Bay Laurel, also known as Sweet Bay is a culinary herb plant that makes a great addition to the kitchen garden and can easily be grown on a patio or deck.
Bay plants are very attractive with their waxy-looking olive green leaves, branches that can be trained to suit your taste, and flavorful leaves that will serve a valuable function as a versatile kitchen spice.
Container Grown Bay Laurel Plants
In its native Mediterranean climate Bay Laurel is an evergreen tree reaching heights of over forty feet. In Northern climates Sweet Bay will grow like a shrub or small plant and is normally maintained at about six feet in height. If your growing region experiences cold, freezing temperatures Bay plants should be grown in containers and moved indoors during the winter.
Visitors to the garden are often intrigued by the ornamental looking Sweet Bay herb plants that I grow in containers on the patio. They recognize the familiar look and shape of the plant’s leaves but often can’t quite place the glossy leaves growing on the plant rather than standing in the common McCormick spice jars.
To grow your own Bay Laurel purchase a six or eight inch tall starter plant from your local greenhouse or nursery in early spring. The plants are more expensive than the typical herb plant, but your investment will be returned in the form of loads of fresh Bay leaves from a plant that will survive over many seasons if properly maintained.
Caring for Sweet Bay Herb Plants
Plant your Bay Laurel herb in a twelve-inch wide container that has good drainage but is slow to dry out in hot weather. I like to grow Bay plants in glazed ceramic containers rather than clay pots for better moisture control. Sweet Bay is a slow grower and tolerates being slightly pot bound so you won’t need to transplant it to a larger container for at least several years.
Use a good quality potting soil and place a piece of screen or shards in the bottom of the container to allow the pot to drain easily. Sweet Bay plants don’t require much attention other than providing sufficient water, especially during hot weather. Also, don’t forget to feed the plant with an occasional dose of a balanced organic fertilizer.
Bay Laurel lends itself to pruning, training, growing as an espaliered plant, or even as a bonsai style herb plant. The plants will sometimes send up multiple shoots from the roots but I try to maintain a single main stem and prune the side shoots to encourage branching and bushier growth.
Growing Bay Laurel Plants Indoors
Sweet Bay can withstand the heat of summer and will grow best when allowed to spend as much time outdoors as possible. Delay bringing your Bay Laurel inside until late fall but don’t subject the plants to any freezing weather conditions.
Once the plants are moved indoors stop applying fertilizer and cut back on the amount of water that you provide over the winter, but don’t let the container completely dry out. Place the Bay Laurel in a relatively cool, well lit area, or use a grow light bulb to supplement the amount of light that the herb plant receives.
In early spring gradually allow the Bay Laurel plants to acclimate to the outdoors in the same manner that you would harden off vegetable transplants. The hardening off process can be completed in a shorter timeframe than for vegetable seedlings, but the Bay plants will need sufficient time to adjust to the harsher outdoor growing conditions before they resume their life outdoors.
Harvesting and Cooking with Bay Leaves
To harvest leaves from your Sweet Bay plant cut the older leaves from the stem with a pair of scissors, or if you’re careful you can simply pull the leaves off of the stem by hand. The large, older Bay leaves are preferred for cooking because they will contain more of the plant’s essential oil and impart more flavor to your favorite recipes.
A single Bay Laurel plant can supply the family chef with more than enough fresh leaves to season meals for the entire year. Harvest the Bay leaves from the plant as they are needed in the kitchen or remove and dry the leaves for future uses.
Fresh Bay leaves will be stronger than the dried herb and if you keep a live Bay plant around there’s really no need to preserve the leaves or purchase the spice from your grocer. Bay Laurel leaves are commonly used to season and add flavor to soups, stews, pot roasts, and other slow cooking kitchen recipes. Remove the leaves before serving because the leaves are tough and may have sharp edges.
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