Why Have my Bay Tree Leaves Turned Brown?

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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. I have been growing a bay tree in a pot for several years now and I noticed in early spring that, although many of the leaves did appear green and healthy, a significant number were damaged and had started to turn brown. As bay trees are evergreen, this concerned me.

So I decided to carry out some research to and find out why this was happening, and what I should do about it. Read on to find out more!

Mid March: My potted bay tree with leaves turning brown

Bay tree leaves can turn brown because of incorrect watering (either being too dry or waterlogged), exposure to hard frosts, exposure to temperatures below -5c, exposure to wind, and a lack of nutrition. Also, leaves turning brown can be part of the natural shedding and leaf replacement cycle of the tree.

What Should I do With The Brown Leaves on my Bay Tree?

Brown leaves will do nothing for your bay tree, and if just left could potentially expose your tree to disease. The leaves will not turn green again, whatever you do, so they need to be removed from the plant and disposed of. Because of the potential for disease, it is best to dispose of them well away from the tree itself.

What are the Best ways to Prevent Bay Tree Leaves From Turning Brown?

Bay trees are Mediterranean plants and they don’t like being waterlogged, which can sometimes be a problem for trees growing in pots. Over watering and waterlogging can rot the roots, cause browning of leaves and ultimately kill the plant. Although the soil in the pot does need to be kept moist, it is important to make sure that any excess water can easily and freely drain from the pot. The pot will need to have adequate drainage holes and to help with this you can try raising up the pot and using pot feet (or bricks) to ensure these holes don’t get blocked. The worst thing you could do would be to stand the pot in a saucer of water!

Conversely, if they are subjected to drought conditions they will also react – and the browning of leaves is also a symptom of this. You can try mulching the plant to help maintain optimum levels of moisture.

Bay trees, especially when young, can also suffer browning and damage to their leaves when they are exposed to very low temperatures (below 5c) and hard frosts. It is best to locate your bay tree in a protected position over winter (or wrap the pot and tree to protect it from periods of low temperatures and frost). Bay trees prefer a sunny or partially shaded location.

Whether it is summer or winter, it is best to keep bay trees out of direct, strong wind. Strong winds will cause damage and can also result in the browning of leaves.

Feeding is another key consideration. A lack of nutrients will affect the leaves and limit the growth of a bay tree. During the spring and summer months, when the tree is growing, a liquid feed should be applied every 2 or 3 weeks.

This is What I Did to My Bay Tree When the Leaves Turned Brown

Once I saw that my bay tree was suffering with brown leaves I took the following 5 steps:

1 – Remove the brown leaves

First of all I removed all of the brown, damaged and dying leaves from the tree.

My bay tree is situated in a relatively sheltered corner position – with a shed one side and wooden fence the other. I found that the majority of the brown leaves were on the part of the tree that was more exposed to the wind and frost. There were very few brown leaves on the side of the tree that had been afforded some protection from the elements by the shed and fence. Once the damaged leaves had been removed it made a huge difference to the look of the tree!

Bay tree leaves removed from the tree. I won’t be using these for cooking.
Looking better already!

2 – Re pot the tree

Bay trees should re potted in the spring every 3 or 4 years. My bay tree had been in the same pot for at least 5 years so I guessed that it had probably outgrown the pot and this was probably having a negative impact on the tree. There was only one way to find out exactly what was happening with the root system and that was to remove the pot! So, this is what I found: a very pot bound bay tree:

The tree was pot bound
The bottom of the root ball. The crocks have been absorbed into it!

Bay trees can tolerate being pot bound to a degree, but what they absolutely cannot tolerate is being waterlogged. The state of the root ball above would have been restricting water from draining from the pot. I did place some crocks at the bottom of the pot when I originally planted the tree to try and aid drainage but these have been completely enveloped by the root system so, as it turns out, weren’t much use!

I reduced the size of the root ball slightly, shook off any loose compost, and teased roots out before re planting.

I reduced the size of the root ball and teased out the roots

When repotting, the sizing of the new pot will have an effect on the growth of the tree. To control growth, bay trees should ideally only be be moved to a slightly larger, but not significantly bigger, pot. The diameter of my original pot was 50cm, and I opted for a new pot with a diameter of 55cm. That, combined with a smaller root ball, means the tree will have space to allow it to grow slightly larger.

The original compost, being 5 years old, was past its best and probably short on nutrients so I removed what compost I could and replaced it with new John Innes number 2 compost at the bottom and around the sides of the pot.

And job done – one re potted bay tree!

The re potted tree

3 – Prune the tree

Pruning a bay tree will help encourage new growth and the best time to prune is from spring onwards.

Now that the brown and damaged leaves had been removed, I could see what I was left with, so I further pruned and shaped the tree. When pruning it is best to cut back to healthy buds, in the direction that you want the new growth to follow.

4 – Review the positioning of the pot

As already mentioned, my bay tree was already in a relatively sheltered position from the wind, in a corner with a shed one side and wooden fence the other. In the summer this position gets plenty of sunlight, although it is in shade for the very latter part of the day. So overall this was not too bad. I will be leaving it in this location for the summer.

To help ensure good drainage, I have raised the pot slightly off the ground using pot feet. Pot feet allow you to easily and evenly raise the pot and the feet that I used are not really noticeable when in place. The gap that they create is a great help when it comes to preventing the drainage holes at the bottom of the pot from becoming blocked:

Pot feet

The pot feet that I used are available on Amazon below. I used 6 pot feet in total (3 blocks of 2). You can vary the height of the pot by using more or less pot feet, depending on your requirements.

On reflection, I don’t think that I took enough steps to protect my tree from the cold weather and frost during the last winter. I think that this was likely a factor in the damage sustained to the leaves of the tree.

Next autumn and winter I am planning to move the pot to an even more sheltered position closer to the house and will take extra steps to protect it from frost. A position close to the house will mean that the bay tree will benefit from a degree of radiated heat from the walls during autumn and winter. That said, bay trees in pots will still need additional protection once the temperature drops below -5. Once the temperature gets this low I will wrap the pot with bubble wrap and and cover the foliage of the tree with a fleece.

Fleeces are available in various different sizes. Take a look at horticultural fleeces on Amazon:

5 – Feed the tree

Bay trees need adequate nutrients when they are in a growing phase. This means that bay trees in pots need to be fed in the spring and summer (although not in the autumn or winter). Going forward, I will feed my tree with a liquid feed every 2 – 3 weeks during the growing months (April through to September in the UK). This should have a noticeable effect on the overall health of the tree and its leaves.

I will be using miracle grow multipurpose liquid feed, also available on Amazon here:

In Conclusion

So now, after discovering brown leaves on my bay tree, I have done all I can to provide the best possible conditions for it to thrive – it is now a waiting game to see how it does over the coming year!

More Articles And Information On Bay Trees

Links to our other bay tree related articles are below – why not check them out?

Why Are There Black Spots on my Bay Tree Leaves?

How to Repot a Bay Tree

How to Revive a Bay Tree

And Finally….

If you are looking to add more bay trees to your garden space, take a look at bay trees in pots available on Amazon here!

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  1. Pingback: How to Revive a Bay Tree - Gardeners Trowel .com

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