Bay is one of the most versatile herbs used in cooking. Bay leaf plants are small trees, and the dried leaves are commonly used in the French ‘bouquet garni’ which can be added to flavour stews and soups.
Bay is an evergreen tree with aromatic leaves and shiny grey bark. In spring it develops small, yellowish flowers and in autumn the tree bears dark, purple berries. It is a tall tree that is often kept small by growing it in a container. It is hardy to -7C but if temperatures fall below that the tree should be covered with horticultural fleece or taken indoors until the weather changes.
Varieties of Bay Leaf Plants
There are several varieties to choose from, including:-
- Aurea – young foliage is yellow.
- Angustifolia, or willow-leaf bay – leaves are narrower.
- Undulata – leaves have wavy edges.
Where to Grow Your Bay Leaf Plant
Your bay leaf plant should be sited in a sheltered area in full, or part sun. It can tolerate most soils, as long as it is well drained. Dig a deep hole 1m wide and deep and half-fill back with soil and organic matter such as well-rotted animal manure or compost. Place the tree in the soil so it stands straight. Check the original soil mark on the trunk and ensure the tree is sitting to the same depth. Fill the hole back with soil and firm the soil around the trunk with your feet. Water well.
Caring for Your Bay Tree
Bay trees can grow up to 12m (40ft) if left to grow unchecked, so you’ll need to prune your tree each year if you grow it outside. Pruning bay trees is easy – they can be kept to any height and width if pruned regularly. Use secateurs to simply snip the excess foliage away to form a circular shape. Bay trees have very shallow root systems. This means in very dry conditions you may need to water your tree but otherwise the bay requires little attention. Also be careful when weeding around the area as you could damage the root structure.
Growing Your Bay Tree in a Container
If you grow your bay tree in a container you will be able to move it inside during colder months. It will also require less pruning as the container will slow down the spread of roots and stunt the tree’s growth a little. Container-grown trees look fantastic on the patio and make good houseplants. Choose a pot roughly 30cm (12in) in diameter – this will allow the tree to reach a height of no more than 1.5m (5ft). Bay trees enjoy being pot-bound (where the roots appear to have out-grown the pot) so you will not need to re-pot the tree for about 5 years.
Make sure the pot has adequate drainage holes and place old crocks or stones at its base. Part fill it with a good quality soil-based compost and place the tree on top of the soil. Ensure the original soil line on the base of the trunk comes within the pot’s height, and fill with soil, firming gently. Water well and top up with compost if necessary.
You will still need to prune your container bay tree, trimming the leaves into the desired shape. Feed the tree fortnightly in summer months with an organic fertiliser such as seaweed, and replace the top 2cm of compost each spring. Move the tree indoors in cold weather; a cool area with plenty of light is ideal.
Tips for Successful Bay Leaf Growing
- If frost affects your tree, don’t panic. The leaves are likely to turn brown and wither. If only some of the leaves are affected, remove them in spring and give the tree a good feed. If all the leaves are affected, cut the tree down to about 15cm (6 inches) above soil level. New shoots will appear from the base in spring.
- If growing your tree in a container don’t water it too much in winter, let the compost dry out completely before adding more.
Bay leaf plants are easy to grow and maintain. Their leaves have many uses in the kitchen and are incredibly versatile. With a little pruning and care your tree will last for years, giving you an attractive feature that adds a little extra to stews and soups.