Versatile Basil: Companion Planting, Bee Forage, Herb and Pesto

Reader Contribution by Mary Lou Shaw

I do appreciate basil when making spaghetti and pizza, but otherwise fail to give it much thought. After a morning of contemplating this herb while making pesto, I’d like to give it proper credit.

We grow a lot of basil because I start it indoors from seed at the end of March. When it’s time to transplant it outdoors in May, I hate to discard any of the numerous seedlings. The result is that I plant basil wherever I find room. Other plants don’t get this much priority and I realize now that basil gets special treatment because I value its wonderful versatility.

It’s not by chance that it’s interspersed with the tomato plants and that there’s an entire row of basil by the asparagus. It makes an excellent companion plant for both tomatoes and asparagus. In fact, some claim basil improves the growth and flavor of tomatoes. Another claim-to-fame is that it acts as a pest-deterrent when planted with broccoli, cabbage and other brassica. Because it’s such a pretty plant and grows quite rapidly, I also choose it to “fill space” and keep weeds down while the tomatoes and brassica are growing.

The bees are delighted that the basil is already flowering here in Ohio. I might pinch off blooms to encourage growth of other herbs, but having bees in hives has made us more aware of these endangered pollinators. We attempt to create forage for them and so the bees are definitely welcomed to the pollen and nectar that the basil flowers provide.

While the bees are buzzing, I continue to use the leaves in a variety of ways. Our soil is enriched with compost from the farm, and so I assume the basil is top-quality and want to use it all year round. Therefore, besides using fresh basil in the summer, I tie branches of basil together and hang them to dry in the greenhouse. I dried them once in the solar food-dryer, but that was too warm and the leaves actually burned. The greenhouse is fairly empty in the summer and makes a good place to dry herbs.

The next logical step to having dry basil in winter would be to shred the dried leaves and put them in air-tight containers. I never seem to be this organized in the busy summertime, however, and usually put the dried basil in labeled zip-lock bags and keep it in the freezer. In the winter I just grab a handful of the frozen leaves and crumble them into the pot. Not fancy, but it works.

Now, about that pesto that I was making this morning: Honest, once you’re growing basil, you’ll want to make your own pesto. How do we eat it? Try sliced tomatoes with dabs of green pesto on top–pretty and delicious! Homemade egg noodles and “pesto-pasta” is a treat, though I admit the green pesto with yellow egg noodles is an unusual combination. We eat pesto with homemade focaccia or other breads, and even use it as a dip for raw vegetables.

To preserve pesto for the winter, I freeze it in ice cube trays. When frozen, I put the cubes into bags and keep them in the freezer. For a fast winter meal, I thaw one or two cubes per person, put cooked, warm noodles on top, and toss. Fast food!

Years ago, a friend who is no more serious about cooking than I, gave me this pesto recipe. I don’t want to hear from any perfectionists out there that this recipe isn’t orthodox. I only know it makes great pesto!

  • 2 cups of fresh basil
  • As much parsley as you like
  • ¾ cup olive oil
  • ¼ cup walnuts or pine nuts (I use “a handful”)
  • ½ cup Romano or Parmesan cheese
  • 2 cloves of garlic (keeps the vampires away)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • It also helps to add a bit of enthusiasm and excitement

Throw all these ingredients into a food processor and enjoy.

Basil does deserve our respect, don’t you think? Whether used as a companion-plant, bee forage, herb or delicious pesto, it makes our world better.