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Bring bay indoors

I bought a bay laurel seedling this past spring that was about six inches tall and set it out in a pot in the herb garden because I heard you may have to bring it indoors in the winter. It’s now about a foot tall. Could it survive outdoors? How do you harvest and use the leaves?

Bay laurel, or sweet bay (Laurus nobilis) is generally considered hardy to Zone 8 (well to the south of us here in Middle Tennessee), so it will need to come indoors before it gets too cold.

Place the plant where it gets as much sun as you can give it, in a south or west-facing window, if possible, and don’t let it get too dry (keep the soil evenly moist but not overly wet, the experts at the Herb Society of America suggest). It may also appreciate occasional misting if the air in your house is very dry. Take it back outdoors when the weather is consistently above freezing in the spring.

Bay leaves can be used dried or fresh; they’re usually added to long-cooking soups and stews. Snip them from the plant and use them as needed, or dry them to save for later. Use them whole (crumbled leaves have very sharp edges, which could be an unpleasant surprise to diners), and be sure to remove them before you serve. A bay leaf is a key ingredient in a bouquet garni (tied in a bundle along with thyme, parsley and other herbs), which would be added to a dish while it’s cooking and removed before serving.

By the way, there have been reports of bay laurel surviving the winter in colder climates, provided it is in a protected area. But to be on the safe side, find a sunny spot for it indoors.

 

Keep Rosemary happy

I have a small  rosemary bush that is thriving, and hope it lives through the winter. What is the best way to care for it so it survives?

Rosemary cuttings can root in water.

More and more, I was hearing gardeners say their rosemary, which does not always make it through winter outdoors in this area, was getting through the cold just fine. Then last year, many gardeners I talked to said their rosemary – which may have been growing for years in the same spot – died. Mine did, too.

Herb experts say that the survival of rosemary can be hit-or-miss. It depends on the kind of winter we have, the kind of rosemary that’s growing in your garden, and even where it’s planted.

If we experience a series of very cold days with very low wind-chill temperatures, rosemary may not stand a chance. If the plant is in the ground on the south side of the house, where it’s protected from a cold north wind, it has a better chance of survival. If it’s near a concrete driveway, brick walkway or a stone wall – anything that reflects a little of the sun’s warmth – there’s an even better chance it’ll make it through unscathed.

It’s best chance is if it happens to be one of the hardier varieties that’s planted on the south side of the house and protected from the wind. The Herb Society of Nashville lists the varieties ‘Arp,’ ‘Hill Hardy’ and ‘Salem’ among the best choices for this area. The National Arboretum adds a few more to the list; check out their choices here.

You may be tempted to dig up the rosemary and bring it indoors for winter, but that’s a bad idea. Rosemary is a shrub and won’t take kindly to the dry air and heat inside the house (which is why so many of those cute rosemary topiaries that people give as gifts die so quickly). If you want to try to bring some of your rosemary inside, you may try to snip a few cuttings and keep them inside in a vase of water, where they may grow roots. Change the water every day or two.

 

New plants from old rosemary

QUESTION: I’ve recently moved a large rosemary plant from a friend’s yard to mine. It has not liked the move. I’ve started rooting some cuttings in water, and they seem to be doing well. How long should I let the roots grow before moving them to dirt? Do you recommend potting them in soil in a clay pot during this heat until they mature? Can I save what is left of the big plant in my flower bed?  — Charles W.

It may take several weeks, but stem cuttings of rosemary can root in water.

Good idea to root cuttings from the rosemary plant. Once they get a good growth of healthy roots — six to eight roots per cutting, 1 to 1 1/2 inch long — put them in a container in good potting soil. If they’re going to be outdoors, I don’t recommend a clay pot because in this heat, clay dries out very quickly; plastic containers may hold the moisture longer. Place them in a protected spot out of direct sun until they become acclimated to their new environment. If you have enough cuttings and the roots seem big enough, you could try to plant cuttings directly into a prepared bed in the garden. Wherever you put them, make sure they have good drainage, and get adequate moisture while they are acclimating to their new home.

If the big plant already looks like it’s dying, it may be too late to save it – rosemary is notoriously hard to transplant. But here’s one thing you could try: cut the branches back, which may allow the plant to put more energy into establishing new roots instead of maintaining a lot of top growth. This may not work, but it’s worth a try.

This is a good place to describe the process of propagating plants from cuttings. Start by cutting off 2 – 3 inches of the tender top growth of an established plant. Remove the leaves from the bottom end of the cutting, and dip the stem in a rooting hormone powder (such as Rootone). Place the cuttings in a damp rooting medium that drains well, and make sure the medium doesn’t dry out.

With rosemary cuttings, roots should form in about three weeks, and can be planted into individual pots. Pinch out the top of the cutting to encourage branch development.

Or, stick a few cuttings of new growth in a glass of water and wait for the roots to appear. Strip the leaves that will be below the water line, and change the water frequently. In fact, it’s a good idea to change the water every day. When roots develop, plant the cuttings in potting soil.

More from the garden:

The Creeper returns, at Turning Toward the Sun: A Garden Journal.

Bay was chilled to the bone

Question: I bought a bay tree more than 10 years ago. It was about 6 inches tall, and it grew well in a pot. I’ve repotted it several times, set it outdoors after frost and brought it indoors in winter. Last winter, I forgot to bring it in until after a freeze. The leaves got crispy, so I picked them off and cut back to almost about 3 – 5 inches. Some of the branches are brittle, but some are not. The roots and the base of the plant are still alive. I’ve kept it watered but haven’t seen any growth – not a bud. I don’t want to throw it away. Will it live? – Shirley R.

Bay laurel. Photo by Leo Michels.

It’s hard to say whether a bay that suffered through a freeze will come back. Bay laurel (Laurus nobilis), the source of bay leaves used in cooking, is native to the Mediterranean area, where it generally doesn’t get cold enough to freeze. It is not at all hardy here, so of course you’re doing the right thing when you bring it indoors before it gets cold. In this climate, it’s best treated as a houseplant in winter.

This one little slip-up last year may have cost you your tree – but maybe not. Information at the Herb Society of America’s Web site  suggests that in some circumstances, given the perfect spot, some varieties of bay laurel may survive the winter outdoors in the ground. The plant will die back above the ground, but may send up shoots from the roots in the spring.

So try this: Now that it’s warm, set the plant outdoors, don’t let it dry out, watch to see if new shoots begin to form at the base, and hope for the best. As it grows (if it grows!), an occasional light dose of balanced fertilizer might not be a bad idea. Be sure to bring it in before it gets cold again, and give it a sunny window and a moderate amount of moisture. Good luck!

Turning Toward the Sun is the online journal of my own gardening endeavors. Today I talk about Garden No. 3, a new flower bed I’m planning in Mom’s back yard.