If you ask me what my favorite plant is in my garden I would tell you about my bay laurel tree. Many folks are excited by the plants that add beauty to their surroundings. Personally I love the plants that I can use in the kitchen and my bay tree adds value year round. (The fact my favorite plant is a culinary herb would be no surprise if you follow my blog, Hippo Flambe). The difference between a leaf picked off my tree seconds before using it is far removed from the dry, dusty leaves in the spice section of your supermarket. Plus my bay laurel has the added benefit of being easy to care for. It was a rather inauspicious start to my bay laurel tree farming. I was given the tree by a friend who had decided to "euthanize" her tree. Her tree had developed a sticky residue on the leaves and she did not want to spend the time cleaning the leaves. In addition it had clearly outgrown its 23 inch pot and she had visions of it taking over her house. I immediately jumped at the chance to own my own bay laurel tree and told her not to kill it, I would adopt it instead. When I arrived at her house one day in the pouring rain I stared at the giant tree and I began to wonder how well this was going to work out. The first problem was how to get it in the back of my station wagon, even with the rear seats folded down it was far to big. So we went after the tree with clippers, ruthlessly cutting back every limb. In the end the tree had lost considerably more then 50% of its branches and I remembered the advice to never prune a tree back that far. I shrugged and figured what was the worst that could happen, even if it died the tree was free to me, I had nothing to lose.
That winter we kept the tree in an upstairs South facing window and miraculously it began growing new leaves almost right away. I did not give it any artificial light or fertilizer, we just opened the blind from 7 AM until it was dark. The room it was in only gets passive heat from the other rooms, so the room temperature is often as low as 59 degrees. The tree was severely pot bound as even in a 23 inch pot 1 qt of water would come rushing out the bottom almost immediately. Every week it put out tiny new shoots and leaves and I began to take more leaves to cook with. After using the leaves a few times I began to care more about my bay tree.
That spring we began to search for a larger pot. I was told at many locations that I could get a larger ceramic pot but not plastic. It had taken 2 of us to slowly inch the tree upstairs in a plastic pot, ceramic and its extra weight was clearly out. Finally one nursery suggested I try bonsai-ing the roots. She explained bonsai tress are removed from their pots and then pie shaped wedges are removed all the way around the root ball so more soil can be packed in and the tree can stay in a smaller pot. So I bought some high quality soil and we hacked out 4 pie shaped wedges all the way around the root ball. When I returned the tree to its pot I was amazed at how much water it could now hold. After a few weeks of new growth it was clear the plant was much happier.
Taking care of my Bay Laurel tree is remarkably simple, especially as I am often a house plant slayer. In the Fall, sometime in October, we bring the tree indoors. Once indoors we water sparingly about once a week, although I know there are stretches where we just forget. In the spring we take the tree back outside, where it does not need watering unless there is a really extended dry spell. If you prune it a little in the spring it will produce new growth. Use well drained, fertile soil. I just recently applied some of my favorite tomato fertilizer to the soil. The next time it becomes pot bound I will again bonsai the roots. The sticky residue that my friend found on the leaves is caused by scale insects. If this occurs just wash the leaves with an insecticidal soap and use your nail to scrape away any insect bodies on the leaves and stems. You can also spray with alcohol. The sticky residue is not usually deadly to your tree but it will inhibit new growth. Try to keep it in a humid area but do not over water. Humid in Vermont in the winter is hard, just keep it out of drafts and away from the heating vents, misting them occasionally with water if you want.
The great thing about growing a bay laurel is you only want the leaves, which are the easiest part of a plant to maintain. If I was starting over with a smaller tree I would not allow it to become as big as mine is, this would make it easier to bring it in and out of the house every year. When cooking with it remember the fresh leaves are much stronger and more flavorful then dried. When a recipe calls for 2 leaves I only ever use 1. If I just want a slight bay flavor I use a smaller leaf. One of my favorite uses for the leaves is to flavor a pot of red lentils. I just add one leaf to a pot of simmering red lentils with kosher salt and cook until the lentils are tender. To serve I simply drain the lentils, drizzle with flavorful extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle with freshly ground pepper.