General gardening topics

How and when to prune bay trees (Laurus nobilis)

Last updated on May 9th, 2022

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The Laurus nobilis plants are commonly known as bay trees and are popular with keen cooks. They can be easily grown just about anywhere in your garden, whether you keep them as an ornamental topiary, leave them on either side of your doorway, grow them in the middle of a herb garden to make use of the leaves, or anywhere else as a shrub.

Dealing with winter damage

That being said, no matter where you grow them, one of the biggest problems you might face is winter damage when they haven’t had enough protection from the wind and cold, this can cause the foliage to turn brown.

If this happens you can address the issue by lightly pruning away the damaged growth around late spring when the risk of frost has mostly passed.

When and how to prune Bay trees

Pruning topiary bays

If you have a topiary specimen of bay tree you will need to prune it twice during the summer, usually in April and subsequently in August. If you prune it any later than August there won’t be time for new growth to establish and harden off prior to dormancy, which means the new growth will likely be damaged by winter frost.

In April when you do the first pruning, you can trim away a fair bit of foliage but don’t prune them back too hard as they can take several seasons to recover because they are slow to grow again. This is the time to cut back any untidy growth and get rid of anything that was damaged during the winter. This is also the time to start pruning in order to achieve a particular shape if you are going to use your bay tree as a topiary, for example, as a ball or a pyramid. When you are trying to form a shape you can continue to prune as needed through summer too.

In order to prune your tree to your desired shape, you want to start with the top, especially if you are creating a ball or a pyramid, and then start the process of cutting around it over a few years. If you want to grow bay trees with a stem and ball on top, the central stem should always be supported for the first few years because the plants tend to be quite top-heavy until the stem is able to support the head on its own.

This is another reason why it’s important to give them protection during the winter because heavy winds can blow them over if they are not stable enough.

Hard pruning

If you have a mature bay tree you may (at some point) need to consider hard pruning. Mature trees can be hard pruned as necessary during that early April pruning session. They will regrow and can be restrained to a smaller size with regular pruning and clipping after the hard pruning has taken place.

Remember that they can take a few seasons to fully recover if you prune them back hard and this method should only be used if you have a seriously overgrown bay tree.

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