Delicious, fragrant bay leaves come from the bay laurel, a perennial shrub or tree with pale yellow flowers and black fruit, attractive olive-to-reddish bark, and dark leathery leaves.
Bay leaves are incredibly versatile. The herb’s flavor complements rice dishes, soups and stews, Catalan and Greek recipes, and Creole cuisine. Bay leaf also works in pantries to repel grain beetles and silverfish, and it lends its aroma to candles, holiday wreaths, and potpourris.
How to Plant Bay Laurel
Bay laurel is known for repelling pests, so it is a welcome helper around the garden. This slow-growing tree can be grown indoors, but in a warm climate, it will grow faster and taller if planted outdoors in soil.
Bay laurel will need partial shade and protection from the burning afternoon sun. As a Mediterranean plant, it will also need protection from frost if you live in a cold climate. You can move the plant indoors for the winter if you grow it in a container on your patio that can be moved
According to MasterClass, “The bay laurel tree grows best in USDA hardiness zones 8–10. The best time to plant them is in late spring or early summer when the threat of frost is no longer present.”
Growing From a Starter and Transplanting
Since laurel is so slow-growing, starting from seed is not recommended. Instead, propagate laurel from cuttings taken toward the end of July. Then, treat with some organic rooting solution and plant in potting soil until roots develop.
Transplant laurel when it is semi-dormant, between fall and spring. When planting in the garden, make sure the location has good drainage, as laurel tolerates many soil types, but not poor drainage. This plant also dislikes strong winds, so give them a protected location.
You can create a fragrant hedge by planting the laurels about 2-3 feet apart. Prepare each planting hole with plenty of room for roots to spread out, about three times the size of the root ball, and mix some compost with the original soil. Remove the sapling from its pot, shake off old soil, and untangle the roots.
For good drainage, make a cone in the center of the planting space that will support the roots’ center above excess water but allow roots to trail down to seek moisture. Spread the roots out evenly over the cone. The tree’s soil line, where the trunk meets roots should end up even with the surrounding soil. Fill in the hole with the soil-compost mix, water, and add a supporting stake if necessary.
Bay Laurel Plant Care
Bay laurel is prone to few pests or diseases, perhaps because of its strong aroma and phytochemicals. Basic care after proper planting should keep your tree beautiful and productive.
Light, Soil, and Nutrients
Bay laurel needs plenty of sunlight—a full day’s worth in cooler locations—but should be shielded from any extremely hot sun with some afternoon shade.
While laurel isn’t fussy about soil types, it benefits from somewhat sandy soil that drains well. You can amend the soil with an organic fertilizer that promotes vegetative growth, as opposed to one that stimulates flowering or fruiting.
Water, Humidity, and Pruning
Water deeply once or twice a week, but check to make sure the water is draining rather than pooling around roots and causing rot and disease. Reduce water during the winter. Once or twice a year, shower the plant with water to remove dust, cobwebs, etc. from the leaves.
Bay laurel enjoys moderate humidity and even coastal conditions like the Mediterranean region offers. There’s not much to do to regulate outdoor humidity aside from adjusting your irrigation, but keep this in mind when selecting an indoor location for laurels in containers.
Common Pests and Diseases
Scale is the most likely pest to trouble a bay laurel plant. Sap-sucking scale insects can look like tiny barnacles or a waxy white coating along the branches.
The University of Maryland’s Extension recommends that during the dormant season, you use a soft-bristled brush to scrub off the scale, and then apply horticultural oil. If you see yellowing leaves or branches, look closely for scale, and remove the branches if they are dying, making sure to dispose of clippings in the trash, not the compost.
How to Harvest Bay Leaves
But keep in mind that, according to one source, leaves should not be picked when the plant is wet. The flavor may mellow if you pick leaves and allow them to dry in the shade for two to three days. Freshly dried leaves have the best flavor, so store dry leaves in an airtight container if you aren’t going to use them right away.
According to researchers in Turkey, where bay laurel is an important export crop, the best quality leaves are on shoots that are 2-3 years old, and harvesting should be on a rotation system where leaves are picked from the same location only every couple of years.