Growing Bay Leaf (Bay Laurel)
Bay or sweet bay (Laurus nobilis) is the leaf from a tree in the Laurel family. It's an evergreen that originated in the Mediterranean, where it grows to a height of 40 feet. Bay laurel is beautifully appointed with medium sized, glossy, green leaves. It is not winter hardy in areas that experience freezing weather.
Luckily, bay can be cultivated in a container and brought indoors to overwinter. When potted, it seldom grows taller than 6', but can be cultivated into a dense, rich specimen plant. Bay topiaries aren't uncommon, and they can be very elegant on a deck or patio. That's the good news. The bad news is that bay can be persnickety about its living conditions.
It prefers rich, well-drained soil that has a sunny exposure. Plant your tree away from other plantings. Once it gets started, it will need room to spread out. This isn't a shrub. Because it's considered an herb, it's easy to underestimate bay's growth potential. This is a tree that can last many decades, so give its location some serious thought. Because it likes its soil relatively moist and doesn't like to dry out, consider mulching, and don't forget to water it regularly while it's young.
Keeping Bay in a Pot
If you're planning on keeping your bay tree in a pot, avoid terracotta, and look for commercial potting soil that has good water retentive characteristics, like water beads and vermiculite.
Plan on a 12" pot for a plant that's about eight inches high. Since bay is a slow grower, invest in a larger plant if you can afford it. Bay can be pricey, but you'll be glad you paid a little more.
Growing Bay Leaf Indoors
Make sure your plant gets plenty of sun while it's spending time indoors. Remember, the quality of the light in a room starts to drop sharply as you move back from the window, so give it plenty of clear, bright light, or provide grow lights for it. Bay also dislikes drafts and hot spots, like those near heating vents or exterior doors.
Don't fertilize outdoor specimens you are over-wintering inside. Wait until spring. If you are maintaining a bay indoors year round, try putting it out on a patio for a couple of weeks in spring. A little time outdoors each season will do it a world of good. To make the moving task easier, give it a base with casters. Your back will thank you.
All this sounds like a pain, but a healthy, shiny, specimen can be a beautiful sight.
Propagating Bay Leaf Laurel
Take stem cuttings (four or five inches), or air layer. The end of summer is the best time to start new plants. The cuttings will have to be carefully nurtured; a conservatory where you can keep them in uniformly humid conditions would be ideal. Transplant the following spring.
Harvesting Bay Leaf
You can start to harvest bay once the plant is a couple of years old. The leaves should be dried before use, as fresh bay is bitter. The best wait time is around 48 to 72 hours from the time you pick a leaf. I know you get long-dried bay leaves at the store, but the freshly dried leaves have better, deeper flavor. After all, you aren't going to all this trouble for nothing.
Select the largest leaves. The older the leaf, the stronger the flavor will be.
Uses for Bay Leaf
Bay leaf is a favorite in cooking. It is commonly used whole in stews, sauces and soups. It can be used in both mild and strongly seasoned dishes and works well with many other herbs and spices. Bay Leaf is one of the key ingredients in Bouquet Garni, and ground bay leaf is the signature herb in Old Bay Seasoning.
Bay can also be used as a weevil deterrent. Place a few leaves in the cabinet where you keep your flour and other grains to repel bugs.
It is a pungent addition to potpourri, and an ointment made from bay leaf can help reduce joint inflammation. Bay also makes a very full and impressive base for an herb wreath.