If you cook a lot of savory meals like curries, soups, and stews, you know that just a couple bay leaves can pack a huge flavor punch. And this flavor is unlike anything you can get from your typical culinary herbs like rosemary, oregano, and thyme. That’s because bay laurel is kind of the odd-herb-out.
To begin with, it’s not in the plant families that bring us 99% of our kitchen herbs. It’s actually in the Lauraceae family, alongside cinnamon and avocado.
It also has a totally different growing habit than other herbs. I might joke about basil “trees” when basil plants really take off, but bay leaves come from actual trees. A bay laurel tree planted in the ground is capable of growing up to 50 feet tall!
You might be surprised then to learn that this perennial herb, which is also called sweet bay, makes for great container plants. With a little space and very minimum tending, you can grow your own super flavorful, aromatic leaves for your next stew or homemade bouquet garni.
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WHY YOU SHOULD GROW BAY LAUREL IN A POT
Bay laurel is native to the Mediterranean region, where it basks in warm sunlight. If you live in USDA hardiness zones 8 – 11, you can grow bay leaf plants outdoors year round thanks to your warm climate. As long as you’re quick to cover your bay laurel plant before frost, you can enjoy an evergreen shrub in your landscape (a shrub that also happens to give you aromatic leaves for your kitchen—that’s my kind of landscaping!).
If you live in USDA zone 7 and colder (or somewhere it consistently gets below 20 degrees Fahrenheit over winter), you’ll need to move bay laurel plants indoors before your first frost. You’ll keep them nice and warm indoors throughout the winter months and then slowly transition them to being outdoor plants again in the spring. It’s overall just easier, then, to keep your bay laurel in a pot year round so that you can move it as needed.
In true herb fashion, bay laurel is pretty low maintenance. It doesn’t mind staying on the smaller side if it’s growing in a pot. You can actually grow it as a houseplant all year long if you have a nice, sunny spot indoors. Thanks to its pretty green leaves, it might even become your favorite houseplant.
Don’t worry about your bay laurel plant trying to grow 50 feet inside your home. These plants grow very slowly (even slower in containers), and container-grown plants will stay on the smaller side. Your potted bay laurel might grow to be perhaps 5′ or 6′ tall over the years.
HOW TO SOURCE A BAY LAUREL PLANT
Bay laurel takes a very long time to grow from seed. It’s best to buy a well-grown little plant from your local nursery or garden center so that you can begin to take your first leaf harvests sooner rather than later (and by later, I mean in two to three years).
THE BEST CONTAINERS FOR GROWING BAY LAUREL
Look for a container that’s a little bit larger than the plastic pot your bay laurel came home from the store in. Eventually, you’ll want your bay laurel to grow in a container that’s at least 5 gallons, but for now, you’ll just give it a little more room to stretch out.
I love growing herbs in terra cotta pots and fabric pots because these materials help to absorb excess moisture in the soil and prevent root rot and they are easy enough to move if a hard frost is forecasted. Whatever container material you decide on, make sure there’s at least one good drainage hole in the bottom or add one yourself to let the excess water drain out. Grab a saucer or non-draining tray to fit underneath your pot (not required, but is helpful for bottom watering).
HOW TO POT UP YOUR BAY LAUREL PLANT
Once you’ve purchased your new bay laurel plant, follow these steps to move it into its new home.
Fill the bottom of the pot with a mix of organic potting soil and compost. Bay laurel and other herbs appreciate well-draining soil; in fact, the most common problems growing these herbs are caused by poor drainage. Most potting soils are nice and light, which means they’ll drain well but hold onto a little moisture for the roots of the plant. You can improve the drainage further by mixing in some coarse sand or vermiculite if you’d like.
Add the root ball of the bay laurel plant and fill in more potting soil mix around it. Give the plant a nice watering in, allow the excess water to drain out the bottom of the pot, and then place the pot on its saucer.
HOW MUCH SUN DOES BAY LAUREL NEED?
Your bay laurel plants needs at least 6 hours of direct sunlight a day. Indoors, the best spot would be right next to a south- or west-facing window. Bay laurel plants kept indoors won’t grow as quickly as those grown outdoors, but you should still see moderate growth as long as you’ve picked a sunny spot in your home. You can always supplement with a grow light as needed.
When your bay laurel is outdoors, try to give it morning sun and late afternoon shade.
Temperature-wise, your plant should stay happy as long as you keep your home between 60℉ and 90℉. Make sure leaves aren’t touching icy-cold windows during winter.
HOW TO CARE FOR A POTTED BAY LEAF TREE
These are pretty low-maintenance plants, and that’s true whether you’re growing them indoors or outdoors. Here are a couple things to do to best care for your bay laurel.
Watering Bay Laurel
Your goal is to never allow the root ball of your potted plant to dry out completely. Test the soil with your finger, and water when the soil feels dry 1 inch down. Aim your water around the base of the plant, not the leaves, and add water until you see water draining from the base (I recommend watering your indoor plants in the kitchen sink or shower). During dry, hot periods, you might find yourself needing to water bay laurel growing outdoors as often as every day.
If you notice the leaves of your bay laurel plant turning brown or dropping to the ground, that’s a sign you might need to water more frequently. If the leaves are turning yellow, that’s a sign you’re watering too frequently.
Fertilizing Bay Laurel
Since your bay laurel can’t reach for additional nutrients in the ground, you’ll need to add more key nutrients to the potting soil twice a year (around the beginning of spring and the end of summer). The main ingredient to focus on when you’re shopping around for an organic fertilizer is nitrogen (the first number in the NPK ratio) to promote leafy growth. My favorite liquid fertilizer is MicroLife’s Ocean Harvest. The best way to apply this is to mix it with water in a spray bottle and give the leaves of your plant a little spritz. You could also add it to the watering can and water your plant as usual.
Another option would be to add some compost and/or worm castings to the top of the soil every couple of months.
Bringing Bay Laurel Indoors Before Cold Weather
Again, you’ll need to bring bay laurel plants that are growing outdoors inside before the temperatures dip too low. Check the leaves carefully for pests before moving the plant indoors and placing it in the sunniest spot available. It’s normal for your plant to drop some leaves while it’s getting used to its new digs indoors.
Potting Up Bay Laurel Every 2 to 3 Years
Move your plant to a larger pot and give it some fresh potting soil every couple of years. Choose a pot that’s a few inches wider and deeper than the current pot to give your plant’s roots room to stretch out a bit more.
Dealing with Pests on Bay Laurel
Like other herbs, bay laurel isn’t really prone to pests or disease. Taking care to not overwater your potted plant goes a long way in preventing disease. If you notice aphids or other soft-bodied bugs on the leaves of your plant, you can spray the leaves with insecticidal soap or bio insecticide. (Learn more about dealing with aphids.)
Pruning Bay Laurel
Since bay laurel grows so slowly, you won’t find yourself needing to prune very often. Even so, it’s a good idea to remove any damaged leaves and to prune just above a leaf node to encourage your plants to grow bushier instead of taller (especially when your plant is indoors).
If you’d like, you can carefully shape your bay trees the way you would a topiary.
The best time to prune bay laurel is in the early spring or fall.
HOW TO HARVEST BAY LAUREL
You’ll want to wait until your tree is about two years old before you take your first leaf harvests (again, that’s why I recommend starting off with a small plant from the store). Avoid taking too many leaves from your plant until it has grown larger.
To harvest bay leaves, use a clean pair of pruners or scissors to cut the tip of a stem. You can also pull individual leaves here and there.
HOW TO DRY BAY LAUREL LEAVES
Bay laurel leaves can be used fresh, or you can dry them for later use. Lay individual leaves in a single layer on a piece of parchment paper or tie some stems together and hang them upside down. Place them somewhere cool, dry, and dark in your home and let them dry out for 2 to 3 weeks. Then, remove any leaves that are still attached to stems and place the leaves in a jar or airtight container.
When it comes to bay laurel, one little leaf goes a long way. It’s easy to see how even a small plant can give you fresh leaves for this week’s savory dishes or a lifetime supply of dried leaves for pot roasts and soups.
Let us know if you have any questions in the comments below.