Bay (Laurus nobilis) is an evergreen shrub that’s grown for its aromatic leaves, known as bay leaves. Bay leaves are used in a variety of dishes and are the main ingredient in a ‘bouquet garni’. They can be used dried or fresh.
In recent years, bay trees have become a popular choice for formal pot displays. Often sold trained as a standard or shaped, bay is sometimes used as an alternative to yew or box topiary. Potted standard bay trees are most often positioned either side of a front door as a formal, year-round display.
Bay is a dioecious plant, which means it has male and female flowers on separate plants. Male and female plants are not identified in garden centres, as most gardeners only grow them for their foliage. The flowers are insignificant and the berries inedible.
How to grow bay
Grow bay in a sheltered spot in moist but well-drained soil. Prune in summer and cut back hard to rejuvenate old plants in spring. bay leaves can be harvested at any time of year – dry them before storing for the best results.
More on growing bay:
Where to plant bay
Bay does best in full sun to partial shade, ideally in a sheltered position as it’s not completely hardy. In exposed gardens bay can cope with temperatures down to about -5 ºC but can suffer leaf damage. This is easily solved by covering plants with garden fleece in winter or moving pot-grown bays to a more sheltered spot.
Bay tends to be hardier when planted directly into the garden, as plants can put down a more comprehensive root system. Well-drained soil is essential. If planted in the ground and left to grow unclipped, expect plants to reach a height of up to 8m.
How to plant bay
Improve garden soil before planting by digging in compost and grit, if your soil is heavy. If planting clipped standard bays as a formal statement, ensure they’re standing straight before firming the soil around the root ball. Water in well and continue to water regularly for a couple of weeks after planting, to help it settle in well.
If growing in a container, plant your bay in tree and shrub compost. Don’t allow plants to dry out in the containers in summer, but reduce watering in winter.
How to care for bay
Prune bay in summer with secateurs. Old plants can be rejuvenated by cutting them back hard in late spring. It’s best to do this over two years as bay can be slow to bounce back – cut half the stems back in year one and the rest in year two.
Bay trees are becoming increasingly popular as topiary specimens, due to their resilience to regular pruning. Consider buying a topiary frame if you haven’t tried the technique before and prune several times over the growing season for the best results.
When pruning or clipping bay, avoid using hedge shears, as half cut leaves will look unsightly.
How to propagate bay
Growing bay: problem-solving
Bay is fairly trouble free. If the leaves get damaged by frost or wind, pick them off or trim plants in late spring or summer to encourage new growth.
In our Quick Tips video Emma Crawforth, BBC Gardeners’ World Magazine, explains why bay trees may develop yellow leaves, and how to remedy the problem.
Bay varieties to try
- Laurus nobilis – aromatic dark green leaves. Once mature plants can reach up to 8m but this will take many years
- Laurus nobilis ‘Aurea’ – lime green/yellow foliage. Insignificant flowers in spring. Slightly smaller than Laurus nobilis when mature.