Learn to grow evergreen bay trees for years of production of richly flavored leaves.
The bay leaves are a classic and versatile cooking herb that has been used for centuries as a culinary herb. In the garden, the bay can be grown as an evergreen tree or shrub depending on your climate.
In this article, we’ll detail the best way to grow bay trees for their richly flavored leaves. Read on to learn the growing conditions for outdoor and container grown plants, including how to tackle pests, start new plants and keep them healthy from season to season.
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Varieties of Bay Leaf Plants
The plant on which bay leaves grow goes by many common names, including bay tree, sweet bay, bay laurel, and Greek laurel.
Various non-edible and even poisonous plants are also called bay or laurel. Make sure that you have an edible bay tree.
Most Extension sites describe growing Laurus nobilis. An article from the Tulare County Master Gardeners says Laurus azorica and hybrids of Laurus nobilis and Laurus azorica also have edible leaves.
Dried bay leaves add a rich, clear flavor to sauces, soups, bean and meat dishes, casseroles, pickles, and even desserts. Fresh leaves may also be used in salads, butters, and cheeses.
While the dried bay leaf stores well, many home cooks prefer to grow their own bay leaf plants.
Growing Bay Trees Outdoors
Bay trees prefer well-drained soil. In most areas of the United States, bay laurel thrives in full sun.
If you live in a warmer state, your bay leaf tree will grow well either in full sun or in part shade. In colder climates, you’ll have to make do with a smaller, shrubbier bay plant in a large container.
Bay trees that overwinter outside may benefit from being sheltered from the prevailing winds and planted on the sunny side of a wall or building.
If you’re planning to grow your bay tree outdoors, give it plenty of space. Maximum size estimates vary widely among reputable sites, from 12 feet to 60 feet.
The warmer your climate, the likelier you are to have a very large bay tree. Your pruning decisions will also affect the size of your tree.
In What Zones Can You Grow Bay Trees Outdoors?
Bay trees are native to the warm Mediterranean. They will overwinter in the warmest US zones.
Some master gardeners and university sites say bay trees are hardy in zones 8 or 8b to 10. Others say they are hardy as far north as zone 7. If you’re in zone 7, consult nearby gardeners or your local Extension about whether your bay tree is likely to survive winters outdoors.
Growers in zone 6 and colder climates should plant their bay trees in tubs and move them indoors to overwinter.
When to Plant Bay Leaf Trees
Planting times vary depending on your climate. In warm weather states, such as California, plant your bay trees outdoors from fall through spring.
In colder climates from zone 3 to 5, plant your bay trees in tubs. Then set them outside in spring once temperatures are consistently above freezing.
Transplanted seedlings should be set into the soil at the same depth as they were in their pots.
Maintaining Your Bay Tree
Bay trees should be planted in rich soil. They don’t need much supplemental feeding. A California Extension article says that feeding is rarely necessary, while a Texas article recommends applying organic fertilizer once each spring. Of course, container-grown bay trees will need more fertilizing, as discussed below.
The roots of bay trees are shallow, so they benefit from frequent watering during dry spells, especially when they are young. It’s good to let the soil around the roots dry out between waterings, but it shouldn’t stay dry too long.
Bay trees require pruning every spring. This will help you to shape your bay tree in whatever way works best for you. Dry the pruned portions for use in cooking. For detailed information, see this article on harvesting and drying bay leaves.
Common Problems With Bay Trees
Bay trees are not highly susceptible to pests and diseases. Moths may lay eggs between leaves, sticking the leaves together with cottony fluff. To remove the moths, separate leaves by hand and discard eggs or larvae.
Laurel psyllids or soft-shell scale insects may also attack them. Scale can often be controlled by encouraging beneficial insects.
Aromatic herbs, including dill, cilantro, and fennel, may attract beneficials. One California Extension article says that the cultivar “Saratoga,” a cross between Laurus nobilis and Laurus azorica, is resistant to psyllids and scale.
Bay trees may suffer frost damage even in warm climates if winter temperatures dip unusually low. Frost-killed branches will remain brown and dead in spring. If your bay tree is severely frost-nipped, prune it back to 6 inches and wait for new shoots to grow. (Be patient—bay is slow-growing at the best of times.)
Propagation: Starting New Bay Trees
Bay trees are quite difficult to propagate. Fortunately, they grow quite large and last for a long time, so you don’t need too many of them.
Growing From Seed
Bay leaf trees can be grown from seed, but the process is fidgety and difficult.
The seedbed should be kept warm. Sow seeds in spring and keep them at about 65F. Soil should be moist but not saturated. Germination can take up to 3 months, and seeds may rot rather than germinating.
You can also propagate bay trees by cuttings, though the process is slow and painstaking, and the success rate may be low. This can be done either with or without rooting hormone. The addition of rooting hormone will help speed up the process.
Starting Bay Trees from Stem Cuttings
Cut 4-6″ from the tips of “ripe shoots,” including part of the main stem, with a sharp knife. Do this in late summer or early fall. Trim off all but the topmost 3 or 4 leaves and bury most of the bare stem in potting soil.
Keep in a humid place out of direct sunlight. It may take a year for roots to form.
Adding Rooting Hormone
Snap off semi-hardwood branches (not cutting them). Strip off the lower leaves, dip them in a rooting hormone, and then plant them in pots full of a fine-textured mix. Roots may develop in a few weeks or months.
Propagation Through Layering
Bay trees can also be propagated by layering in the spring. Take a low-growing branch or shoot of an existing bay tree and bend it to the ground.
Make a small cut in the bark at the point where the branch touches the soil. Anchor this cut place in the ground with wire or with a pile of soil and stones.
The cut place may grow roots within 6-12 months.
Growing Bay Trees in Pots and Containers
Bay trees will grow well in large containers. This is the only way Northern growers can keep them alive through the winter. The larger the size of the container you choose, the larger your bay tree can grow—and the harder it will be to move in and out. I have repeatedly been surprised by the weight of a large container filled with moist soil mix.
Planting Bay Trees in Containers
Use a regular potting mix that drains fairly freely, and make sure that your pot itself is well-drained. I often put coarser material, either perlite or small stones, in the bottom inch or so of large containers so that fine soil doesn’t clog the drainage holes. Water lightly—bay copes with being a bit dry better than with being soggy.
During the warm season (for cold-climate growers), set your bay tree outside in full sun in a warm sheltered spot. Take it inside before the first frost, and keep it inside until the temperatures are consistently above freezing.
Feeding Your Potted Bay Tree
Feed your potted tree with liquid fertilizer twice monthly during the warm season. In the winter, bring your bay tree inside. For maximum growth, set your bay tree in as much light as possible indoors, and fertilize much less frequently, as the tree’s growth will slow.
You can also leave it in a cool room (35-60 F) with limited light. It won’t winter-kill there, but it will stay dormant and require very little water.
Pruning the Bay Leaf Tree
You’ll need to prune your bay tree’s branches at least once a year to keep it compact and vigorous. At least once every other year, you’ll also need to report it and prune its roots.
Cut roots away wherever they have touched the surface of the pot. Then replant the bay tree in fresh growing medium, either in the same pot or in a larger pot if you’d like your bay tree to keep getting larger.
Bay trees are perennial, vigorous, flavorful, and fairly free of insect pests and diseases. If you protect them from freezes and prune them attentively, you can enjoy fresh harvests for many seasons from a single plant.