Bay (Laurus nobilis) – also known as sweet bay or bay laurel – is an evergreen shrub or tree with attractive dark green, glossy leaves. These can be picked all year round and infused in soups, stews and many other slow-cooked dishes. Bay is the key ingredient of a bouquet garni. Its leaves impart a warm background flavour, either used fresh for more pungency or dried for subtler tones.
Bay is happy in a container or in free-draining soil, in a warm, sheltered, sunny or part-shaded spot. Keep it out of strong winds and avoid growing in damp ground. In colder sites this Mediterranean plant may need a covering of
As well as being used as a herb, bay is often grown as topiary for ornamental appeal – usually clipped into a simple pyramid, cone or ball, or as a standard (with a rounded top on a long stem). These look great in pots on either side of a doorway or as a focal point in a herb collection. Regular clipping can also keep bays grown in borders compact – otherwise the plant can eventually reach 7m (23ft) or more if left to its own devices.
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Most bay trees sold in the UK are Laurus nobilis, with dark green, pointed leaves. But you may find two other forms – also with aromatic leaves that can be used in cooking – from specialist herb or shrub nurseries:
L. nobilus ‘Aurea’ with golden leaves
L. nobilus f. angustifolia or willow-leaved laurel, with narrow, way-edged leaves
All three have an RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM), which shows they performed well in trials so are recommended choices.
What and where to buy
Bay (Laurus nobilis) is widely sold by gardening retailers as young potted plants, either free-growing shrubs or pre-trained into topiary shapes, such as cones or balls.
It is also sold trained as a ‘standard’, shaped like a lollipop with a clear stem and a rounded top. For added visual appeal, the stem may be trained into a corkscrew or plaited.
Trained or topiary plants can be fairly expensive, as the process can take some time. Or you can create bay topiary yourself from an untrained plant.
Choose a warm, sheltered planting site, protected from strong winds and in full sun or light shade. Bay needs free-draining soil that doesn’t get waterlogged. Alternatively, plant in a container slightly wider than the rootball filled with soil-based compost, such as John Innes No. 2, or multi-purpose compost with added grit to improve drainage.
Young bay trees are best planted in spring, after all danger of frost has past, so they have time to establish before the heat of summer.
Bay is generally low maintenance, but may need protection in winter. It can be clipped annually to keep it neat.
After planting, water bay regularly for the first year until its roots are settled in. Once established, bay should only need watering during dry periods in summer.
When growing in a container, the potting compost can dry out quickly, so water frequently throughout summer. But make sure the container doesn’t get waterlogged, especially in winter, otherwise the roots may rot.
Bay trees in containers will benefit from a general liquid fertiliser every fortnight from mid-spring to late summer.
Bay likes free-draining soil and a warm, sheltered site, especially in winter. Harsh frosts and cold winds can damage the foliage, kill some or all of the top growth, or even kill the whole plant. Cold, damp soil can also cause the roots to rot.
If a harsh frost is forecast, cover smaller bay plants with fleece overnight. In cold locations, it may be best to wrap bay all winter.
Plants in containers are particularly vulnerable to winter cold and dampness. So move them to a warmer, more sheltered spot if possible, such as in a greenhouse, porch or in the lee of a wall.
Extra care for plants in containers
Plants in containers should be re-potted every couple of years as they grow. Use a slightly larger container and fresh soil-based compost. You can also mix in a slow-release fertiliser.
Bay can be propagated in three ways:
Semi-ripe cuttings in late summer or softwood cuttings in early summer. This is the simplest and fastest way to make new plants
Layering – a suitably low-growing branch can be rooted in the ground
Seeds – bay can be slow and tricky to grow from seed. Bay plants are either male or female – if you have a female (and a male growing nearby), it may produce black berries that ripen in autumn. Collect these and remove the seeds, then sow straight into pots outdoors. Bay seeds need a period of cold to break their dormancy, so leave outside over winter and they should germinate in spring.
Pruning and Training
Topiary bay should be trimmed in summer to keep it in good shape and encourage denser growth.
If growing as a free-form shrub, simply shorten new growth where necessary in spring or summer.
If plants are damaged by frost over winter, cut out affected areas in spring.
With standard (lollipop-shaped) bay plants, suckers may sprout from the roots. To keep just the single clear stem, pull out these shoots as soon as you spot them.
Bay is evergreen, so it keeps its leaves all year round and they can be harvested whenever required.
They can be used fresh or dried – fresh leaves have a stronger, rather bitter flavour, so leaves are more often dried to soften and enhance the flavour. Bay leaves are the key ingredient in a traditional bouquet garni. They add subtle warm tones to slow-cooked stews, soups, stocks and sauces. Remove them before serving.
To dry bay leaves, simply place sprigs or individual leaves in a warm room. Once fully dry, store whole leaves in an airtight bag or container and use within a few months, before they start to lose their flavour. Growing your own bay means you can easily dry a sprig or two regularly, so you always have plenty of aromatic leaves to hand. Alternatively, freeze them to keep the flavour for longer.
Bay is susceptible to winter cold and wet, so grow it in a warm, sheltered spot and cover with fleece if a harsh frost is forecast. Damp soil, especially in winter, can also rot the roots. Plants in containers are best moved into a greenhouse or sunny porch over winter.
Spotted or yellowing leaves may indicate that the roots are too damp or that a containerised plant needs to be re-potted into fresh compost – see our guide to container maintenance.
Also look out for infestations by bay suckers and scale insects.
The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.