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How and When to Prune Bay Trees - Laurus nobilis

Bay Leaf Tree

The Latin name of the Bay Tree means esteem and noble; laurel crowns were made from bay and given to victors.

In ancient Greek it was said that keeping a bay leaf in the mouth would prevent misfortune and by Roman times is had a reputation for preventing lighting strikes - Emperors would wear laurel wreaths on their heads to protect them. The Bay Leaf plant was also said to have supernatural powers.

It is one of the most popular of all shrub herbs, and treated right, can last many years - if not a lifetime!

Bay is an evergreen shrub, or small tree, 10-50 ft in height; it has glossy dark aromatic leaves with small clusters of cream flowers from tight buds that open in spring, followed by purple-black berries. Propagate by cuttings in summer, plant in fertile well-drained moist soil in a sunny position. In summer the foliage will respond to an occasional spraying in dry weather.

General Advice about Bay trees

Whilst often grown as ornamental shrubs in containers, Bay Trees can get to quite large proportions if planted out in the garden, with quite a wide spread. However, if too unruly, they can be cut back quite hard in the spring or early summer.

Problems of Bays - It can be plagued with scale insect; small brown crustaceans normally found along the leaf veins. This pest usually leaves a sooty mould deposit on the bay leaves. Scale insect is the main pest that has a particular liking for Bayleaf Trees.

The shaped bay trees such as in the image, will get only slightly larger if kept trimmed. The same is true of the pyramid shaped Bays. However, if left untrimmed, the Pyramids will grow into large shrubs or small trees.

General Pruning of a Bay Tree

Bay trees are grown in all manner of situations. As a large shrub - given enough room - they will not need basic pruning. As an ornamental - topiary - Bay Leaf Tree, they will need regular pruning to keep them in a tidy shape.

Winter damage is often a problem of bay trees, with browning of much of the foliage - also wind scorch damage. Both problems can be addressed by pruning as required to remove the unsightly branches. they soon grow back.

For topiary specimens of Bay Leaf Trees, it will be necessary to prune then twice in the summer months. April and then again in August are good times.

Mop headed Bay leaf tree

If you prune your bay any later than August, it will be too late for the plant to re-grow new growth before dormancy sets in, so a final cut in August, will leave you with nice fresh foliage for the autumn and winter months.

The first pruning session in April, can be as severe as you wish - if you want to head back untidy growth. This is also the time to start with a bay if you are going to prune it to a particular shape. Just prune to the rough shape that you want - ie pyramid, ball or any other shape, and the Bay tree will soon shoot out into new growth.

Further pruning can then take place by way of a light trim to bring the tree to the required shape.

This is typical of the shapes that are popular with Bay Leaf Trees (Laurus nobilis). The long stem can be grown to this height over a couple of years. If doing this from an early stage with a small Bay tree, then allow the foliage to grow from the main stem in the earlier stages, as this will strengthen the stem. (It will also speed up the process of getting a long stem).

Once the stem is to the desired height, you can prune to top and then start the process of clipping it to shape over a couple of years. Make sure that the central stem is supported with a good cane until strong enough to support itself.

Important Point As the plant will be top heavy, make sure that the container is large enough to support it, and be aware of problems with it blowing over in high winds.

How to Hard Prune a Bay Tree

Mature Bay leaf trees can be cut back as hard as required early in the growing season. They will soon start to re-grow, and can then be restrained to a suitable size by regular clipping or pruning. Prune after the re-growth starts as describes above. In older gardens, very often small (?) kitchen bays were planted without any thought as to how large they can grow if left untended. I have personally cut back over ten such Bays - the larges being 10 metres tall and with a spread of around 8 metres!


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