Growing Sweet Bay Plants (Laurus nobilis)

Sweet Bay (Laurus nobilis) reaches a height of 40 feet in its native Mediterranean reqion. However, Bay trees are slow growers and if grown in containers, they can be kept to a very manageable size with only a small amount of clipping. A Bay plant makes an attractive houseplant and will be a ready source of fragrant, flavorful leaves for use in cooking or potpourri. Its shape is easily maintained by an occasional snipping.

LIGHT: Sweet Bay grows in full sun to partial shade, which means that you may place your plant in a window that faces south or one that receives bright light for several hours during the day. Keep in mind that a plant grown in very sunny conditions will need more attention to watering than one that receives less light.

TEMPERATURE: In fall and winter, place your Sweet Bay in a cool room (ideally, where the temperature doesn't rise much above 60°F). During spring and summer when your plant is actively growing, warmer room temperatures and outdoor temperatures above freezing are fine.

WATER: When the potting mix feels dry 1 inch below the surface, water thoroughly. Your plant will require less water in fall and winter, but don't let the soil mix dry out completely.

FERTILIZER: It is not necessary to fertilizer during fall and winter, the time of year when your plant naturally takes a rest. Wait until spring to fertilize monthly with a balanced houseplant fertilizer (such as 10-10-10).

HARVESTING THE LEAVES: You can harvest Bay leaves at any time of year, but their flavor is strongest in mid- to late summer. Pull off the older leaves rather than the new; older leaves generally have more flavor. The essential oils in the leaves dissipate rapidly after harvesting, so for best flavor, use the leaves within a few days. Wash the leaves before using.

PESTS: Bay trees sometimes fall prey to soft-bodied scale, small yellow-brown insects that fix themselves to the stems and suck sap from the plant. On container-grown plants, spray the entire plant with insecticidal soap, BioNeem, or a superior oil (available at garden centers) labeled for indoor use, following the directions carefully. Dabbing the scale with a cotton swab soaked in rubbing alcohol is another remedy, but the process is time consuming and usually doesn't entirely eliminate the scale.

GROWING OUTDOORS: Sweet Bay is hardy to Zone 8 (10°F), but if you live in an area with cold winters, you may move your plant outdoors for the summer. After the danger of frost has passed in spring, gradually acclimate your plant to conditions outside. Keep it in a lightly shaded location for the summer, and bring it back in before frost in fall.

REPOTTING: After a year or more, when the roots of the plant have become crowded, transplant it into a larger pot. Choose a pot that is 1–2 inches wider in diameter, with a drainage hole in the bottom. Use a fast-draining potting mix, and begin by filling the container about half–full of moistened mix. Remove the plant from the pot by grasping the rim, turning the pot upside down, and tapping it against the heel of your hand. Gently break up the sides of the root ball with your thumbs and tease apart any roots thar are circling at the bottom. Then set the root ball on top of the mix and adjust the amount of mix in the container so that the top of the root ball will be about 1 inch below the rim. Fill in around the root ball with potting mix to bring the level to about 1 inch below the rim, and firm lightly. Finally, water thoroughly.