Bay Laurel: Growing Sweet Bay At Home

Ed Wike
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Quick Care Guide

Bay Laurel

Bay Laurel is an evergreen tree with tones of gray. As a Mediterranean plant, it can naturally withstand cold winters and hot summers.

It can be grown in a container indoors during the winter, but bring it outside during summer to enjoy a mature plant.

It will grow about 20 ft tall indoors and can grow up to 10 ft tall outdoors.

It prefers full sun, so it is a good idea to place your container in a spot where it will get the most sunshine.

It can survive temps as low as 10 degrees Fahrenheit, but it does not tolerate extreme cold.

Don’t water it during the winter, but water it every other week from spring through fall.

During the fall and winter, don’t feed it fertilizer, as it will still be growing new leaves. In spring and summer, feed it every two weeks with a slow-release fertilizer.

All About Bay Laurel

The Bay Laurel, also known as Sweet Bay, is a species of small evergreen shrubs or trees indigenous to warmer coastal Mediterranean regions, such as Lebanon, Egypt, Algeria, and Morocco. It is a popular ornamental plant worldwide and is grown to be used in cooking as well as in entertainment. Originally the Bay Laurel was applied as a component in perfume and medicines.

It is a small evergreen shrub or tree, 10 – 20 feet tall, with glabrous, leathery, and dark green deciduous leaves. The leaves are alternate and that are rich dark green in color. It is considered as one of the "Four Noble Trees" in Italy, along with the Lime, Olive and Walnut trees. The flowers are small greenish-yellow in color and are shaped like that of the Ericaceae. In the wild, it blooms from May to June.

The Bay Laurel is edible and its leaves have a distinctive bell shaped sweet and delicate flavor. Another popular stem in Mediterranean cuisine is the flower buds which are also used in cooking. Some people prefer to buy the Bay Laurel as a potted plant than to grow it from the seed.

Planting Bay Laurel

This fragrant herb can be grown in warm climates, and while it is an aromatic bay laurel used for cooking, it is not the same as the bay tree that can be grown outdoors. If you love bay leaves, you can grow the plant indoors.

To grow Bay Laurel, you can plant seeds directly in the soil in the fall, when the temperature is cooler. You will need a flat, well-drained potting mix so that the seedlings will thrive.

The leaves should be removed after cooking to prevent getting the plant and the cook sick.

When To Plant

Plant Bay trees in a well-drained location in full-sun to partial shade.

The soil should be rich and fertile to get the best results.

When you dig your hole to plant the Bay tree, measure it from the trunk of the tree to the ground, so it has a deep enough hole to accommodate the root.

Remove the Bay tree from the pot and use a small shovel to loosen the roots before you place it in the hole. Loosen the root ball by gently digging around the root with your fingers.

If you have a spade, use it to cut a circle around the root ball, then slide the shovel underneath the root ball and lift it with the spade.

Add a bucket of water around the root ball and wash the sand away.

Remove any leaves from the root ball, and pack the hole with the remaining soil.

Apply a layer of compost and mix it into the remaining soil.

Water the Bay tree thoroughly and deeply.

Water it every evening from the time you plant it in the ground to the first frost.

Remove any weeds that appear in your garden.

Where To Plant

Sweet bay is a flowering evergreen shrub native to Mediterranean climates but widely adapted around the world. It enjoys full sun and well-drained soil, once established.

This shrub, with its bright green leaves and vibrant flowers, is a lovely addition to any yard.

It’s deer resistant and attracts butterflies and songbirds, so it’s a great addition to any wildlife garden. It can be used as an ornamental shrub in landscape beds or, because of its coastal origins, as a hedge near the ocean.

It’s also a potherb, or edible plant, that's delicious when cooked.

Because this shrub has so many uses, it’s a great addition to a home garden. To grow this plant, you can easily purchase bay shrubs online or plant seeds or start with purchased plant.

How To Plant

Bay laurel, also called sweet bay, is a distinctive evergreen that does well in Southern, coastal gardens. It is highly aromatic, producing a clove-like aroma when bruised or cut. Easy to grow, this is a small tree that tolerates both sun and shade. You can even grow it in containers on a patio, where it makes a lovely focal point. It is especially attractive in flower beds in association with other foliage plants. Although it is not a large tree, it can grow quite tall.

Grow sweet bay laurel in a protected location, out of the wind. This plant is moderately hardy, but does not tolerate intense heat or dry conditions. Drought resistant when established, bay laurel needs a well-drained soil with regular watering during its first year. It adapts to almost any soil conditions, including sandy soil.

Sow bay seeds in a sunny area. Start them indoors 6 to 8 weeks prior to the last average frost date, as this is a slow grower.

Mulch around the seedlings with 1 inch of mulch to keep the soil moist while the tree becomes established. Once it is growing well, you can cut back on the watering.

Bay Laurel Care

Bay laurel is one of the most commonly used herbs in cooking and is easy to grow in USDA climate zones 8b-11. Bay laurel is in the same family as the bay tree that we often see lining streets in coastal areas.

Bay laurel is also called lemon verbena because of its fruity fragrance. It is used in both sweet and savory cooking in many regions. Bay laurel has a flavor like no other herb. It can be used to replace the stronger and sometimes bitter and pungent flavors of oregano, rosemary, and thyme.

Bay laurel is often used to make bouquets garnis, which are common in French cuisine. Bouquets garnis are fresh herbs used to flavor soups, stocks, and other sauces. Bay leaves are usually removed before serving.

Considered an evergreen, bay laurel can live up to ten years. Cold weather will not kill bay laurel, but it can slow its growth. Bay laurel can be propagated from the root or stem cutting. Bay laurel can be transplanted when young without harming it. But it is best to wait until the plant has matured as a perennial.

Sun and Temperature

In warmer regions of the country, bay trees can be grown in the ground. Elsewhere it's usually kept in a container that will be brought inside in fall, and kept outside in summer. However, if that's your chosen method of growing, you should wait until the cooler part of the season so new growth has time to harden off.

When your sweet bay is in full growth (usually spring or summer), it can be moved outside to a nice hot sunny spot for the day. The amount of sun and warmth it gets will affect the quality of the leaves harvested, so it’s important to be aware of these things in order to get the best result.

Watering and Humidity

Sweet bay should be watered consistently, though not overly liberally. Regular, light watering is the best practice for the bay laurel, but they must be kept on the dry side during the winter.

Sweet bay does not tend to grow well in either very moist or very dry soil. In the summer, an overly-watered bay will grow poorly and produce few leaves. In the winter, an overly-watered bay will develop root rot. To prevent either of these conditions, water your bay laurel regularly but allow its soil to dry out between waterings.

Humidity is also an important factor in bay laurel health. It is a Mediterranean plant and does best in dry conditions. If you live in an area with high humidity, you will need to find a way to increase the humidity around the plant. Be careful not to water your bay laurel too much, as too much water will cause the leaves to rot. The best way to address a high-humidity problem is to place the plant in a room with a dehumidifier, but you may also place a terracotta pot over the plant or use a small fan to bring in some fresh air.


Soil preparation is an important step for planting any tree. Whether you want to grow bay trees in containers or in your yard, you'll need to know how to plant a bay laurel.

First, prepare your soil for the tree by amending it with compost. You can either spread the compost on the soil surface to a depth of about four inches, or you can dig it in to a depth of about four inches.

If you prefer to dig in the compost, use a spading fork to poke holes and a garden spade to scoop them out.

Next, break up the soil to a depth of about 12 inches by using a garden hoe. If you prefer to use a rototiller, make sure you only go about four inches deep before putting on the safety shield.

Once your soil is prepared, add another four inches of compost to the surface. Spread the compost evenly over the surface so that it covers about four inches of your soil. Water your soil and let it settle overnight before planting.


In spring, fertilize the bay tree with a 10-10-10 or 10-10-5 fertilizer. Apply it directly to the soil, but not on the trunk or where the limbs used to be.

When the tree is about 24 inches tall, spread fertilizer in a ring about 10 feet away from the trunk. Then water the plant, which causes the nutrients to soak in.

Fertilize the tree in spring and summer and only use a slow-release fertilizer. When buying fertilizer, choose one with water-soluble nitrogen. Don’t use chemical fertilizers, because they are too harsh for bay trees.

After the plant is pruned in early summer each year, apply a 4-8-4 fertilizer mixed with green sand around the tree.

Mix the fertilizer into the soil about eight inches deep. This helps the tree get nutrients to its roots, hence the term deep feeding.

You can also mix fertilizer with the mulch to keep the fertilizer away from the trunk. Or you can wrap the trunk with a plastic tree wrap. Use it when the tree is about three to four years old, because it will start to slough off when the plant is moved.

To apply the fertilizer, use a pitchfork to mix the fertilizer into the soil. But don’t dig the fertilizer into the soil.

Pruning / Training

Taking care of a bay laurel tree is not a very difficult task. But you need to know a few things about this herb to take care of it in the right way. Firstly, you should note that when planting bay laurel it is better to do it in the cooler months of the year. Also, this tree should not be planted in wet soil.

The best characteristic of this herb is that it loves dry soil. When it comes to the soil itself, it is best to add sand to it to make sure that the plant does not get too much water and also to ensure that the roots can easily absorb the nutrients. After the bay laurel has been planted, it should be watered, just enough for it to keep its color. It is also very important that the soil does not get too dry.

When it comes to pruning / training bay laurel you should do this about once a year in the springtime. The good news is that the pruning option is easy to do. All you need to do is cut a few of the plants back and remove all the dead leaves and twigs from the branches.

Once you have cleaned up the plant you should not put the trimmings in the compost. Instead, they should be thrown away.


Bay laurel doesn’t generally produce seeds, however, it does self-sow, so your garden bay tree may eventually become an entire grove of them.

The easiest way to grow a bay laurel tree at home in a container is by way of bay laurel cuttings.

Bay laurel cuttings are easy to root, just stick them in a container of potting soil and keep the soil around the stem moist but not soggy. You will see new growth in about a month. Because the cuttings will root in containers of water, you can grow your tree anywhere you can tolerate a little humidity, such as your kitchen.

Bay laurel is an evergreen, and while it may take a gardener a few years to grow a big tree, it is easily propagated, so you will have a full-sized tree in no time.

Harvesting and Storing

The first thing you need to know about harvesting Bay Laurel is that the leaves and stems can have a very pungent essential oil, so you want to take care to harvest them when the plant is not flowering.

Understanding when to Harvest

There are a few different ways to tell when to harvest Bay Laurel or Sweet Bay and these are dependent on what you are trying to do with your Bay Laurel.

The easiest way to tell if the leaves are ready is to look at the point at the bottom of the leaf where it connects to the stem. Magnify the leaf to see the little hairs on the stem. When the hairs turn from green to brown, usually in early summer, you want to cut the stems and hang them as the Bay Laurel will then continue to produce new leaves as it grows.

For drying Bay Laurel, this is the best time to cut the plant because drying takes place as oils evaporate. Oils are at their highest when flowers are on the plant. If you choose to harvest for drying and then use the Bay Laurel, you will need more than if you cut during the "before flowering" stage.

Another way to tell if it is the right time is to lay the leaves out in a gentle breeze. If they remain flat, it is probably not time to harvest. You want them to flutter a bit and they will curl under as they dry.


Citrus growers protect their laurel bay trees from pressure during harvest by stripping the limonene-rich leaves by hand and on benches (Plate V).

They harvest bay leaves until the tree's flavor ceases to develop with age. A "young" bay tree will produce one or two years before its flavor deterioration is detectable.

The skill of hand-stripping bay trees is a tradition in many Italian villages and towns. (Plate VI). Seams of excoriated leaves along the ancient stones of the terraced hillsides in the Valanicco are witness to ancient harvesting methods.

Bay laurel provides the most intense fragrance and flavor when harvested by hand. The fragrance is released when the leaves are steeped in hot water or are crushed in the fingers.

The best time to harvest bay laurel leaves is just before they are fully ripe in late August or early September.


If you plan on keeping Sweet Bay indoors during the winter, it's best to bring it inside before the first hard frost (if your bay is intended for cooking). The bay will become weaker and more susceptible to disease in colder temperatures. If possible, replant your Sweet Bay in a container that will protect it from the cold wind.

Bring Sweet Bay back indoors as soon as the temperature stays above 20 degrees Fahrenheit. If your bay does happen to become diseased, place the plant in a sunny window and allow it to dry out completely.

Sometimes, the leaves will turn yellow and fall off. This is because the plant is getting too much water. Water your bay sparingly and monitor the soil moisture. Allow the soil to dry out a bit before watering again. If your bay plant still does not recover, the roots may be infected and you need to rip out the soil to check for them.


Q: Is it easier to keep a bay plant inside or outside?

A: I live in a short season area (northern Illinois), so I keep my bay outside. But I have also grown it indoors.

If you want to grow one inside, I recommend getting a smaller plant and growing it in a container that will help it retain moisture. (Plants in containers receive less moisture than plants in the ground, such as in your garden.)


If you’re new to growing bay laurel, sometimes it’s difficult to identify the problem.

However, there are a few common growing problems that can be easily avoided.


Bay laurel is a shallow-rooted bay that can come from seed to harvest in a few short years. The problem can be that the tree’s roots are wrapped in a ball, rendering them out of work. This often happens when the bay laurel tree has been transferred from big-box store mix to a garden bed.

While this may seem like an exciting time, it’s during this root-balling process that you want to take the utmost care. The root system should be gently untwisted, and then loosened to allow growth.

This can be accomplished by adding some dry pine needles or untreated grass clippings in the bottom of the hole.

Growing Problems

Two major growing problems with bay laurel indoors are root rot and spider mites.

Spider mites are tiny, oval-shaped, eight-legged creatures that suck the sap from bay trees. They usually attack the bay when the relative humidity in the house is too high. This is true regardless of the season of the year. Their presence causes the leaves to turn yellow and fall off the tree.

To control bay spider mites, spray the leaves with insecticide or use a high-power air sprayer. Adjust the nozzle to spray a fine mist. Move the sprayer in a zig-zag manner. Spray until the leaves become moist with drops of water.

Roots rot or fungal growth often occurs when you overwater the bay. Bay laurels thrive in moist conditions. Fungal infections infect the roots and the base of the trunk when you give the bay too much water.

Notice that brown patches or spots form on the trunk. The growth will travel up the trunk killing the bay as it goes. A bay laurel with root rot will be stunted and the leaves will wither and die.


Bay seedlings are tender and vulnerable to pathogen attack when first transplanted. Before planting, it is advisable to treat the plant to prevent bolting and to help it establish a strong, healthy root system.

On the other hand, care must be taken not to over water. Bay laurel is very sensitive to overwatering, especially when young, and can quickly become root-bound.

While root-bound plants are more susceptible to pest infestation, Bay laurel is a naturally resilient tree and has a strong ability to cope with pest, stress, and disease problems. A healthy tree is well established and has several growth years of vigor and productivity left ahead.

As warm summer weather approaches, you should start to consider pest and disease management, because the right control measure at the right time can make a big difference to your tree's survival. Insects, bacteria, and fungi are natural enemies of plants but when managed properly, the tree can usually thrive.


Sweet bay is an interesting plant. It can survive in a variety of climates, and it does well indoors. That said, you'll want to pay attention to how your plant is doing and take steps to prevent any potential problems. Some diseases and pests that can affect sweet bay include:

  • Fungi: Fungi is one of the most common diseases that can affect sweet bay Laurel trees. You'll see the effects when the leaves get scabby and crack. While the leaves will drop, you can still save the tree by pruning it and destroying its infected parts.
  • Mealy bugs: These are one of the more serious infestations. You'll know you have a mealy bug problem when you start to see sticky webbing amongst the hairs of the plant. Apply a horticultural oil to kill them.
  • Disease: If your plant starts dropping leaves, this could be a sign of a viral disease. The leaves can be yellow tinted. Look around for sooty mold, which can signal a virus problem. Destroy the plant if the mold is present and do not replant another bay Laurel.
  • Disease: Root rot could be a cause. If the leaves become yellow in color and the plant is in a small pot, this is a sign the roots are infected. It could spread to other plants in your garden as well.

Frequently Asked Questions

If you’re an experienced gardener, you may wonder about whether or not bay trees grow easily in your area. Let’s start off with some tips that will help you grow sweet bay at home with the least amount of fuss possible.

{1}. If you don’t have an outdoor bay tree, consider growing your bay tree in a pot that you can bring inside when the temperatures drop.
{2}. Don’t overwater, bay trees like to dry out between watering sessions.
{3}. Use fertilizer when planting your bay tree, and regularly in subsequent years. (This includes organic fertilizers as well as chemical fertilizers.)
{4}. Plant your bay tree in full sun, and consider adding a layer of mulch to the soil for additional moisture retention.

A bay tree in the home or office should be placed where it can receive plenty of sunlight, but avoid placing it next to a drafty door or a heating/cooling vent. Both will cause the leaves of the plant to dry and drop. The key is to keep the leaves hydrated to keep the air freshened.

If you are growing your sweet bay outside, it will produce flowers and fruit on the same tree. The fruit hanging off a tree can pollinate another bay tree, and this can also happen with an indoor bay tree.