Growing Bay Leaves is Easy and Rewarding

How to Grow Bay Leaves for Culinary, Household, and Medicinal Purposes

Bay laurel

My first bay laurel tree was a tiny four-inch seedling from the nursery. I found out quickly that growing bay leaves is not at all difficult.

I put the pot in my herb garden where it got morning sun and afternoon shade. Before long, the little specimen outgrew the pot. Throughout the summer, I repotted it several times. By autumn, the bay tree had grown well over a foot with multiple branches.

Bay laurel, or Laurus nobilis, is what is known as “true bay.” This perennial, evergreen herb is in the Lauraceae plant family which also includes cinnamon and sassafras. Bay has been grown in the Mediterranean region for so long that when we think of bay, we associate it with the Mediterranean.

Bay leaf benefits are almost unlimited. From the culinary arena to medical research, bay is attracting the attention of cooks, medical professionals, and herbalists.

Fun Fact: The word “baccalaureate” has its roots in ancient Greece when bay laurel was used to crown and decorate athletes and persons of distinction. Turkey is one of the largest exporters of bay, and that’s how the nickname “Turkish bay” came about.

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There are other varieties of bay, including California bay, Umbellularia californica. California bay is native to California and is in the same family as avocados. The difference between bay laurel and California bay is both visual and sensory. True bay has large, somewhat rounded pointed leaves and, when dried, has an herbal, slightly floral, eucalyptus-like flavor. California bay leaves are more pointed and slender, with a much stronger flavor.

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Left to right: Bay laurel, California bay

When we were in Italy, I saw bay trees over 30-feet tall. Practically speaking, though, bay trees are grown either as a topiary or a large shrub.

Growing Bay Leaves Outdoors

The plant hardiness zones for bay are zones eight through 11.

In the Ground

No worries here. If your climate is agreeable, ordinary garden soil with good drainage will provide a happy home for your bay leaf tree year-round. Bay can tolerate full sun or part shade but doesn’t like soggy feet or excessively dry soils, so take that into account when watering.

In Pots

Since I live in southwestern Ohio in Zone 6, I grow my bay trees in containers, and treat them as tender perennials, bringing them indoors when the temperature dips consistently to below 15 degrees. I follow Ron Wilson, the gardening expert’s advice for planting herbs in pots. I like half potting soil and half cactus soil, which allows for good drainage. Let the soil dry out between waterings. When the bay outgrows its current pot, go to the next size up.

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Bay tree in bush form.

 

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Bay tree in topiary form

When to Fertilize

Fertilize both in the ground and potted bays in spring and summer. For lush foliage, try a fertilizer that’s a little high in nitrogen.

Pruning

That depends on you. I’m not fussy about pruning but will give my bay trees a light pruning when needed. And don’t toss the prunings away. Those leaves can be dried for culinary and household use.

Overwintering Bay in Pots

It’s good to acclimate your bay tree gradually to the indoors. Around the end of September, put it in a shady place outdoors. By the end of October or November, depending upon the weather, give it one last good watering and take it inside to go dormant. Bay does well in a southern exposure with good air circulation. I keep mine in the lower level of the house, which stays about 50 degrees. No need to fertilize during winter indoors. Water infrequently.

As spring approaches, again acclimate the tree to going outside. Put it in a shady, protected place and gradually put the plant in a permanent outdoor location.

Growing Bay Leaves Indoors

A bright, sunny spot with plenty of fresh air will keep your bay tree healthy. Let the soil dry between waterings. Mist the leaves occasionally. Don’t put the plant too close to a heat source. Fertilize in spring and summer.

Growing Bay Leaves from Seeds and Cuttings

I’ve tried growing bay leaves from both seeds and cuttings and found them to be difficult tasks, requiring the right environment and a lot of patience. Seeds take up to nine months to germinate, and cuttings taken from semi-hard stems take up to five months to root properly.  If you’re adventurous, I say go for it. As for me, I’ll start with seedlings!

Harvesting Bay Leaves

Give the leaf a tug, pulling downward. That way, you’ll get a clean break without damaging the stem.

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Removing leaf from bay tree

Drying and Storing

Dry in a dehydrator or by hanging in bunches upside down, away from light and moisture. When leaves crinkle with your fingers, they’re dry. Store away from heat and light.

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Bay leaf bundle drying

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Left: fresh bay leaf. Right: dried bay leaf.

Diseases and Pests

Bay trees aren’t usually bothered by diseases and pests, but once in a while, you may see a mealy bug or scale damage. Mealy bug damage makes the leaves look sooty, and sucking scale insects look like soft ovals that attach to the stem or leaf. A good horticultural oil spray will take care of both.

Bay is truly an herb with an ancient pedigree. Do you grow bay? Does your climate allow you to grow it outdoors all year? Join in the conversation below.

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Comments
  • Susan S.

    Hi, I’d like to grow a bay leaf tree. Is there a source for seedlings?

    Reply
  • I’m always forgetting to buy bay leaves! I’d love to grow a potted bonsai version for my patio (meaning that I’d like to keep it trimmed back). Any advice for the Tampa Bay region zone? Thanks in advance, can’t wait to start!

    Reply
  • Leann W.

    Interesting, I live in North East Lower Michigan and my mom planted what she told me was a Bay Leaf bush outside our Living room window several years ago. It’s over 5 ft. tall and going strong, continuously putting out new shoots and spreading. It’s encroaching over the porch steps and needs to be pruned big time. The leaves look like the California Bay examples shown. Wish there was a picture of the “blossoms” then I would now or sure exactly. Last year had several seed pods that matured.

    Reply
  • My sister gave me a tiny ‘true’ bay seedling many years ago. It took a couple of years to get established, now has grown into a lovely bush. We have triple digit heat in summer and some temps in the 30’s in winter. I don’t pamper it, just basic care and it is doing just fine in my perennial herb garden along with sage, rosemary and oregano

    Reply

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