I had this question arrive about a bay tree that’s not looking well:
I have attached an image of my bay tree which is looking rather sparse for leaves. Could you give me any guidance on how to encourage thicker growth?
First, thanks for sending a good photo with your question – it makes things so much easier. Often people send me questions but fail to give me enough information to help them.
We had a bay tree in a pot for many years – it’s now in the ground – and had similar problems with it. So our experience may be helpful. Bay trees are slow growing which is why you most often find them in pots. It’s also why they’re expensive to buy.
Position is important with bay trees. They’re pretty tolerant of shade but they do like some sun. On the other hand, they don’t like being scorched so avoid putting them on the sun trap patio.
They really don’t like cold, windy spots. Our bay hated being by the front door but did really well when we moved it to the sunnier, more-protected other side of the house.
Bay trees are not greedy but they do like something to live on. In spring and summer a light feed of a liquid feed like MiracleGro is beneficial. Make it up at half strength or less. Swapping over occasionally to a tomato feed, again at half strength, will avoid an excess of nitrogen. Apply fortnightly when growing larger and monthly when the tree is big enough.
I can see some yellowing in the leaves in the photo, so it may be short of nitrogen and a feed similar to MiracleGro will fix that. Do not be tempted to over-feed. I tried that and nearly killed out poor bay although it did recover after a few months.
Although a bay tree can stay in the same pot for years, it will benefit from fresh compost each spring. Gently loosen the top inch of compost in the pot being careful of any roots and replace with fresh compost. I like to mix multi-purpose with John Innes No. 3 mixed 50/50 by volume.
In this particular case though, I’d re-pot if possible. Moving it up a pot size with fresh compost around the base and sides will certainly give it a new lease of life. Note the comments below on watering and drainage.
Watering & Drainage
As the tree’s roots fill the pot, it can dry out very quickly in warm weather. Dry compost is always hard to re-wet so frequent watering in hot weather. Little and often is better than a massive soak and then drought. Adding water retaining gel granules to the compost will help.
On the other hand, bay trees don’t like being water logged. When potting up, place broken crocks and gravel in the base to keep the holes in the bottom of the pot from blocking. Putting a circle of porous weed matting over the broken crocks and gravel will stop the compost blocking drainage.
Make sure the pot’s drain holes are not sitting on the ground, blocking them, by putting the pot on pot feet if necessary