Gardening with Laurus nobilis: The Bay Tree

The bay tree is a well-liked evergreen shrub that can be grown in containers or in-ground. When meticulously trimmed, the lush green foliage makes for impressive formal shapes that are perfect for entrances or patios. Bay leaves can be used either fresh or dried, and are frequently used in cooking to add a fragrant aroma to dishes such as soups and stews.

Commonly known as: Bay tree, sweet bay, bay laurel

Botanical name: Laurus nobilis

Group: Evergreen shrub

Flowering time: Spring

Planting time: April to September

Height and Spread: Up to 7.5m (23ft) unless trimmed

Aspect: Full sun or partial shade

Hardiness: Usually hardy to -5°C (23°F), but can withstand lower temperatures in protected areas. Bay is hardier when planted in the ground.

Difficulty: Effortless

Cultivation Guidelines:

Bay can be grown in many different ways. It does well in containers, especially if it is watered regularly and situated in a protected spot. In gardens, bay trees can grow into large bushy shrubs or small trees, reaching heights of 7.5m (23ft) or more. Bay can also be trained into topiary specimens, which can be shaped into pyramid, ball or lollipop standards, and some even have delightfully plaited or spirally trained stems.

Bay requires a well-drained soil and a protected, sunny or partially shaded location.

Container Cultivation:

Use a soil-based compost, like John Innes No 2, or a soilless compost with added grit to enhance stability and drainage. Water container-grown bay plants moderately, as over-watering can cause root damage. Add controlled-release fertiliser granules to the compost or use a liquid feed every two weeks from mid-spring to late summer. Repot bay every two years in the spring. Even if you do not repot regularly, compost decomposes over time, so it is advisable to lift the plant out of its pot and tease off one-third of the roots, adding fresh compost and testing for proper drainage. Remove and replace the top 5cm (2in) of compost from the container. Bay can tolerate temperatures as low as -5°C (23°F), but frost and cold winter winds can damage the foliage. Protect plants with fleece, or move them indoors to a garage or even a cool room (up to 10°C (50°F)) if temperatures drop below -5°C. Container-grown plants are susceptible to having their roots freeze in a frigid winter. Use bubble wrap around the pot to prevent this from happening. Raise the base of the container off the ground using pot feet (or bricks) to allow excess water to drain away and help prevent the pot from cracking due to frost. Plants grown in the ground may suffer cold or wind damage to the current season's growth, which can be pruned out in the spring.

Small greenish-yellow male or female flowers appear in the spring, followed by black berries on female plants.

Training and Pruning Techniques

The techniques used for training and pruning your bay tree will depend on whether you have shaped it into a topiary or are growing it as a shrub in the ground.

If you have a topiary-shaped bay tree, use secateurs to trim it during the summer. This encourages a dense habit and maintains a balanced shape. Additionally, prune new shoots to a bud facing in the direction of the desired growth.

Alternatively, shrubs can be trimmed into shape simply by cutting back to a lower leaf or bud in the spring or summer. For further advice, refer to the "shrubs and trees: light pruning" section on the RHS website.

In late spring, remove any leaf tips that were damaged by winter weather by lightly pruning. Mature bay trees can also tolerate hard pruning, but it may take two to three seasons for them to recover and regrow fully.

Propagation Techniques

There are several ways to propagate your bay tree. You can collect seeds in the autumn, remove the fleshy outer casing, and sow them as soon as possible. If the seed has dried or was bought, soak it in warm water for 24 hours before sowing. Keep in mind that plants may be male or female, so seed pods are only likely to form on female specimens.

Other propagation techniques include taking semi-ripe cuttings in late summer or softwood cuttings in early summer. Finally, layering is also a successful propagation technique, although it is slower than cuttings.

Cultivar Selection

There are only a few cultivars to choose from when it comes to bay trees. The most common and popular option is Laurus nobilis AGM (bay tree), which is also used for culinary purposes. Another option is Laurus nobilis 'Aurea' AGM (yellow-leaved bay tree), which has lovely golden-yellow foliage. Lastly, Laurus nobilis f. angustiolia (willow-leaved laurel) has thinner leaves than bay, but they are still edible.

Check out RHS Find a Plant or AGM plants for more information on bay trees and their cultivars.

Common Problems

Leaf spots are often caused by waterlogged roots or wet weather conditions. This problem is particularly prevalent in container-grown plants, which may indicate that the compost has become old and tired. Repot your plant in fresh, well-drained compost in the spring to solve this issue.

Yellow leaves are a natural occurrence in older bay leaves, which will shed in low numbers. However, nutrient deficiencies in container-grown plants or waterlogged compost or cold weather damage may also cause this problem.

The winter season has caused many bay trees to experience peeling bark and cracks, especially on their lower main stems. The exact cause is unknown, but it is believed that the cold weather and fluctuating soil moisture levels may have contributed to this issue. While the damage may look alarming, it is not always fatal. If the rest of the plant is growing normally or recovering from winter damage, no intervention is required. Recovery should be visible by midsummer if it is going to occur. However, if the growth above the damaged area is dead, it is necessary to remove the dead parts by cutting them to healthy wood or to near soil level. Recovery often occurs from lower down or near soil level.

Bay trees also face other problems, such as brown leaves and insect infestations from bay sucker, soft and horse chestnut scales. Fortunately, bay trees are relatively resistant to rabbits and are less likely to be nibbled compared to other plants.

To enhance your gardening experience, become a member of the Royal Horticultural Society and access the Gardeners' calendar, My Garden, and a free RHS gardening coach. Keep track of your plants and receive reminders and care tips to ensure successful growth. As the leading gardening charity in the UK, the Royal Horticultural Society aims to enrich everyone's life through plants and make the UK a greener and more stunning place.

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