Grow it yourself: bay tree

The culinary bay has a long and noble history

The culinary bay has a long and noble history

The culinary bay is Laurus nobilis, also referred to as sweet bay. It has a long history dating right back to ancient Greece and Rome yet is still widely used today. It is easy to grow and hardy for all conditions in this country. However it needs to be kept trimmed. Left to their own devices, bay trees can reach 15 metres. Fortunately once a year is usually sufficient. We trim ours hard in early spring and the fresh growth soon appears to cover up the unsightly woodiness. At the same time, we clean up the base. Bays will sucker and shoot all over the place. If you train the plant to a standard lollipop shape, it is easy to cut away growth at the base.

One plant will yield plenty of leaves for any family. The current fashion is to use clipped bays as formal standards in potagers, but you will never need that number of leaves and there are other more interesting plants you can clip for effect. Besides, as well as suckering, bays are vulnerable to thrips – tiny insects which live on the underside of the leaf and suck the chlorophyll out, turning the leaf silver. We never spray our bay and would not want to spray insecticide on an edible leaf. Planting in a position with good air movement helps (thrips don’t like drafts) and stopping the plant from being too dense will also help reduce infestations.

Bay is not difficult to strike from cutting, though most people buy it. It grows reaonably quickly so it is not necessary to pay over the odds for a large one, unless you are impatient. If you have an abundance of leaves, they are reputed to repel pantry moths when you strew them through your food cupboard.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here withe their permission.