The Q&A Archives: Pruning Sweet Bay

Question: I live in northwestern PA, and have a deck (no yard). Two years ago, I bought two 3-1/2 inch bay leaf trees. Today, they are about 3 feet tall. I keep them on the sunny deck in summer and in the warm, sunny kitchen in winter. I need to know how to prune them. Since they are not native to PA, I don't know what they should look like. They currently are shaped like a Christmas tree with fewer branches. They are growing beautifully--lots on new shoots. I am afraid to trim them for fear of butchering them. Please give me advice on how to prune and shape.

Answer: Sweet Bay (Laurus nobilis) is originally from the Mediterranean region where it grows to be a tree over 30 feet tall. As you have discovered, it adapts well to growing in a pot! It can be kept at about 4 feet quite easily because it doesn't mind being pruned. Many gardeners train it as a decorative topiary "standard" with a bare trunk and a rounded mass of foliage at the top, like a lollipop, but you can train it to any shape you prefer. If you decide to create a standard, however, gradually remove the lower branches over a period of several years. (In addition to changing the appearance, removing these branches will also slow the tree's growth rate.)

Regardless of the shape, you will need to settle on a regular pruning routine which matches your tree's seasonal growth spurts. Trim it back at the end of the season before you bring it inside for the winter, and again in late spring after the spring growth spurt. You may also need to trim periodically during the summer to maintain a desired size. Once the tree is truly as large as you can handle, you might also wish to cut back on fertilizing so it grows in a slower maintenance mode. You may also find that an older tree will grow more slowly than the vigorous young cuttings.

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