to two leaders, use a vertical trellis, and pinch out lower side branches to help maintain the leaders’ dominance.

Different shapes and sizes of eggplant
Eggplant varieties that produce small to medium fruits are more likely to set fruit under adverse conditions

3. Give Eggplant More Morning Sun

Eggplant grows best in full sun, which means 6 hours or more of direct daily sun exposure. Plants that don’t get enough sun often grow into beautiful specimens, lush with leaves, but with hardly a blossom or fruit. If plants must run short of sun, make sure it’s not morning sun, which has special benefits for eggplant with pollination problems. Morning sun gets the plants up and running early in the day, with new blossoms and fresh pollen for the bees, who are busiest from midmorning until noon. Moving container-grown eggplants to a place that gets full morning sun may solve your pollination problems.

Too much fertilizer can be a factor in eggplant pollination problems, but because eggplant requires frequent watering, excess nitrogen is likely to be washed away. In terms of soil fertility, prepare planting holes for eggplants just as you would for tomatoes and peppers, by mixing in compost and a balanced organic fertilizer. After that, a deep drench with a high nitrogen liquid fertilizer at 4 and 8 weeks after planting can help keep plants in a flowering mood.

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