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Jessica Walliser

Leaves of bay laurel plant have universal appeal

Jessica Walliser
| Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016, 9:00 p.m.
Bay laurel can grow to 30 feet tall in its native Mediterranean climate, but in Pennsylvania, where the plant isn’t winter-hardy, its growth is often limited to just a few feet.
Jessica Walliser
Bay laurel can grow to 30 feet tall in its native Mediterranean climate, but in Pennsylvania, where the plant isn’t winter-hardy, its growth is often limited to just a few feet.

Many herb enthusiasts are aware of what a delicious addition homegrown bay leaves are to the pantry. But this easy-to-grow culinary herb should be in everyone's garden, not just the gardens of herb fanatics.

Bay laurel ( Laurus nobilis) is a large evergreen shrub or tree with fragrant, dark green, glossy leaves. A mature tree can reach upwards of 30 feet in height in its native Mediterranean climate, but here in Pennsylvania, where the bay laurel isn't winter-hardy, the plant's growth is often limited to just a few feet .

Bay laurel is hardy only in USDA Zones 8 through 11, but it does quite well in colder areas when grown as an annual. Bay laurel performs best in partial to full sun.

Where winter temperatures regularly dip below freezing, bay is most often grown in a container. The plants thrive in containers, as they are fairly drought-tolerant and require little maintenance. During the winter months, the containerized plant must be brought indoors to protect it from freezing temperatures. It grows easily in a bright window and requires only minimal irrigation throughout the winter. Because bay is slow growing, it needs to be transplanted into a larger pot only every four to five years.

Bay leaves are very flavorful and are most often dried before use. Added to pasta sauces, soups and stocks, bay lends a distinct flavor to dishes. The leaves are very tough, especially when dried, and are removed from the dish before it's served.

To grow your own bay, start with a plant from a local nursery this spring. They are often found as small potted plants in the herb section. Plant your bay laurel in a glazed ceramic pot or ornamental plastic container with a drainage hole in the bottom. Use a high-quality potting soil mixed with a cup or two of coarse sand. For smaller plants, an 8- to 10-inch diameter pot works fine; larger plants will require a larger pot.

Place the pot in an area that receives at least six hours of full sun per day. Water it regularly throughout the summer, but do not overwater. Fertilize the plant with an organic, water-soluble fertilizer once a month. Enjoy your bay throughout the summer, but move it indoors as soon as the nighttime temperatures drop into the 50s (usually mid-September). Choose a bright window and cut down on watering. Do not fertilize the plant until you move it back outdoors again the following spring.

The leaves of bay can be harvested anytime during the growing season, though mid-summer harvests tend to have the best flavor. Use your thumbnail and index finger to pinch individual leaves from the plant.

To dry large quantities of bay leaves for later use, you can remove up to one-third of the total number of leaves on any one plant. Rinse the harvested leaves with tepid water, and pat them dry with a paper towel. Spread the leaves out in a single layer on a cookie sheet and place the cookie sheet in a dry room, out of direct sunlight, for two to three weeks, turning the leaves over once or twice during that time. You also can dry the leaves in a dehydrator until they are crisp. If you don't have a dehydrator, you can put the cookie sheet into an oven set to its lowest temperature. Turn the leaves over every half-hour until the leaves are crispy dry.

Dried bay leaves can be stored in glass jars or air-tight, plastic food storage containers. Keep them away from light and moisture to prolong their shelf life.

Bay laurel plants can live for many years, providing hundreds of leaves for use in the kitchen. Dried bay leaves also can be used to keep weevils and grain moths out of the pantry.

Horticulturist and author Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio with Doug Oster. Her website is jessicawalliser.com.

Send your gardening or landscaping questions to tribliving@tribweb.com or The Good Earth, 503 Martindale St., 3rd Floor, D.L. Clark Building, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.

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