Qualities such as fabulous green foliage and a stately appearance combined with a compact shape make bay laurel (Laurus nobilis), also known as sweet bay or simply laurel, a great addition to any balcony. The plant remains green all through the year with leathery, oval, dark green leaves with a lighter midvein.
Bay laurel is available in space-saving shapes (pillar, standard) which work well with the limited space available on a balcony. It can even be used to create a green hedge to hide a balustrade. And the leaves? They have a pleasant fragrance and can also be used in cooking, for this is the ever-popular bay leaf of Mediterranean cuisine.
Bay laurel is native to Asia Minor and the eastern part of the Mediterranean. The Romans then brought it to Western Europe. In the wild it grows to be a sizable shrub or even a medium-sized tree of up to 35 feet (10 meters) in height.
Don’t expect a wide range of varieties when buying bay laurel: usually only the ‘ordinary’ green-leaved variety is offered. However, there are a few cultivars with a different leaf color or shape: some with wavy, elongated, rounder or smaller leaves, others with golden or variegated ones. You’d be most likely to find these at nurseries specializing in herbs.
Where there is a lot of choice is in terms of shape, because the plant is very suitable for topiary (ornamental pruning). Therefore, you can often find pyramid, cylinder, cube, cone and ball shapes, or treelike specimens with the trunks either straight and twisted.
Under ideal conditions, bay laurel produces umbels white flowers from its leaf axils that later become oval berries. However, don’t count on bloom or berries on your balcony, as it is a reluctant bloomer.
Tips for Buying a Bay Laurel
• The pot size, height and shape of the bay laurel must be balanced and the plant should be well rooted.
• Bay laurel grows very slowly. Don’t buy a small plant assuming it will reach the desired height any time soon. Instead, look for a strong plant that is already the right size and shape to meet your current needs. The high price that accompanies such specimens is justified by the years of care and pruning needed to produce them.
• Smaller plants are sometimes included in mixed containers with other kitchen herbs such as thyme, rosemary and lavender.
• Make sure the plant is free of pests and diseases. Watch out especially for scale insects which also cause sooty mold, a black fungus that disfigures the leaves.
Display Tips for Bay Laurel
Bay laurel’s ability to brighten a balcony can be shown in an appealing way by creating a half-open balcony using a bistro table and chairs with a bay laurel hedge and a number of different shaped bay laurels in pots. Keep the decor muted—the plants’ best feature is its attractive green foliage. Including a rack with flowering herbs helps emphasize the culinary role of the leaves.
- You can place bay laurel in full sunlight, but it also does well in partial shade.
- Select a sturdy pot and heavy soil to stop it from blowing over.
- Bay laurel likes to dry out slightly between waterings. Drooping young leaves indicate it’s too dry; it will quickly revive when you water it thoroughly. Yellowing leaves indicate too much water. Let the growing mix to dry almost completely before watering again.
- Never leave the plant in standing water! If the pot it’s sold in has no drainage hole, drill one … or repot it into one that does.
- Fertilize monthly from March through September using an all-purpose product applied at no more than ¼ of the recommended rate. Don’t fertilize in fall and winter, your bay laurel will be dormant or nearly so.
- You can harvest leaves for cooking at any season, but go lightly. On young plants, take only a leaf or so at time.
- Prune in June, clipping into shape with sharp, clean secateurs. Remember that it is the branches you should by pruning, not the leaves. You can also prune bay laurel lightly in December.
- Only where winters are mild (hardiness zones 8 to 10) can bay laurels stay on the balcony all winter. Even in zone 8, it’s wise to wrap the pot and lower stem in several layers of burlap and move it out of the wind for the off season.
- Where temperature will drop below 23˚F (-5˚C), it’s best to move a container-grown bay laurel to a cool dark place such as a shed or, in truly cold climates, a lightly heated garage. Under those conditions, give it very little water, as it will be fully dormant. Just make sure to gradually acclimatize it to light and water again in spring.
- Failing that, bay laurel makes a great winter houseplant. Since it will be dormant, you can place it in either sun or shade. Under the warm conditions found indoors, it will need moderate watering all winter.
- Bay laurel does not like being repotted: once every 3 to 5 years should be sufficient.
So, this summer, why not grow the balcony plant of the year, bay laurel, on your balcony? It may be just the plant you’re looking for!
Text and photos derived from a press release by Thejoyofplants.co.uk.