How to grow bay (Laurus nobilis)

Standard bay in pots

Bay (Laurus nobilis), also known as bay laurel or the bay tree, is an evergreen shrub with aromatic leaves, known as bay leaves. Laurus nobilis one of the oldest shrubs in cultivation, introduced to British gardens in from as early as 1650. It’s an essential foliage plant for herb gardens – bay leaves can be used in a variety of dishes, including soups and stews and even ice cream, and are the main ingredient in a ‘bouquet garni’. They can be dried for storing or used fresh.

Bay is slow-growing and, while a plant will eventually become a tree up to 8m tall, it will take many years to do this and can be clipped to keep it at the desired size. Bay trees are traditionally trained and clipped as topiary, and bring a touch of formality to the garden. Laurus nobilis is often sold as a standard lollipop tree or shaped into a cone, or with plaited or spiral stems, and can be used as an alternative to yew or box topiary – especially useful as box is now affected by box tree caterpillar and box blight. Bay grows extremely well in pots and standard plants look particularly good either side of a front door, creating a formal, year-round display.

Bay is a dioecious plant, which means it has male and female flowers on separate plants. Male and female plants are not identified in garden centres, as most gardeners grow them only for their foliage. The flowers are insignificant and the berries are inedible.

Bay laurel is sometimes confused with cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) and Portuguese laurel (Prunus lusitanica). These evergreen shrubs are mostly used as hedging and all parts of the plants are poisonous.

How to grow bay (Laurus nobilis)

Bay is slightly tender when young and benefits from shelter and protection in winter. Grow Laurus nobilis in fertile, well-drained soil in full sun, ideally near a south- or west-facing wall, which will provide additional shelter from cold winds and frost.

How to grow bay in pot
In cooler regions, consider growing in a pot which you can move indoors in autumn. Grow bay in a sheltered spot in moist but well-drained soil. Prune in summer and cut back hard to rejuvenate old plants in spring. Bay leaves can be harvested at any time of year – use immediately or dry before storing.

Growing bay: jump links


Where to grow bay

Evergreen trees: bay tree, Laurus nobilis
How to grow bay – Laurus nobilis growing in a pot

Bay hails from the Mediterranean, so does best in full sun to partial shade, ideally in a sheltered position, as it’s not completely hardy when young. In exposed gardens, bay can cope with temperatures down to about -5ºC but can suffer leaf damage. This is easily solved by covering plants with garden fleece in winter or moving pot-grown bays to a more sheltered spot.

Bay tends to be hardier when planted directly into the garden, as plants can put down a more comprehensive root system. Well-drained soil is essential. If planted in the ground and left to grow unclipped, expect plants to reach a height of up to 8m.


How to plant bay

Planting bay in a container
How to grow bay – planting bay (Laurus nobilis) in a container

Improve garden soil before planting by digging in compost and grit, if your soil is heavy. If planting clipped standard bays as a formal statement, ensure they’re standing straight before firming the soil around the root ball. Water in well and continue to water regularly for a couple of weeks after planting, to help it settle in well.

If growing in a pot, plant your bay in tree and shrub compost or in a soil-based compost, such as John Innes No. 2, with some additional grit added for drainage. Be sure to use a pot that has drainage holes in the bottom, and add crocks at the base; you could also stand the pot on pot feet.

 


How to care for bay (Laurus nobilis)

How to grow bay - pruning bay
How to grow bay – pruning bay

Laurus nobilis growing in the ground should get all the water they need from rainfall. you’re growing bay trees in pots, don’t allow the compost to dry out in summer, but do allow any excess to drain away, as too much water will rot the roots. Reduce watering in winter. Feed with a liquid feed every few weeks in spring and summer. If possible, repot every two or three years – if your plant is to too big to do this, scrape away the top layer of compost and replace with fresh.

Prune bay in summer with secateurs. Old plants can be rejuvenated by cutting them back hard in late spring. It’s best to do this over two years as bay can be slow to bounce back – cut half the stems back in year one and the rest in year two. Bay trees are becoming increasingly popular as topiary, due to their resilience to regular pruning. Consider buying a topiary frame if you haven’t tried the technique before and prune several times over the growing season for the best results. When pruning or clipping bay, avoid using hedge shears, as half cut leaves will look unsightly.

 


How to propagate bay

Semi-ripe cuttings of bay
How to grow bay – planting a semi-ripe bay cutting

The quickest way to propagate bay is to take semi-ripe cuttings in late summer. Bay can also be propagated by layering in spring, although this takes longer.


Growing bay: problem-solving

Bay is fairly trouble free. If the leaves get damaged by frost or wind (which will turn them brown or black), pick them off or trim plants in late spring or summer to encourage new growth.

Yellow leaves can be a problem on bay trees. In our Quick Tips video Emma Crawforth, BBC Gardeners’ World Magazine, explains why bay trees may develop yellow leaves, and how to remedy the problem.

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Discoloured, distorted foliage could be caused by bay leaf suckers. The sap-feeding insects attack young bay foliage. Minor attacks can be tackled by promptly removing all affected leaves.


Advice on buying bay

  • Large bay plants are an investment – especially those that are clipped or shaped. They are slow growing, so buy as large a plant as you can afford
  • A cheaper (and slower) option is to buy small plants that you can eventually clip into shape yourself
  • Check that the plant has healthy, dark green, shiny leaves and no signs of pests or diseases
  • You can find bay at most garden centres, usually with other topiary plants. Smaller plants are sold with other herbs 

Where to buy bay online

Bay varieties to try

Lollipop bay trees
How to grow bay – clipped standard bay trees
  • Laurus nobilis – aromatic dark green leaves. Once mature plants can reach up to 8m x 8m but this will take many years
  • Laurus nobilis ‘Aurea’ – lime green/yellow foliage. Insignificant flowers in spring. Slightly smaller than Laurus nobilis when mature

Frequently asked questions

Have I killed my bay tree?

Bay trees can look worse for wear after a harsh winter, particularly if grown in an exposed spot, or if they’ve been over- or under-watered. Often their leaves turn brown and fall off, leaving exposed, bare branches. 

Don’t give up on it immediately – it may bounce back. To check if it’s still alive, make a small nick in the branches or trunk and see if it’s green. If it is, it’s alive. If not, it will be dead.

If alive but still looking sickly, repot a pot-grown bay tree into a larger container, using fresh, soil-based compost such as a peat-free John Innes Number 2 or 3, with added grit to improve drainage. Give the roots a good soak before you repot and tease the roots out at the edges and bottom a little in case it has become potbound.

With luck, your bay tree will start to show new leaf buds. Once the leaves have appeared, you may want to spray weekly with diluted seaweed fertiliser, which can improve the overall health of the tree. 

My bay tree is growing close to my house. Should I be worried?

Most trees growing near houses cause no damage at all. However houses built before the 1950s may be at risk from subsidence in areas with clay soil, which shrinks in dry weather. Houses built after the 1950s have much deeper foundations, so are far less likely to be affected.

Bay trees can grow to a height of around 7.5m if left unpruned, but have a shallow root system. This makes them relatively easy to dig out, if you’d rather remove the tree.

How can I prune a giant bay tree?

Bay trees are resiliant trees and can take a very hard prune as and when they become too big for the space they’re growing in. However they may be slow to grow back. While young bay trees can be pruned lightly at any time of year, the best time to hard-prune mature bay trees is late-spring. Use a pruning saw and loppers to remove as much growth as you need to – if it’s a huge job it’s best to stagger the prune over two to three years, always in late-spring.

Help! My bay tree is covered in wasps.

The wasps will be attracted to insects. Bay trees are susceptible to the bay tree sucker (Trioza alacris) which is a type of sap-sucking bug around 2mm in length, similar to an aphid. Adults mate and lay eggs in spring, which hatch into scaley nymphs that produce lots of white, woolly wax. 

Look for distorted, curled leaves or portions of leaves that are distorted and curled, along with small, grey-white nymphs covered with a woolly white wax on the underside of leaves. Like aphids, the suckers also secrete honeydew, which sticks to the leaves. 

Bay tree suckers are the natural food source of many predators, including wasps and hoverflies (which can look like wasps), along with birds and ladybirds. The easiest way to deal with the problem is to simply remove the leaves. However, if you’re noticing a lot of insect activity around your bay tree, rest assured these insects are dealing with the problem for you. If you’re allergic to wasp stings you may want to hose the tree down with water, which may dislodge any suckers and the honeydew. Bear in mind this will also kill the predators, including ladybird and hoverfly larvae. If you can, it’s best to let nature take its course.

 

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