Bay (Laurus nobilis) has long been used as a medicinal and culinary herb, however it is such a lovely plant in its own right that even if you only use a few leaves in the kitchen, it is still worth finding space for in the garden or as a patio shrub in a pot.
Choose a sunny, sheltered spot if you are going to grow your bay tree in a permanent position in the soil since they can be damaged by hard frosts or biting winds. Trees grown on a single stem (standards) are particularly vulnerable. Wrap the trunk in fleece or a piece of pipe lagging and also wrap the head of the plant during very cold weather. Better still, grow it in a pot and take it into an unheated greenhouse or polytunnel for the winter. Bay trees like plenty of water; the water holding properties of the soil can be improved with lots of organic matter prior to planting outside.
Apply a top dressing of Growmore or pelleted chicken manure around the roots each spring and then top this with a water retaining mulch or well-rotted garden compost. Keep watch for two pests – scale insects which look like little brown limpets and hide on the stems and also on the underside of the leaves along the midrib. Spraying may be necessary if attacks are severe. Also bay sucker, a pest which causes the edges of the leaves to thicken, turn yellow and curl. The pests hide in the folds and feed on the sap. Pick off affected leaves.
Growing in pots
Bay will grow perfectly well in pots providing it is well fed and watered and this may mean checking every day in summer.. Plant in a large container using a gritty compost, preferably John Innes no 3 and water regularly during dry spells. Feed every seven-10 days in the summer with a liquid feed such as Miracle-Gro and at the start of the season remove a few centimetres of the old compost from the top of the pot and replace with fresh material. As an alternative to liquid feeding, add some controlled-release fertiliser pellets, available from your local garden centre, to the compost to maintain healthy growth.
A tea made with the fresh leaves of bay is said to help improve digestion and promote a good appetite.
Clip bay in spring and again in July to maintain the shape of the plant. Leaves can be dried to preserve them, but since the plant is evergreen and the leaves taste better fresh, this is not really necessary.