Used for its striking appearance and its strong flavours, bay is one of the oldest plants in cultivation.
It’s a staple in any herb garden is used fresh or dried in soups and stews. Because bay is a tree that’s easy to shape and can grow as high as 8m, it’s a topiary favourite too. For flavouring, bay leaves can be harvested at any time of the year.
Bay is a relatively straightforward plant to care for too. It can be planted in the ground and does equally well in a pot. Read on for more on how to grow bay.
Bay is commonly found in garden centres and can be planted throughout the early spring and summer months, typically from March to June. Young bay plants can be planted as soon as any frosts have passed.
If you’re planting your bay in the ground, dig in some compost and if you are planting your bay in a pot, a soil-based compost also works. In both cases you might want to add some grit for drainage. Your bay needs regular water but won’t thrive if its roots become waterlogged, so ensure adequate drainage for the roots. Young plants should be sheltered from full sun and wind if possible as these are more delicate.
Water the plants well and often for the first few weeks while the plant settles.
Bay grows slowly but will eventually grow into an 8m high tree if not clipped for shape and size. But most bay is trained to grow for topiary purposes, commonly trimmed into shapes such as balls or cones. In this way growing bay is an easy way to add a formal touch to a garden, or you’ll often find a couple of potted bay trees standing either side of a porch.
Except in drier climes, any bay that’s in the ground should get enough water from rainfall. Don’t allow your bay to dry out but any excess should be allowed to drain away as a bay doesn’t like its roots waterlogged. Add a little plant food every month. If your bay is in a pot, then you will need to repot it at least every three years. Once bay has established it can handle full sun.
But if you’re concerned about how to grow bay during the winter the following should help. Frost and freezing conditions can severely damage bay. Move your plants inside if you can, or use the shelter of a porch. If temperatures drop below -5° the roots can become susceptible. If you can’t move the tree, consider wrapping it in a fleece or bubble wrap.
In the summer you can prune, in the spring cut back to rejuvenate the plant.
Plants do get problems and part of understanding how to grow bay is dealing with them when they arise. For the most part growing bay is fairly trouble free. Frost damaged leaves, those that are black or brown, can be picked off or trimmed in the spring. Yellow leaves can be a sign of waterlogged roots or not enough nutrients.
If you discover discoloured and curled up leaves or those that are sticky bay leaf suckers could be the problem. Sap-feeding bay leaf suckers are winged insects that attack young bay foliage, but can be dealt with by removing the offending leaves. Bigger outbreaks might require pruning. Vine weevils or scale insects can cause similar symptoms.
Fresh bay leaves are used in cooking can be harvested throughout the year, picked as required. If you want dried bay leaves, dry out individual leaves or entire sprigs in a warm place, then store in an airtight container up a to a year.
How to grow bay is part of the VegTrug Grower’s Guide.