Yes (preferably grown in the garden rather than container)
Up for discussion is Basil. Similarly to tomatoes, basil is a culinary force. Known as the ‘king of the herbs’; its uses and benefits are endless. Basil has been crossbred to produce and array of flavours, such as lemon, mint and even chocolate! Basil is mostly a non-fuss plant, but requires a large amount of water and needs to be pruned (not unless you want a monster plant )
The basil herb has its origins in the Middle East or India. Since ancient times it has been used by the Greeks, Romans and people of the Middle East. No other herb rivals the uses of basil for seasoning of meats, soups, sauces, pasta, breads, salads, and is also used in liqueur (chartreuse). Its medicinal properties includes, a digestive aid and the juice from its leaves apparently repel mosquitoes when rubbed on the skin.
Sweet Basil, Ocimum basilicum, belongs to a large family of aromatic and culinary herbs, the Lamiaceae Family. This family includes most of the other well-known herbs, such as, rosemary, thyme, mint, oregano, savory, lemon balm, sage and marjoram.
The flavour and aromas of modern basil (lemon, ginger, chocolate mint …) are bred into the basil by crossbreeding with other members of the Lamiaceae Family and/or ‘fixed’ in the plant due to selective breeding for a certain flavour or aroma.
Basil is easily raised from seed, although harvest would have to wait until the plant is a bit larger. Basil grown in the full sun does not succumb to any pest, however is not frost hardy and therefore is grown as an annual where frost is a problem.
Basil plants have distinctive round leaves with a mild basil flavour. After a year of growing the basil has essentially ‘matured’. The leaves lose their round shape and become straight. Their flavour increases by threefold! Also they start to flower prolifically. I do not believe it is necessary to cut the flowers for increased leaf growth, since a happy basil produces 2L of leaves every two weeks in summer (with regular pruning )
Pollinators: Basil flowers are excellent pollinator attractors. Mine has flying visitors throughout the day, zealously packing their legs with the crayon-orange pollen. Reliable visitors and pollinators for your other plants (especially fruiting plants) include insects from the following Families:
Collectidae – The solitary membrane bees
Apidae – The honey bees
Anthophoridae – The bumble, masonry and carpenter bees
Bombyliidae – The hover, woolly bee and mimic bee flies
The butterflies will also make their rounds at your basil, but we have never had a large butterfly population in our area. Although honey bees are the best known pollinator, woolly beeflies and bumble bees are also essential (bumble bees are superior pollinators to honey bees, but they cover a smaller area).
Now then, to the Predators: A large basil bush (30cm-1m) will house an array of beneficial predators. These include:
Arachnida Class – these are spiders of all sorts (not insects, but arthropods). The spiders housed in the basil will likely be non-poisonous, such as, crab spiders, jumping spiders and even tiny web spinning spiders as big as a pinhead.
Nemopteridae – The lacewings (predatory larvae and some adults are predatory)
These predators are excellent garden helpers and assist with Pest control. In South Africa there aren’t many commercially available beneficial insects to buy (overseas you can buy yourself a supply of lacewings, ladybugs, mantids even parasitic wasps/mites to control pests). So here, we are stuck on getting them ourselves. I am fortunate enough to have at least one mantid female lay her egg sac on one of my plant bushes/stakes each year. Now I have a tireless patrol of mantids throughout the garden every year.
The predators use the basil as their home base, and will move between plants, eating pests as they go. Pests readily consumed include, aphids, whitefly, stinkbugs, leafhoppers, spittle beetles, scale bugs, caterpillars and anything else that eats your plants will be annihilated!
The basil must be pruned to keep it bushy and under control, else it will smother other plants by growing over them and stealing sunlight.
The basil is a very forgiving plant when it comes to pruning. Decide on the high you would prefer your basil to be, such as 50 cm. Then prune back (simply cut back each and every branch) 10 cm under your preferable size (40 cm in this case). This allows space for fresh, young basil leaves to grow and, with constant pruning, allows a continuous harvest of only the most tender basil leaves.
If you are interested in attracting pollinators, leave the basil to flower and then prune it in sections. I do mine in half. About every month, I chop down half of the plant and allow the other half to finish flowering. By the time the chopped have is flowering, the older (already flowered) half can be cut back again. P.S – when pruning, watch out for your garden helpers! Simply relocate them to the non-pruned part of the plant
If your basil plant goes beyond 1 m in height – I would recommend staking it for support – as the accumulated weight of the leaves and critters might cause it to become uprooted in a heavy downpour due to the additional weight of the raindrops. Or, you can have two basils going – one is pruned and kept under control for leaf harvesting and the other is staked, in a container and allowed to go crazy. This will ensure cooking supplies and garden helpers. Be sure to have the unregulated basil close to the vegetable garden to benefit from the insects it attracts and only prune it in autumn after flowering (so that it doesn’t go scraggly).
Other Basil Tips
When pruning, you will have a mound of basil leaves – to many to use. Either give these to the earthworms or use directly/as dried kitchen-waste compost for the garden. Leave some leaves on the ground at the base of the plant – this houses a colony of decomposers, especially wood lice. In that way the basil provides its own fertiliser
Harvesting & Storing
Basil leaves can be harvested when required. Branches with leaves can be stored in a glass of water for about a week. Else remove the leaves, vacuum pack (with a few drops of water on the leaves) and store in the fridge for 2-4 weeks (maybe even longer). Since you have a constant supply of leaves, you can always give surplus away to grateful friends. Drying basil is a snap, especially if you want a milder basil taste when cooking. Simply spread the basil leaves on a small towel and leave to dry on a table inside the house (2-3 days in summer). Store the dried basil in glass jars to preserve the flavour.
Seed Saving & Propagation
Basil seeds are ready for saving once the flowers have turned brown. The seeds are labelled and stored in a glass jar.
Basil is the easiest plant to propagate (see my Honey as Rooting Hormone Post). Snip some branches off (10-15 cm) and place in a glass with water. After 2-3 weeks small roots will appear. Leave the roots to become ~5c m long and plant in a pot. Keep the pot fairly moist until the basil plant has established itself.
Sweet Basil: This is my big monstrosity! It was already 4 years old (container bound) when I transplanted it into the garden – it is going on 8 years now and has been ill-disciplined ever since . It either manages to uproot itself or split in half during our typical Highveld thundershowers that lasts 20 min. I pruning away broken parts allows new shoots re-emerged after two weeks and keeps it somewhat in check. Usually, I move all the flowers to a large bucket with water, so that the bees still had some food, and relocated garden critters to other parts of the garden.
Ginger Basil: Great for adding ‘ginger’ flavour to dishes without adding any gingery bite.
Mint Basil: Mild mint taste, useful in salads, soups and sauces.