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A bay tree (Laurus nobilis), also known as bay laurel, is a hardy evergreen shrub which originated in the Mediterranean and is characterised by a glossy, deep green, bushy and aromatic foliage and yellow flowers in spring (March – May). The leaves are often used in cooking to give additional flavour dishes such as soups, meats and stews. Bay trees are a great topiary shrub and lend themselves to either being grown in containers or directly in the ground.
Container bay trees can be a great addition to your patio, and a couple of trees placed either side a door can completely transform an entrance.
When grown in the ground they are also often used as a hedging shrub as being evergreen they can provide a good level of privacy all year round. Trees in the ground are typically much larger than container trees, can live longer and grow in far excess of 10 metres in height and require less pruning.
But what if your bay tree is not looking its best?
You can revive a bay tree by carrying out a initial hard prune, repotting it to ensure good drainage, keeping it regularly fed and watered during the growing season, and siting it in a sheltered position in either full sun or partial shade. Regular light pruning in the growing season can help you achieve a specific shape to your tree.
To discover more about how to keep your bay tree looking great so that you can continue to enjoy it for many years to come, read on!
A Sickly Tree
I was given a neglected bay tree back in June 2018. The tree had basically been abandoned and left for dead. It was completely pot bound and had not been watered regularly resulting in a stick – like appearance and a serious lack of leaves. The leaves that were present were yellowing and brown, an indicator that the tree had not been getting the nutrients it needed to thrive – probably a combination of under (or no) watering and nitrogen deficiency.
It was unclear as to whether the tree could be rescued, but nevertheless I was going to try my best!
Step 1 – Hard Prune
The first job was to hard prune the tree. Hard pruning can stimulate new growth: it is best to cut down damaged leaves back to a new bud. The best time to hard prune is in the early growing season from the spring through to early summer. More established and older bay trees can withstand a hard prune but beware that the recovery period can be quite prolonged – it took 6 months to a year for my bay tree to start to recover.
I completed my hard prune in May 2018.
Bay trees tend to be much more tolerant of a light prune. You can light prune any time during the growing season (early spring to mid summer) in order to shape the tree, the fact that it has a bushy structure lends it to shaping. Again, when pruning cut back to just after a new bud. The direction of the bud that you cut back to will in turn determine the direction of the new growth post pruning.
As a general rule, if you have damaged leaves the best time to pick them off is in the springtime. Following the hard prune I picked off the damaged leaves which left me with….. not a lot!! As they say : no pain, no gain. One thing is for sure – the tree definitely started to look worse before it looked better!
Step 2 – Re Pot
Step 2 was to re pot. Potting on every few years is important in itself to ensure that the tree does not get pot bound. The root ball of my tree was very compacted. Before repotting I broke up and separated out the root ball, teasing apart the outer roots to help encourage recovery and growth.
I used a soil based (John Innes) compost, which helps allow free drainage. The roots of a bay tree are quite shallow so it is a good idea to keep dressing the top of the container with compost frequently.
A lack of drainage can cause the root ball to become waterlogged. Bay trees hate being waterlogged and they will not thrive in such conditions. I repotted into a plastic pot and made sure that there were multiple drainage holes.
Gardeners over the years have put crocks (small pieces of broken plant pots) into the bottom of pots and containers in an effort to stop the compost from blocking the drainage holes from the inside. Although I did this when repotting my bay tree, I have to say that I have had mixed results using this method in the past. I have often found a mass of compost, crocks and roots matted together at the bottom of containers when the time comes round to re pot – meaning that the crocks didn’t really end up helping drainage at all…
Raising the pot slightly off the ground is definitely a good idea as it will help stop drainage holes from becoming blocked or restricted from the outside. Purpose designed pot feet are ideal for this job – check out pot feet for outdoor plant pots on Amazon here:
Step 3 – Caring for Your Bay Tree
The next step was to carry out ongoing care for the tree in order to give it the best possible chance in the hope that over time the green shoots of recovery would start to appear.
– Keep it Watered
Container trees should be watered regularly during the growing season. During winter you only need to water if the root ball is in danger of drying out. I haven’t had to water at all this winter (2019 / 2020) due to plentiful rain!
Be careful not to over water container trees as this can cause the roots to rot.
– Feed it
Adding liquid feed to the water every two weeks during the growing season (from mid spring to late summer) will ensure that your tree receives the nutrients that it needs. You only need to do this when the tree is actively growing so it is not required from late summer and through the winter!
– Ensure it is Positioned Well
Bay trees prefer a sheltered position in either full sun or partial shade.
If they are exposed to frost or strong winds the leaves can become damaged.
– Prune it to Shape
Light prune regularly to maintain shape if you are want to achieve a specific look. Pruning should be competed in the growing season from springtime through to mid summer – the final prune should be completed around mid August before the tree stops growing.
– Protect it During Winter
Bay trees are hardy down to about -5 degrees.
It is best to protect the tree and container in the winter months with bubble wrap or a fleece – this will also help prevent the root ball from freezing. If a particularly severe frost or prolonged winter cold spell is forecast it may be worth taking the tree in to protect it.
Check out horticultural fleeces on Amazon here.
– In the Beginning…… June 2018
– 22 Months Later…… April 2020…… Glossy Green Leaves
The tree has undergone a huge transformation compared to June 2018 and now boasts an impressive crop of glossy green leaves.
– 46 Months Later…… April 2022…… Still Going Strong
The bay tree is in a different location (one of the advantages of growing it in a container) and is still going strong. It will soon flower, the first year that this has happened. Flowers on bay trees are a cream / yellow / white colour and are only found on more mature bay trees, typically those over around 10 years old.
57 Months Later…… March 2023…… Some Brown Leaves Evident
In March 2023, following a winter that brought some heavy frosts and temperatures dropping as low as -10c, I noticed that some (but not all) of the leaves on my bay tree were starting to turn brown.
Follow this link for further detail on what happened, and find out what to do when the leaves on your bay tree turn brown.