Offering year-round structure and interest, slow-growing Bay (Laurus nobilis) is a great choice for adding an evergreen welcome to your home and makes a fabulous focal point for the balcony, patio or garden.
Also known as bay laurel and sweet bay, these easy-to-grow Mediterranean trees have edible aromatic leaves, and can be pruned to a desired size or allowed to grow into imposing trees or handsome hedges.
In this guide, you’ll learn how to successfully grow bay trees, including how to prune them to maintain their great looks.
When to plant bay trees
Plant bay trees from March to June – younger plants are best planted after the frosts and before the heat of summer, giving them time to establish in their planting positions.
Caution: although the glossy dark-green leaves are edible, bay is irritant to skin and eyes, so it’s advisable to wear gloves then planting and pruning.
How to plant bay trees in the ground
In mild areas, plant trees in the ground in any fertile, well-drained soil. Pick a position in sun or semi-shade, which is sheltered from strong winds that can damage the leaves. If staking your tree, drive this into the planting hole first, before positioning the plant at the same soil level as used in their nursery pot and use a tree tie to fasten the tree to the stake.
Keep weeds and grass clear from the base of the tree – a 30cm radius is recommended – and apply a mulch of well-rotted manure or garden compost to the base each spring to help to retain moisture during the summer.
How to plant bay trees in containers
Bay trees grow well in containers of soil-based compost such as John Innes. Choose a container that’s a little larger than the existing pot or root ball and mix some grit with the compost to improve drainage. Re-pot every 2-3 years using fresh compost each time.
How to prune and train bay trees
Bay trees are available to buy ready-trained as perfectly pruned pyramids, beautifully crafted balls or lollipop-shaped standards on single straight or beautifully twisted stems. The most cost-effective way to achieve this terrific topiary is to buy smaller untrained plants and shape them yourself, but this will require patience and dedication!
How to prune existing tree shapes
Begin by removing any leaves that have been damaged by winter frosts by trimming them away with secateurs in late spring. If your bay is growing untrained, simply trim shoots back as desired each spring or summer. It may be tempting to use a hedge trimmer or shears for speed but this can lead to torn leaves and an untidy look.
Standard plants often produce suckers (new shoots) from the roots, so simply pull these up to maintain the single clear stem.
Pruning standard, ball and pyramid-shaped bay trees during summer will encourage plants to form a dense, bushy habit. To maintain the desired shape, lightly prune new shoots to just above a bud. Trim carefully, taking time to step back and moving around your plant to ensure the overall look is balanced.
How to create a shape from scratch
You may wish to invest in a wire topiary frame to aid pruning and these are available in a variety of attractive shapes. To start, prune your plant heavily in spring to achieve your basic desired shape.
To achieve a standard or single-stemmed plant, encouraging one leading stem of your plant to grow to your desired height; once this is achieved, leave the top third of the tree but trim away all other stems below it. As your tree has just entered the growing season, it will continue to produce shoots that can be trimmed back to provide the finer detail of the lollipop-head. The head can take a few years to form a satisfactory ball by pruning back the branches to encourage short and dense growth that radiates outwards from all angles. Use this same head-pruning process for bay balls and use a pyramid topiary guide to achieve the complex tapering shape.
Don’t waste the excess foliage! Use the leaves, fresh or dried, to flavour soups and stews or as part of a bouquet garni. The leaves can also be frozen for later use.
How to care for bay trees
It’s important to water plants regularly for the first year and until their roots have established. After this, bay usually only requires watering during dry summer periods.
Bay trees in pots are at risk of drying out in summer and becoming waterlogged in winter, so check the soil conditions often. Pot-grown plants also benefit from a general liquid plant feed every fortnight from mid-spring through to late summer.
All ages of bay tree will appreciate some winter protection from frosts, which can be achieved by loosely covering plants with transparent fleece. In cold locations, it is advisable to leave your bay trees wrapped all winter and to move potted plants to a cold greenhouse or sheltered position.
Trouble-shooting pests and problems
Bay trees are largely trouble-free but there are a couple minor problems to look out for.
Patchy white or brown leaves
White patches on parts of the tree may indicate powdery mildew, which coats leaves and branches. Prevention is better than the cure, so encourage air flow around plants to reduce humidity. Affected areas of the plant can be removed or treat the whole plant with a fungicide.
Brown bumps and brown leaves may indicate scale, caused by insects that are difficult to eradicate. Attacks of scale on outdoor plants tend to be limited and should be tolerated.
Distorted and discoloured foliage
Bay suckers are insects that feed on sap, causing greyish-white blobs beneath the leaves. This causes the leaves to distort and these should be removed and destroyed. Both ladybirds and birds eat these pests, so they should be encouraged into the garden.
Leaves stuck together
If you notice some leaves have become stuck together, this may be the work of the tortix moth caterpillar, which can spread to other plants if allowed to proliferate.
Now you know how to grow and care for bay trees!
Handsome and hardy, these specimen plants with their fragrant foliage make a lovely living gift and look particularly effective when planted in pairs either side of a doorway or path.
Whether you decide on a bay tree for yourself or a loved one, it’s sure to delight you by offering years of structure and interest for any size of outdoor space.