The bay leaf plant (Laurus nobilis) is an evergreen tree native to Mediterranean regions. Known primarily for its fragrant, flavorful leaves, the tree is also commonly called sweet bay or bay laurel. Bay trees can grow to heights of more than 50 feet, according to an article by Jennifer Schultz Nelson, a horticulturist with the University of Illinois. Most home gardeners prefer to grow bay trees in pots, where they thrive with basic care.
Bay laurels thrive in at least partial sun. The amount of exposure should be at least six hours of sunlight per day, and preferably eight. Too much hot sun too soon scorches the valuable leaves of this plant, however, so expose the tree to sunlight gradually if it has been placed in a shady location for a good amount of time.
In hotter climates, plant or place the tree where it will receive morning sunlight, and filtered or dappled shade during the hot afternoon. Bay laurels grow well in United States Department of Agriculture growing zones 8-10. In colder climates, the tree should be grown in a container and brought indoors before the first freeze of the fall season.
Location and Soil
Bay laurels thrive in locations where they are protected from damaging winds, such as cold winter breezes or strong winds. The trees prefer soil that is rich in nutrients and well-draining. Constantly saturated soil will rot the roots of the bay and may also rot the tree's seeds before they germinate. Potted trees, which grow to an average height of only 6 or 7 feet, should be planted in potting soil that is rich in organic matter, and the container should have drainage holes.
Water the tree when the top few inches of the soil dries out. Water slowly and deeply, until the container freely drains, or water collects on the top of the soil. A drip hose or soaking hose works well for this. Reduce watering when winter arrives. Empty the water catch tray under the pot immediately so the bay's roots are not sitting in water.
Bay laurels are heavy feeders and will thrive if fertilized throughout the growing season. Use a balanced, (10-10-10) water-soluble fertilizer formulated for evergreen trees or shrubs. Feed the tree in place of one of the waterings each month during the summer, and stop fertilizing when fall arrives.
Prune the top of the root ball and the top of the tree periodically to keep it at a manageable height. Do this in early spring, before the tree flowers. Replace the space left after pruning the root ball with rich, organic soil, mulch or a combination of the two.
Harvesting the Leaves
Harvest bay leaves in the morning, and immediately place them under something heavy so that they will dry flat. Use them in foods such as stews and chili, but remove them before eating. The sharp edges of the leaves remain potent even after cooking and can harm the throat or stomach. For this reason, you should also not crumble up the leaves and add them to recipes, although they can be finely ground and added to foods.