Care Guide: Bay Trees

Learn how to prune, grow it in a pot, and feed your fragrant bay laurel to get the most out of it. The bay tree is a well-liked evergreen shrub that can be grown in the ground or in containers. Bay trees in pots, especially when used to frame a door, are timeless and elegant. How to keep bays in containers looking good is as follows.

Pair of Corkscrew Standard Lollipop Spiral Bay Trees – Laurus nobilis Twisted Stem


There are numerous methods for growing bay. It thrives in containers, particularly when watered frequently and placed in a protected area. Bay trees can grow to a height of 7.5 meters (23 feet) or more in the garden as either a large bushy shrub or a small tree. Topiary—trees or shrubs cut or trained into specific shapes—is another form of bay that can be used to create pyramid, ball, or “lollipop” standards. The stems of some of these standards are spirally trained or ornately plaited. Bay requires soil that drains well and a sunny or partially shaded location.

Use a soil-based compost like John Innes No. 2 to give your container-grown bay more stability and better drainage. Root damage can be caused by overwatering. From mid-spring to late summer, add controlled-release fertiliser granules to the compost or a liquid feed every two weeks. Repot the bay every two years in spring. Before adding fresh compost and checking drainage, it’s a good idea to lift the plant out of its pot and remove a third of the roots because compost decomposes over time.

Bay can withstand temperatures as low as -5°C, but frost and the cold winds of winter can damage the foliage. Remove and replace the top 5 cm of compost from the top of the container. If the temperature drops below -5 degrees Celsius, cover the plants with fleece or move them inside to a cool room with a temperature of 10 degrees Celsius. The roots of plants grown in containers are at risk of freezing through the pot during a cold winter. Bubble wrap should be used around the pot to prevent this. Use pot feet (or bricks) to raise the base of the container off the ground to help prevent frost cracking the pot. Plants grown in the ground may suffer damage from cold or wind to the current season’s growth, which can be pruned out in the spring. Female plants produce small, greenish-yellow flowers in the spring, followed by black berries.

Pruning & Training

Whether you have trained the bay to be a topiary or just a shrub in the ground is a factor in pruning and training. During the summer, topiary-trained bay are trimmed with secateurs to maintain a balanced shape and encourage a dense habit. Cut back shrubs in the spring or summer to a lower leaf or bud to shape them. Prune new shoots to a bud facing the desired direction of growth. In the late spring, lightly prune any damaged leaf tips. Aging bay trees can tolerate hard pruning, but they take a long time to recover and grow back. This should be done over two or three seasons, in spring.


Leaf spots: Frequently brought on by roots that are clogged with water or by wet weather. This also happens a lot to plants in containers, usually indicating that the compost is old and worn out. In the spring, repot your plant in fresh, well-drained compost.

Yellow leaves: Older leaves naturally shed in small quantities. In container-grown plants, nutrient deficiency may be the issue, but waterlogged compost or damage from cold weather are more common causes.

Cracking and peeling bark: Many bay trees, particularly those with lower main stems, developed cracking and peeling bark as a result of the recent harsh winters. Although the exact cause is unknown, other stressors like fluctuating soil moisture levels and the cold of the winter are likely to be involved. Despite the alarming damage, it does not appear to always result in death. No action is required if the remainder of the plant is growing normally or recovering from winter damage (recovery should be apparent by midsummer if it occurs).

However, if the growth above the damaged area is dead, cut the dead parts to healthy wood (green under the bark) or close to soil level. Recovery frequently occurs at the soil or lower levels.

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Updated on April 12, 2023

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