Basil stats/requirements at a glance
Ease of Raising:
5/5 – Very Easy
4/5 – A good amount (especially in a container)
5/5 – Full sun (can be grown in semi-shade)
5/5 – Absolutely
1/5 – Minimal (at least once per season)
Time to Harvest:
1/5 – Immediate (purchased a seedling) to Soon (from seed)
4/4 – Culinary, Medicinal, Pollinator attractor & Predator sheltering
Most Problematic Nemesis:
Yes (preferably grown in the garden rather than container)
|Basilicon or Ocimum|
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 a mostly non-fuss plant, but requires a large amount of water and needs to be pruned (not unless you want a monster plant J)
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 food digestion 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, 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. Full sun basil does not succumb to any pest, but 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 happy basil produces 2L of leaves every two weeks in summer (with regular pruning J)
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
|Membrane bees, |
Apidae – The honey bees
|Honey Bee |
Anthophoridae – The bumble, masonry and carpenter bees
Bombyliidae – The hover, woolly bee and mimic bee flies
|Woolly BeeFly |
(Bombyliidae, Systoechus sp.)
I am sure 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:
Mantidae – The preying mantids
|Common Green Mantid, Giant Mantid |
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.
|Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) caught |
by Pink Crab Spider (Thomisidae)
Predatory Beetles – some click beetles, beetle larvae (predatory lady bug larvae)
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 isn’t 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 was fortunate enough to have a mantid female lay her egg sac on one of my plant stakes. Now I have a tireless patrol of ~12 mantids throughout the garden (6-7 live in the basil).
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 J
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 50cm. Then prune back (simply cut back each and every branch) 10cm under your preferable size (40cm 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 J
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 J
If your basil plant goes beyond 1m 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 J 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 J
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 J 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. Snip some branches off (10-15cm) and place in a glass with water. 2-3 weeks later small roots will appear. Leave the roots to become ~5cm long and plant in a pot. Keep the pot fairly moist until the basil plant has established itself.
|Sweet Basil rooting |
Sweet Basil: This is my big monstrosity! It was already 4 years old (container bound) when I transplanted it into the garden – it has been ill-disciplined ever since J. It managed to uproot itself just the other day during a typical Highveld thundershower that lasted 20min. I wanted to cut it down for some time now, so that was the perfect opportunity – shoots re-emerged after two weeks. I moved 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.
Lemon Basil: Great for adding ‘lemon’ flavour to dishes without adding any lemony sourness.
|Lemon basil |
Mint Basil: Mild mint taste, useful in salads, soups and sauces.
|Mint basil |
Thai Siam Queen Basil: Slight anise flavour and deep pink flowers. Essential for Indian & Chinese cooking! It did poorly in its first season, but managed to survive and is coming around nicely now.
|Thai Siam Queen Basil |
So no excuses for no basil J