Fresh tomato and basil are summer classics in pasta sauces, caprese salads, and bruschetta. So it’s no surprise they also make great companion plants in a container. The heady smell of basil leaves repels insects from tomato plants. Basil enriches the soil, and it is believed, actually makes tomatoes taste better.
Photographs by Marla Aufmuth for Gardenista.
Above: Since I live on a houseboat in a cool climate, I can only grow small and cherry tomatoes in containers. I've found that Stupice, a Czechoslovakia heirloom, works well in a coastal climate ($2 for a packet of seeds from Baker Creek). It's a classic red tomato with a sweet, clean flavor. But my favorites are Black Cherry Tomatoes, with a rich, smoky flavor; $2.50 for a packet of seeds from Baker Creek.
Above: As for basil varieties, Sweet Green ($1.65 per packet of seeds from Park Seed) is the classic for Italian cooking. I also like Thai Siam Queen Basil ($2 for a packet of seeds from Baker Creek) for a unique licorice taste. African Blue Basil grows well in fog; it's a sterile perennial propagated from cuttings and a 4-inch pot is $4.99 from Amazon. Red Rubin Basil ($1.95 for a packet of seeds from Park Seed) is both fragrant and beautiful with deep purple-red leaves. Cinnamon Basil ($1.75 for a packet of seeds from Baker Creek) has violet stems and a hint of the spice.
Above: I plant basil separately from the other Mediterranean herbs as it tends to like more water. You can harvest your basil and pinch it back at the same time. Pinching leaves helps it get fuller and bushier, rather than thin and spindly. To do this, pinch from the top of the plant, where the leaves meet the stem.
Above: My neighbor, Krystal, is the proud owner of this lovely herb container. Traditional Mediterranean herbs should be grouped together as they like the soil a little drier. In a large container plant sage, thyme, rosemary, and oregano in one container or each in its own smaller container lined up next to each other. These herbs will have a cool palate of blue, silver, and green. They need full sun, face them toward the southern sky. They can take a little drying out, so you don’t need to water every day. But when you do water—about three times a week, depending on how dry and hot your home is--soak the soil thoroughly.
Above: Don’t toss your herb stems! Use rosemary stems to skewer meat on and grill. Basil stems can be cooked into tomato sauce, and thyme stems are great in stock and braises. A packet of Thyme seeds is $1.75 from Baker Creek.
Above: A packet of Broad Leaf Sage seeds is $2 from Baker Creek. If you have a bumper crop of herbs, make herb ice cubes. Frozen herbs retain their flavor more than dried herbs and don’t have that musty aftert aste. Buy an ice tray that has been designed to make small to medium cubes. Take from three to five sage leaves and dice finely. Fit these into the cube section and add a small amount of water. Do the same with basil and oregano. When making sauces or stews, just pop out an herb ice cube and put into the pot. (Note: Rosemary and thyme do not seem to freeze as well.)