You are most probably familiar with bay trees in one capacity or another. This Mediterranean tree and its glossy green leaves are favoured by cooks, decorators, and gardeners alike. Known as sweet bay and bay laurel, the bay tree, Laurus nobilis, and its yellow-leaved cultivar variety, Laurus nobilis ‘Aurea‘, are popular for their hardiness and functionality. Need a flavouring or bouquet garni for meat, soups, or sauces? Pick some fresh bay leaves and get cooking with the sweet aroma to keep you company! Want a beautiful and sophisticated bay laurel wreath? This tree has you covered. Want to add some greenery to your house? Bay trees to the rescue!
These trees can live for more than 20 years when potted, and more than 50 years when in the ground. You can also shape yours to whatever shape you’d like and express your unique aesthetic. And you may already know how to do so with a magnolia tree, apple tree or a rose bush, but what about this one? All you need are some tools, a vision, and a few spare hours. The tree of your dreams is only a few shears away!
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Why do you need to prune your bay tree?
Most people tend to miss out on the several benefits of pruning bay trees because they don’t see the use of doing so. If this sounds like you, you’re in the right place! In this section, we’ll be covering all the reasons why you should start pruning yours this year!
For one, mature trees can reach a length of over 12m if not pruned. As you can imagine, that must be a pain to take care of. Not to mention, the looming foliage and shoots of the bay would ruin the entire aesthetic of your garden, which we want to avoid. Pruning is essential for shaping the tree and topiary. If you want yours to be decorative and functional, you must trim and prune. In fact, you can shape this shrub into almost any shape you want by strategically pruning it over several seasons. Everything from beautiful lollipop-shaped trees to fanciful, ornamental trees are created through pruning.
The practice of pruning can also help you get rid of dead and damaged branches, as well as shoots that suffered from the winter weather. As they say, out with the old and in with the new! Pruning creates space for new growth and also encourages new shoots to grow. By snipping off wayward, lateral shoots, suckers, and apical leaders, you allow the bay tree to use nutrients that were being used on these branches for its new parts. This leads to greener leaves, denser foliage and an overall healthier tree. It may sound exaggerated, but the evidence shows that container-grown ones actually thrive on being pruned.
When is the right time for pruning bay leaf trees?
Now that we’ve established that your bay trees need to be trimmed, let’s figure out what the best time to do it. And yes, there is a best time. Bay trees are hardy and resilient, which means that you can light prune them throughout the year. However, you need to be strategic about hard pruning as it can take the ones growing in containers for around a year to grow back. When hard pruning a mature tree growing in soil, be prepared to wait several years for their recovery.
As a general rule of thumb, they need to be pruned during dry periods, from late spring or early summer to midsummer. For bay leaf trees that are topiary specimens, you should aim to start pruning the tree in spring, around April. You can fine-tune the shrub again in summer, around August. The second pruning session is only used to give a more precise shape and take away any unnecessary growth that emerged after the previous pruning.
In any case, you must stop pruning after summer as doing so can send the bay tree into dormancy. New growth needs to harden before the first frost or the cold weather will damage it and you will see no growth next year. By putting away the pruning shears in time, the new parts have better chances of surviving the winter.
When pruning bay trees, especially for topiary, slow and steady wins the race. Rather than having to go hard on an overgrown tree down the line, get started early. Do the most drastic pruning in year one, when the shrub is only a small tree, a little bit less in year two, and put the finishing touches with your secateurs in year three. After that, it’s smooth sailing. You only need to do minimal regular pruning in the early spring of the following years for maintenance.
How to prune a bay tree step-by-step
So, are you ready to start? Here are all the steps that you need to follow!
- Start with a vision or shape in mind. How do you want the tree to look? What general silhouette (bush, lollipop/standard, or conical) are you aiming for?
- Remove all dead, diseased and damaged branches using a clean, sharp pair of secateurs, or pruning shears. Make sure to sharpen your garden shears before moving on. Cut diseased branches back to the nearest healthy bud, ensuring that it faces in the direction you want. This will allow you to encourage growth that supports your ideal shape.
- Look out for suckers that should be near the base of the bay tree. These off-shoots can be problematic if you are trying to shape the evergreen tree to a standard form. Cut the sucker completely if it is above soil level. If it is below soil level, cut as much as you can and then leave it. When the stem grows and the sucker emerges in the next few months, go again for a clean, tidy look.
- Make a few strategic snips, pruning wayward growth and pinching back to buds facing in a desirable direction. This will ensure full, dense foliage. And that’s it, you’re done!
It’s really good to care about your plants all the time. It’s not only about watering and pruning! So, here’s a list of things that you should keep in mind:
- Watering plants the right way is always important. Water your tree only when the soil is visibly dry. Overwatering or improper drainage can lead to root damage, brown leaves, and leaf spots.
- Use appropriate potting soil, such as multi-purpose potting compost.
- Add a small handful of long-lasting fertiliser as plant food to the soil surface. Do this in spring and summer, with a gap of a few months in between.
- This evergreen shrub grows happily in semi-shade as well as full sun, but in UK weather, it may prefer the full sun. Place the pot or plant the bay tree accordingly.
- When pruning, keep an eye out for brown leaves, scale insects, bay suckers, and leaf spot and deal with them promptly to preserve the plant’s health.
- Cut an inward-facing bud, even if that means pruning it shorter than you would’ve liked, for dense foliage. Trust the process, it will all come together with the new growth.
- Tie a cane to the main stem to offer support and ensure that it grows upright. Young stems of standard bay trees are very flexible and can grow to be crooked if canes aren’t used.
- Don’t go too hard in spring. Remove a fair amount of foliage but focus more on tidying up and working towards creating a general shape.
- Cut the tips of stems that are vigorous and have grown too long to prevent excessive vertical growth.
- Do not exceed a length of 135 cm for an untrained bay tree that is in the bush shape.
Yes, folks, it’s really that easy! We know it can seem intimidating to start pruning if you buy an untrained tree or neglect a mature bay tree for a few years. However, there isn’t much potential for error when pruning bay trees. The pruning process is very straightforward, and if you’ve gone through this guide, you’ll all ready to get out there and start snipping. So mark your calendars, and take care of your bay trees to elevate your gardening!