How to Grow Your Own Bay Tree

Growing a Sweet Bay Tree in a Container or Your Garden

Potted Bay Tree
Photo: VisitBritain/Martin Brent

Overview and Description:

Best known as a seasoning, bay laurel is an evergreen shrub or tree that is native to the Mediterranean area. Although bay can grow into a tall tree, it is often kept smaller by pruning or by confining it in a container. Bay is a very slow grower, making it even more suited to growing in a pot.

Bay can be grown simply as an ornamental. It has attractive foliage and can easily be pruned and sheared into topiary shapes.

In the spring, bay has small yellow flowers which develop into purple berries in the fall. Frequent pruning will mean fewer flowers and berries.

The dark green leaves are very fragrant, especially when dried. As a seasoning, dried leaves are broken or crumbled into cooking foods and allowed to permeate the dish. The leaves don’t soften much in cooking and are removed before eating. The leaves are also used to make wreaths and garlands.

Bay has also been a traditional medicinal plant, with uses as varied as earaches, rheumatism and insect repellent.

Caution:

Some people find bay to be a skin irritant.

Latin Name:

Laurus nobilis

Common Names:

Laurel, Bay laurel, Sweet laurel, Sweet bay

USDA Hardiness Zones:

Bay is only hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 8 - 10. The rest of us will need to bring it indoors for the winter.

Exposure:

Full Sun to Partial Shade

Mature Size:

If left unpruned, bay trees can grow 60 ft.

tall. Container grown trees and trees that are regularly pruned will not get anywhere near that tall.

Bloom Period / Days to Harvest:

If unpruned, bay laurel should bloom in mid-spring.

You can begin harvesting leaves when your tree is several feet tall, but you can always use the pruned leaves in the meantime.

Uses:

Bay laurel is used in stews, soups, tomato sauces, on fish and pretty much anywhere you want a subtle, earthy flavor. Break or crumble a leaf or two, while cooking. Bay doesn't seem pungent, but it can be overbearing if you use more than a couple of leaves in any dish. It is a traditional component of the French 'bouquet garni.'

Suggested Varieties:

It’s very important that you only grow plants labeled Laurus nobilis, if you plan to use it for cooking and eating. There are other plants that go by the common names of bay and sweet bay and these are not necessarily edible. However, there are a few ornamental cultivars or Laurus nobilis. Whether they season as well as regular Laurus nobilis is a matter of personal taste.

  • Laurus nobilis‘Angustifolia’- Has narrow leaves. aka: willow-leaf laurel.

  • Laurus nobilis ‘Aurea’- New foliage is yellow.

  • Laurus nobilis ‘Undulata’ - Edges of the leaves are rippled or wavy.

Growing Tips:

Seed or Seedling?: Bay is very difficult and slow to start from seed, so most are purchased as seedling.

You can start them from seed, but be prepared to wait up to 6 months for the seeds to germinate.

Soil: Bay is not too particular about soil and can tolerate a soil pH from 4.5 to 8.3. However, a well-drained soil is important.

Planting: Plant at the same depth as it was planted in its original pot. Bay roots are very shallow and frequent watering may be necessary during dry spells. Also, use caution when weeding or cultivating around at the base of the tree.

Container Grown Bay: Bay makes a popular container plant. I’ve had my bay for about 15 years now. It was a 6 inch seedling when I first got it and is now almost 6 feet. I keep mine in a 24-inch pot and bring it indoors, near a sunny window, for the winter. It could handle being in a smaller pot, but it got so top heavy, it kept getting blown over outdoors, so I needed a wider base. Bay seems to grow best when a little cramped in its pot, even to the point of roots starting to poke out the bottom. You shouldn’t need to repot more than once every 5 years.

Maintenance:

Pruning: Pruning is the biggest part of maintenance. Bay is often kept pruned, either to keep the size in check or to create a more ornamental tree. Pruning is usually done in the spring, as new growth is just beginning. You can prune as much or as little as you like, to keep the tree small or to create a topiary artwork.

Feeding: Since bay is very slow growing, it doesn’t require a great deal of food. However plants in containers need some supplemental fertilizer. Feed container grown bay in the spring and maybe again mid-summer, with a balanced organic fertilizer like fish emulsion and kelp. It also helps to refresh the top couple of inches of soil each spring, being careful not to hurt the shallow roots.

Bay trees grown in the ground will not need frequent feedings, if the soil has organic matter. A feeding once in the spring should suffice.

Watering: Bay is drought tolerant, but appreciates regular deep watering. Always allow the soil to dry out between waterings, so the roots don’t rot. But don’t let it sit for long periods without water.

Problems: For the most part, bay is pest free. In fact, it is often used to deter pests from other plants and in the pantry. However, scale can sometimes become a problem and there are moths that will lay their eggs between two leaves and sort of fuse them together with a cottony fluff. If you see two leaves that appear to be stuck together, gently peel them apart and remove the eggs or larva.

Freezing Temps: If your bay is hit by a light frost, the leaves will probably turn brown and dry. Often the tree will recover on its own, the following spring. However if your tree does show signs of die-back, prune the stem down to below the damage and new growth should fill in. In extreme cases, prune to about 6 inches and allow new shoots to form from the base.

The only trouble I’ve ever had with my bay is keeping it from drying out in the low humidity of my home. However, when it signals trouble by dropping a few leaves, I use the leaves in cooking and begin misting my tree.