There’s nothing quite like a crunchy bay leaf to lend a savory flavor to your soups, stews, or stir fries. If you’re familiar with growing herbs and are looking for a more challenging option, you might want to consider growing the bay leaf plant.
Also known as bay laurel, sweet bay, and laurel, this plant is a fun one to grow. With an aromatic flavor and the ability to be dehydrated and preserved for months of use, it can be used in a variety of recipes.
What is a Bay Leaf?
Bay leaves come from the bay leaf tree. This seasoning is commonplace, and it’s easy to forget that the leaves of this plant come from a tree and not from a low-lying herb (which is much more common in most homesteaders’ gardens).
You can easily grow a bay leaf tree, but you will need to remember that this tree can grow up to fifty feet tall. Native to the Mediterranean region, it cannot be grown in all regions.
The bay leaf tree is believed to be one of the oldest species of cultivated trees. In fact, it was once made into a wreath to crown winners of ancient Greek games – like the Olympics.
Now, bay leaves are produced all over the world, but you do need to have the proper climate to do it.
Where Do Bay Leaves Grow?
Bay leaf trees can only be grown in USDA plant hardiness zones 7 and warmer. Unless you plan on growing a dwarf version inside your home or in a greenhouse, you generally cannot grow it anywhere else.
This plant is incredibly sensitive to frost, requiring full exposure to the sun and blooming only in the spring and summer months. It has rigid, leathery leaves that have strong mid-ribs.
The plant releases an aromatic oil that is a culinary favorite. While this tree is easy to care for, you must make sure it is well-protected from the elements.
Varieties of Bay Trees
If you are looking for a bay tree to plant in your garden, there are very few cultivars from which to choose. The most popular is L. nobilis, which has several sub-varieties.
There are technically six plants that are referred to as a bay leaf, but for simplicity we’ll focus on the bay laurel.
However, you may also hear bay leaves referred to as the Indian bay leaf, malabathrum, West Indian bay leaf, Indonesian bay leaf, California bay leaf, or Mexican bay leaf.
L. nobiliis is usually cultivated for culinary and ornamental purposes. Aurea, a type of L. nobilis, has yellowish foliage, while L. nobilis f. Angustifolia is a willow-leaved laurel with thin, narrow leaves.
All of these varieties can be purchased online, or at your local garden center.
How to Plant
The bay leaf tree requires lots of fertilizer, so it’s best to plant this tree in well-drained soil with lots of organic compost.
You can also grow this plant in a container, but you will need to provide extra fertilizer to make up for what the plant depletes from the soil.
Plant you rtree at the same level in the soil that it was grown in within the nursery pot. You should transplant in the early spring when the plant is still somewhat dormant. This will help reduce shock and make it easier for the plant to adjust.
Bay trees are gorgeous ornamental plants, and you can grow them from cuttings. These should be taken in late summer and placed in a soilless medium.
You can also engage in a unique process known as air layering to propagate a bay tree. All you need to do is wound the tree in the center and pack the wound full of sphagnum moss. Roots will form in the wound, and you can then cut it off and replant it.
If you are planting your bay tree directly in the ground, the easiest way to do this is to imply start with a plant purchased at a nursery.
While growing a bay tree from cuttings or air layering may be less expensive, there is a huge margin for error here, particularly for the novice gardener. Cuttings can be difficult to root, and there’s no turning back if you’ve done it incorrectly.
Instead, plant a new bay plant in the spring or early summer months. Provide about six feet between plants that are being grown as a hedge, and even more if you don’t want the trees to serve this purpose.
In containers, your plant should be grown in a container that is at least a foot in diameter – but you will need to transplant it into a container that is 18 inches or larger once the plant matures. You may also need to repot your plants every other spring.
When planting your bay tree, be careful as you break the root ball of the plant. You should cut off any damaged or overgrown roots before inserting the plant into the hole (which, again, should be as deep as the container in which the young plant was purchased in).
Cover the hole with soil and water deeply.
The ideal soil pH is between 6 and 8. You can improve your pH by gradually adding compost or other natural fertilizers to the soil.
Caring for Your Bay Tree
If you are growing bay tree in a container, you should fertilize it every three weeks during the spring and late summer months.
You don’t need to fertilize plants grown outdoors quite as often. It should’ve noticed that beans make a great companion plant for the bay tree, as they help reduce pests and supplement the soil with extra nitrogen.
Bay trees must be protected from heavy winds and precipitation. The wood of this plant is not terribly resilient or rigid, so you need to make sure you have systems in place to support the place and harbor it from the elements.
You can train your plant to a topiary or a trellis, but this should be done when the tree is young. You must do this carefully to avoid injuring the plant.
Once your bay tree is secured in a container or in the ground, make sure it receives average temperatures between 45 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Sunlight should be consistently provided from the south or east.
You only need to water the plant regularly when the plant is young or if you are growing directly in the ground. Check the soil regularly to make sure it is relatively dry, and reduce watering during the fall and winter months.
Bay is not picky when it comes to soil conditions. It prefers soils that are airy and well-draining, and does not grow as well in heavy clay soils. This can cause waterlogging and nutritional deficiencies in your tree.
If you are growing bay as a potted plant, you will want to allow the soil to dry out as the autumn months approach. Soil should remain dry between waterings, which will help prevent fungal issues and disease.
In general, you should avoid soggy roots, which can cause serious damage to the plant. Water moderately and makes sure the container or location in which you are growing your bay tree has plenty of drainage material.
When planted in the garden, bay trees can grow as tall as fifty-five feet. However, it is very easy to keep your plant smaller than that through regular pruning.
Most gardeners will keep their plants at eight feet or smaller to conserves pace. You don’t necessarily get better tasting leaves as the plant grows larger.
In the spring, your plant will form condensed clumps of yellow flowers. These will be followed by purple blossoms with single seeds. Because of this gorgeous show of color, the plant is often pruned into a topiary shape. You can train the trunks into braids as well.
Bay trees make a great addition to the garden because they help keep out moths and other pests. You can even use the dried leaves to repel bugs, or you can add them to a smoker to repel pests and add a nice aroma to your property.
There are very few pests and diseases to which bay is prone, largely because it emits such a powerful aroma that most bugs don’t want anything to do with it. However, you may notice that leaf spot appears as a regular problem with your bay plants.
This disease is typically caused by overwatering. If you allow your roots to sit in water and become sodden, they will develop a fungal growth that can stunt new leaf development.
To prevent this, make sure your containers have a dense layer of drainage material at the bottom. You can also add extra drainage holes to make it easier for water to trickle through.
If your plant is growing in the ground, you can improve drainage by adding sand or crushed rock to the soil. Adding rich, organic compost can also help add nutrients, which helps your plant fight off diseases of all kind.
You might notice that the leaves of your plant become yellow over time. This is normal to an extent; your plant will naturally produce yellow leaves as new growth appears. These will be shed as the new growth takes over.
However, yellowing can also occur in containers, and this is typically caused by nutrient deficiency. You can add compost or a general-purpose fertilizer every other week to improve the nutrient content of the soil.
Yellowing can also be caused by root damage (usually directly related to wet soil) or cold water damage. Providing proper care and pruning damaged wood in the springtime can help reduce the impact that yellowing has on your bay tree leaves.
Pruning Your Bay Tree
For outdoor and indoor plants alike, remember to prune as the plants outgrow their surroundings. Regardless of whether your tree is grown as a shrub, a topiary, or a full-sized tree, you will want to remove any damaged or dead leaves or branches each spring.
You can prune mature trees thoroughly, but remember that regrowth will be slow. Instead, conduct a moderate pruning session every other year to maintain green foliage while the new growth develops. Try not to remove more than a third of the plant at a time.
If you want to maintain a manageable shrub, simply remove lower leaves and buds. You can also trim any suckers or branches that are low on the shrub. You should prune topiary specimens in the summer, which will promote dense growth. This can be done all the way back to the leaf nodes.
Harvesting Bay Leaves
You can harvest bay leaves at any time – usually, as soon as they are big enough to use. The best flavor will come from larger, older leaves.
Clip them whole and try your best not to damage the stem. Lay the leaves out flat to dry, and then either crush or use them whole.
You can harvest bay leaves at any time throughout the year. Flavor is the best in the summer, but larger leaves will have more fragrance than tender young growth,
Preserving Bay Leaves
While bay leaves can be used fresh, you have several options when it comes to preserving your bay leaves for long term use. One of the most popular is dehydration.
You can gather the leaves in bundles and tie them together to dry in the sun, or dry them in a commercial dehydrator. They can also be dried at a low temperature (about 100 degrees) in the oven.
Alternatively, you can freeze your bay leaves. Simply place the leaves in a plastic container or freezer bag and place it in the deepest section of your freezer.
This will allow the temperature of the plant to drop more quickly, preserving the fresh flavor and texture of the leaves, you can store them in the freezer for three months without losing any flavor.
Using Bay Leaves in the Homestead Kitchen
Bay leaves are an essential ingredient in the classic bouquet garni herb mixture. This mixture is often used in the preparation of poultry, stoups, and stews.
You can also use bay leaves on their own, either dried or fresh, to season meat, fish, poultry, soups, sauces, stews, grains, and vegetables.
Remember that your usage of bay leaves will depend largely on the method you implemented to preserve them.
Dried leaves are best suited for slow-cooked dishes, such as soups. When served fresh or frozen, bay leaves taste best in foods like risottos, fish, poached dishes, and sausages, as they will offer a more subtle flavor.
Are you growing a bay tree in your homestead garden yet? Even if you live in an area that experiences a warmer climate, bay leaves are a culinary staple that should be in any homesteader’s kitchen – and you can save some money and trips to the grocery store by growing a bay tree in a container inside your home.
This plan provides great visual interest to the landscape, and also helps to spruce up your cooking. With so many potential benefits in the kitchen as well as in the garden, this tree is one you absolutely need to give a try.
And why not pin this article on your favorite Pinterest board to have it for later?
Rebekah is a full-time homesteader. On her 22 acres, she raises chickens, sheep, and bees, not to mention she grows a wide variety of veggies. She has a huge greenhouse and does lots of DIY projects with her husband in her ever-growing homesteading endeavor. Learn more about Rebekah here.