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24 September 2014

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You are in: Lancashire > Nature > Features > Ask the gardener: Bay trees

plant pots

Ask the gardener: Bay trees

Bill gives advice on bay trees...

Warton's Bill Blackledge is one of the county's most popular and sought after gardeners.   If it's green and needs watering, Bill can tell you about it.  He has been answering BBC Radio Lancashire listeners' queries for over thirty years, which means he's been there nearly as long as the transmitter!

His knowledge is encyclopedic. After training at the under the then Ministry of Agriculture, Bill spent over twenty years at the Department of Biological and Environmental Services at Lancaster University.  Now, he's a regular course tutor at Alston Hall, Longridge and Lancaster Adult College.

For three decades, Bill has travelled the county with fellow judges as a regional judge for North West in Bloom.

So, whatever the problem, we like to think Bill can sort it out... at least that's the theory!

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Natalie Evett-Cosier asks...

My bay tree which is kept outside is starting to shoot new leaves. However some of the old leaves have not got black spots on them, and some small holes. Do you know what this is and how I can rectify? Many thanks

Bill replies...

The black spots Natalie on the older leaves of your Bay Tree is sometimes caused by water logging and this could quite easily have happened during last summer when there was extensive rainfall over a period of time.  Another cause could be Shot Hole Disease which is a fungal disease and causes purplish to reddish leaf spots which then drop out leaving circular holes in the leaves and, again mild wet summer weather will help to promote this disease.  Unfortunately there is at the present time nothing on the market to control this problem but it would be well worthwhile giving your Bay Tree a top dressing of a balanced base fertiliser such as Vitax Q4.

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Ed Lloyd asks...

We have three 'lollypop' bay trees planted last summer in our garden. Unfortunately all three are now displaying long vertical cracks in the bark over the full length of their respective (4 ft) trunks. The bark appears to now be loose from the trunk, in all cases, however the leaves are apparently healthy! Advice please.

Bill replies...

The cracking of the bark on the trunks of your Bay Trees Ed looks as though this could be a physical disorder and could have been caused by over-watering of the trees causing the bark to swell and split or, it could be the accumulation of your trees drying out and then suddenly being over-watered and the cracks in the bark could quite easily have been increased by late night frosts.  If is difficult to pin point exactly what has caused the problem but it would be well worthwhile painting the vertical cracks with an anti-fungal sealant such as Arbrex which will assist in stopping fungal infection.  Arbrex is available in Garden Centres.

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Marie asks...

Can all bay trees be used for cooking? Or are there different varieties?

Bill replies...

Quite a few of the Laurel species of trees are poisonous and these include the Cherry Laurel and the Portuguese Laurel which are widely used as hedging plants. The variety which I would recommend and is widely used in cooking is the Mediterranean Laurel (Laurus Nobilis) and is obtainable at all Garden Centres.

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Louise asks...

I recently bought a bay tree and the label says that it can tolerate dry conditions - however one of your previous answers says that the leaves will brown if the tree gets dry. Should the soil be kept moist at all times? I am planning on keeping the tree in a pot. Thanks.

Bill replies...

Bay Trees Louise do tolerate dry conditions has the label says but, as your plant is growing in a pot/container during the summer months you will need to keep an eye on the watering.  During the winter months very little watering will be required but, you will need to situate your Bay Tree in a sheltered position.  Browning of the leaves of your tree can be caused by extreme cold conditions, wind scorch and, if you allow the soil to completely dry out when it is actively growing over the summer period.  If your Bay Tree required repotting you will need to use a well drained growing medium and I would also recommend that you use a soil base compost such as John Innes No 2 or 3.

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Hugh Davis asks...

I have a bay tree pot bound with roots that have grown out of the pot into the ground through drain holes. I have lifted the pot, can I cut off the protruding roots, would it kill the plant?

Bill replies...

You could quite easily find Hugh that if you do cut off the protruding roots of your Bay Tree die back could occur on some of the shoots and a lot will depend on what you are intending to do with the tree now that it has been lifted from the garden.  If there are masses of protruding roots and you do not want to prune you could transfer the plant in the pot into a larger container - using a soil base compost such as John Innes No 2/3.  A lot will depend on how many roots are protruding, if there are just a few these can be cut back and I am sure your Bay Tree will be fine with very little dieback occurring.

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Ron Mann asks...

I have a five foot bay tree. It's perfectly healthy, the problem I have is it's getting a bit gangly ie the main stem is two feet higher than its arms. Is it okay to lop off the top and at what time of the year would be favourite?

Bill replies...

Your Bay Tree (Laurus Nobilis) can be pruned in the springtime Ron when your main stem which is two feet higher can be cut back.  It is also worthwhile to cut back any straggly shoots and I would also top dress during the summer period with a general base fertiliser such as Fish Blood and Bone Meal or, if your tree is growing in a large container you can, during the growing season, liquid feed approximately once a month with a general liquid fertiliser.

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Tony Ireland asks...

I have had a bay tree in a pot for about 7 years and because of advice from a neighbour I bring it into a cold greenhouse in winter she says it's not hardy. In one of the Sunday gardening shows I'm sure you had said it was hardy, so the question is do you think I can plant it in the ground as I get older and the pot gets heavier?

Bill replies...

Quite a number of people do place their pot Bay Trees in a cold greenhouse over the winter months for protection Tony but, other people keep their Bays outside in a sheltered position and they do survive and if you have a space in your garden which is sheltered - especially from prevailing westerly winds - there is a good chance that your Bay tree will be fine.

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Jacqui Papadopoulos asks...

I have an ornamental bay tree at the front of the house and some of the young new leaves are stuck together which are then turning black. If you peel the young leaves apart between some are green caterpillars (various sizes) in fine white treads. How can I stop them?

Bill replies...

One of the problems you have Jacqui is that if you are using the the Bay Leaves for cooking purposes you will not be able to spray with an insecticide to kill the green caterpillars and I am afraid the only way around the problem is to manually pull the green leaves apart and remove the caterpillars.  If your Bay Tree is for ornamental purposes only you will be able to spray your plant with a systemic insecticide but I am always reluctant to use insecticides on food crops such as Bay Trees.

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C Smith asks...

I have a 5ft Bay tree and I would like to transplant it into a large pot.  It is in a very exposed (full sun, wind in winter etc.) position at the moment and the leaves have yellowed.  It is flowering at the moment and someone told me not to move it while in flower, is this right? When is the best time to move a tree, bearing in mind I might lose it if I don't do something soon.

Bill replies...

I would wait until the autumn time before transplanting your Bay Tree and you will need to ensure when digging your tree up that you lift a good root ball.  As you have mentioned in your email Bays are far better in a sheltered spot away from exposed prevailing winds.

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Maureen Kidd asks...

I have a standard bay tree which I kept inside during the winter. The leaves are drying a brown colour and a glue like sap is forming and the leaves are getting sparse

Bill replies...

One of the problems with keeping Bay Trees indoors during the winter months Maureen is that they are growing in a very dry atmosphere which can quite easily cause drying and browning of the leaves.  I am slightly worried about the gluey sap and if this is seeping from the stem and shoots it could quite easily be bacterial canker.  It is difficult to give you a precise answer without actually seeing the infected plant.

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Arlene Hepworth asks...

I have 2 bay trees which are well established at a height of 5 ft. The wooden containers they currently grow in are falling apart so I need to renew them. 1. Should I be renewing them with a larger container to prevent them becoming root bound?
2. I have been looking at teak containers, although expensive I have beeen told they will last a long time ... would you recomend this type or should I use another form of container... and if I use teak how should I go about replanting them in such a container?

Bill replies...

There is a range of containers that you can use Arlene and these range from stone, clay terracotta containers and there is also the rustic and wooden teak planters and if you do decide to use the wooden containers you can always line the inside of the containers with polythene providing that you do not cover the drainage holes.  Regarding the size of your containers I would personally replant into a larger size - especially if your trees are pot bound.  Regarding planting it is important to ensure that there are adequate drainage holes and I would also place a layer of gravel or broken crocks to assist drainage.  Regarding compost I would use mixture of a soil base compost (John Innes No 2 or 3) and a general multipurpose compost using a ratio of two parts John Innes to one part multipurpose.

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Sarah Knight asks...

Please can you advise me when the best time to feed my bay trees and with what feed?  Thank you

Bill replies...

There are a number of slow release balanced fertilisers which you can use for your Bay Tree Sarah and these can be applied during March time.  The most popular ones are GrowMore, Vitax Q4 and Fish Blood and Bone Meal.  There is also a range of granular balanced slow realise fertilisers which are also ideal for using around the garden and for container grown plants and you will find all these products in good Garden Centres/DIY Stores.  The other method, if your Bay Trees are growing in containers, is to use a balanced liquid fertiliser which can be diluted into your watering can and one application every two/three weeks should be find.  Again these liquid fertiliser are available in good Garden Centres/DIY Stores.

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James MacLeod asks...

I have a 15ft tall Bay tree which is about 25 yrs old and is growing within 5ft of the house and within 2ft of the soil and surface water drains, it also obscures the views over the garden. I am looking to prune the tree quite a lot but have been told not to bother as it is coming to the end of its life and I should just cut it down. Is this correct? as I do not want to lose it.

Bill replies...

The time to prune your Bay Tree is spring/early summer time James basically you need to prune your tree as soon as possible as this will give your tree all the summer to produce new shoots.  Quite a number of the Laurel species are not long living trees but they do have a life span far greater than 25 years.

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Jane Farmer asks...

I have a Lauris Noblis in a pot which is about 60cm tall. It has never been pruned or shaped but I would like to shape it to look like a lollipop. Can I just trim the branches? How do I increase the bushyness of the upper branches? Thank you.

Bill replies...

I am afraid Jane that I am not an expert in shaping Bay Trees (Lauris Noblis) into lollipop shapes.  The majority of lollipop Bay Trees which you see in Garden Centres have been imported from Italy and other European countries. The only glimmer of advice which I can give you is that you can trim back the upper branches and this will encourage them to bush out.

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Doug Brandwood asks...

I have recently bought 2 young Bay trees (Laurus nobilis) in pots. What is the best way to keep them until the weather gets warmer and what is the best position for them? Do they have to be kept in the greenhouse over winter?

Bill replies...

Bay trees can keep outside during the winter months Doug providing that they are kept in a sheltered position away from any prevailing winter winds which can quite easily scorch the leaves. I do know of quite a number of people which do keep their Bay Trees in a cool greenhouse over the winter months and providing that there is plenty of ventilation in the greenhouse the trees will be fine - the problems arise during very sunny days when you get a sudden build up of temperature in the greenhouse - which again can quite easily cause browning of the leaves.

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Angela asks...

I have a spiral bay tree that appears to be sprouting from the roots and some of the leaves on the main tree are turning brown does this have anything to do with the sprouting stems or is it just in bad condition? what do you suggest I do about the stems and the brown leaves?

Bill replies...

Bay Trees (Laurus Nobilis) can be grown as a shrub, a tree or as an ornamental form Angela and the ornamental forms do seem to be more susceptible to wind scorch damage which I feel is the reason for the browning of some your Bay Tree leaves. To try and offset the problem during the winter months I would place your Bay Tree in a sheltered spot in the garden.  With reference to the shoots growing from the base this does happen quite frequently and you need to cut these off.

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Gareth Thomas asks...

Can you tell me if a Bay Tree should be feed with an ericaceous plant food?

Bill replies...

The Sweet Bay Tree (Lauris Noblis) Gareth is the Laurel of the Ancient Greeks and the leaves are widely used in the flavouring of food. Your Bay Tree will grow quite happily in a normal garden soil and you do not need to feed with an ericaceous fertiliser.  I would use a general base fertiliser such as Vatax Q4 or GrowMore.

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Maggie Janson asks...

Please settle an argument! How large can a Bay Tree grow?

Bill replies...

If you have had a wager on the height to which a Bay Tree grows Maggie I will give you the height quoted from three reference books and you can choose the one to suit your needs!

Oleg Polunin "Trees and Bushes of Britain and Europe" -  Height 20 m
RHS Encyclopaedia of Plants - Height 12 m
B E Nicholson and A R Clapham "Illustrated Book of Trees" - 10 m

Good Luck!

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Kirsty Jennings asks...

I have been given a bay leaf tree, but it has not grown straight or got the lollipop shape that I expected, also it seems to be growing from the base again with fresh leaves. I think it may need re-potting.  Is there anything I could do to make it straight and have the lollipop shape?

Bill replies...

The Bay Tree (Laurus Nobilis) Kirsty can be grown as a tree or a shrub and your Bay which has an abundance of shoots has obviously been grown as a shrub.  If it is only a small plant you can remove the lower shoots from the base and grow it as a tree but it is not easy to produce the lollipop shape and these have been trained by specialist growers.  If you are growing your Bay in a pot I would be inclined to grow it as a small shrub and the time to for repotting is early Spring and I would recommend using a soil base compost (John Innes Compost No 2 or No 3).

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James Dean asks...

I have a Bay tree which has been in a large pot for about 30 years and is about 10 feet high. It is pruned yearly and 3 inches of new top soil added each spring, it is fed throughout the summer. It has always been healthy. Three weeks ago it was moved, with difficulty, in order to decorate the courtyard where it is placed in order to paint the walls, as it was moved I heard a very lound crack as if a large root had been broken, which must have been growing out of the bottom of the pot. Ever since then it has looked very sad and the leaves are drooping, the soil is wet. What should I do to save it, or is it just in shock and will recover?

Bill replies...

The reason why your Bay Tree is suffering James is through the loss of the large tap root and therefore there are not enough roots to sustain the leaf and shoot growth and this is causing your leaves to wilt and droop.  To give your Bay Tree a chance to recover it will need to be placed in a sheltered spot (away from the elements) but with such a loss of roots I am sure over the winter months you will get some die back of the shoots and these will need to be cut back.

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Joanne Young asks...

I have a Bay Tree in my garden and the trunk has what looks like white mould on it.  Is this something that can be treated?

Bill replies...

The most problematic pests of the Bay Tree Joanne are scale insects and the insects secrete a glucose substance on which a grey fungal mould grows and this could be the mould which is on the stem of your Bay Tree.  If the trunk of your tree is not too large I would be inclined to wash of the mould with a fatty soapy liquid (Savona) which can be purchased from Garden Centres/DIY Stores.

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Louise asks...

I have a bay tree, can I dry the leaves and use them for cooking?

Bill replies...

Quite a number of restaurants do buy dried bay leaves to use in cooking but I am not certain how the leaves have been dried - they could quite easily have been freeze dried - but I have been told that they are kept in a sealed jar to avoid moisture being absorbed into the leaves and causing them to rot off.  What I would try Louise is to dry some of your bay leaves at normal room temperature and when you think they are completely dry - and slightly brittle - I would then place them in a sealed jar and if you also place some dried peas in the jar these will absorb any moisture.  You can also buy silica jell which is also used to take moisture out of the atmosphere.  It would be much appreciated if you could email me at Radio Lancashire if this method is successful!

UPDATE FROM LOUISE: It worked extremely well thanks, I've also popped some dried peas in the jar too as you suggested. Thanks very much for your help.

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Rachael asks...

We forgot to water our manager's bay tree whilst she was on her honeymoon! It is currently in the office. All the leaves have gone brown and shrivelled but there is new growth sprouting from the stem. What do we need to do? should we prune the dead leaves back and cut back the new growth on the stem? The tree also needs to go outside. Should we leave this until spring? Many thanks

Bill replies...

Bang goes your Christmas Bonus Rachael! What you need to do is to remove the evidence i.e. the shrivelled and dead leaves and, in my opinion it is going to be far too warm to keep the Bay Tree in the office over the winter months.  If you have a light but cool foyer in your office block that would be an ideal place for the Bay Tree but otherwise, you are going to have to keep the Bay Tree outside in a sheltered position.  On the question of pruning I would wait until the Spring before trimming the shoots back.

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Berny asks...

I transplanted a 20 ft bay tree years ago not expecting it to grow so high. It is only 3ft away from the house and I wondered if its roots could damage the house foundations?

Bill replies...

Having a twenty foot tree so close to your house can cause problems Berny and what happens especially when we have a dry summer like this year the roots will go searching for water - they will take any moisture from the foundations and also from the subsoil which causes the soil to shrink and in severe conditions can cause cracks to appear in the house walls.  The rule when planting trees is if a tree grows - shall we say to a height of approximately thirty feet - it needs to be planted thirty feet away from the house but, if you follow this rule to the letter not many people would have trees in their gardens! In your case three feet is far too close.  On the question of replanting your Bay Tree I wish you the best of luck - you will need to try and obtain a very large root ball and your tree will need to be well watered.

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Patricia Hodgins asks...

I have a bay tree in a large pot it with three shoots. How do I cut them to grow them on in pots?

Bill replies...

You can propagate young shoots of Bay Trees Patricia from semi-hardwood cuttings taken during August/September time.  Cuttings need to be approximately two to three inches long and after removing the bottom leaves the cuttings can be inserted in a mixture of peat and grit around the side of a four to five inch pot - using a rooting hormone.  The cuttings can be placed in a cold frame or cool greenhouse but I must warn you Patricia that they are not an easy plan to root and you may have to wait until spring or summer time before rooting appears.

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Anne Armitage asks...

I have a bay tree in a pot on my door step, the leaves have started to shrivel up and go dry, have you any idea what this can be and how I might bring it back to its healthy state?

We have a large blue spruce next to our driveway and it continually drips sap on to the cars, it is hard to remove and is damaging the paintwork, can you tell me why it has started to do this, its been happening for most of the summer.

Bill replies...

It has been a regular occurrence this year Anne that Bay Trees grown in pots have suffered from the leaves shrivelling and, the main cause has been the intense heat and you only need to let your Bay Tree dry out once or twice for the leaves to shrivel.  During high temperatures it is advisable to move your Bay Tree into a slightly shaded spot.

It could well be Spruce Aphids that are causing the problem. The aphids secrete honey dew and it could quite well be that it is the honey dew droplets which are dripping onto your car.  Another cause could be if one or more of the branches on your tree has been infected with bacteria canker. The orange gluey substance caused by the bacteria canker could be secreting from infected branches and again dropping onto your car.  The Blue Spruce is a lovely tree and I feel it would be worthwhile to contact a Tree Surgeon or your Local Authority to check your tree out.

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Bebhinn Murphy asks...

I would like to move a mature bay tree so as to save it from being bulldozed during construction works which will take place in the summer; how can I do this?

Bill replies...

I would try and transplant your Bay Tree (Lauris Noblis) early March time Bebhinn and you will need to dig out as large a root ball as physically possible.  You say that your Bay Tree is a mature tree and this worries me slightly as Bay Trees can grow to a height of 15 to 20 feet which would make it physically impossible for you to transplant.  If however your tree is approximately 6 to 10 feet high you may be successful if you have a large root ball of soil and, it if is possible at this stage to get a JCB on site you will find it a lost easier for your tree to be dug out by the JCB.

last updated: 02/06/2008 at 14:19
created: 23/10/2006

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