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.
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.
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. You may want 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 will not 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 do not require much attention other than providing sufficient water, especially during hot weather. Also, do not 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, so try to maintain a single main stem and prune the side shoots to encourage branching and bushier growth.
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 are 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 is 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.