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What is Wrong With My Bay Tree

Broadly speaking, bay laurel (Laurus nobilis) is an easygoing evergreen tree that should give many years of pleasure in your garden. No tree or plant is ever entirely maintenance-free, however, and it’s worth knowing about the handful or so of common problems that can affect bay trees so you can deal with them effectively as they arise. As with so much in gardening (and life in general!), spotting and heading off issues before they escalate is half the battle. Our guide to troubleshooting the six most frequently encountered issues gives all the information you need to ensure that your bay tree lives long and prospers.

Bay Tree Leaves Turning Yellow

There are usually two possible causes of yellow leaves on bay trees. Yellow leaves can be a sign of excess water, a common problem if you grow your bay in a pot and are overwatering it. If this is the case, ease back on your watering regime and perhaps consider changing the growing medium to a more free-draining John Innes based compost or a specialist compost for containers.

The other cause of yellowing leaves is nutrient deficiency. This is generally more of a concern with pot-grown trees, which cannot access nutrients in the same way as plants growing in the ground. Regular applications of general purpose fertiliser during spring and summer are an easy and straightforward solution to this common bay tree problem. Pick off affected leaves and dispose of them by burning or composting.

Bay Tree Leaves Turning Brown

Brown leaves can be alarming to see on any plant, but especially on a bay tree whose chief glory is its aromatic dark green leaves. In many cases, the problem is a simple lack of water. Whether grown in the ground or in a container, bay trees will become stressed and develop brown leaves if they can’t access enough water to thrive. If the soil is dry when you dig a small hole near the tree’s roots, solve the problem by making sure your bay tree has sufficient water (but not too much – you don’t want it to suffer from yellow leaves, as above!).

Peeling Bark

Peeling or cracked bark can be another sign of stress in bay trees, with fluctuating moisture levels or extreme winter cold being the most likely culprits. Although bay trees are hardy down to at least -5℃, if the temperature drops below this for extended periods, peeling bark can be the result. Luckily, no intervention is usually required, and the tree will revive when the weather warms up. If you are growing a bay tree in a container, you can protect it from extreme cold by using a horticultural fleece, or by moving it into a sheltered frost-free greenhouse or porch.

Leaf Spot

Bay trees prefer free-draining soil, and if their roots become waterlogged, leaf spotting can occur. Avoid this problem by adding extra drainage to the soil, and if growing in a container, don’t overwater, and when watering, allow the excess water to drain away. Leaf spots can also be a sign that container-grown bay trees need to be repotted. If possible, remove from the container and fresh the compost completely in spring, making sure the pot has sufficient drainage.

Scale Insects

These sap-sucking bugs are a common pest on bay trees. Resembling a flat waxy disc, these inconspicuous insects are found on the underside of leaves and stems. In themselves, they cause little damage to the tree, but they do excrete a copious sticky residue on the leaf surface, which in turn is colonised by black sooty moulds.

Not only are these unattractive, but they can inhibit photosynthesis (the process by which plants convert light into energy through their leaves). You can control small infestations of scale insects by picking them off by hand or by using a suitable organic pest control spray. Alternatively, encourage natural predators such as ladybirds into your garden or use a biological control such as the nematode Steinernema feltiae.

Bay Sucker

Bay sucker (Lauritrioza alacris) is a sap-sucking bug that feeds on bay leaves, causing them to become discoloured and distorted at the shoot tips. Affected leaves ultimately turn brown – not a good look on a bay tree. If you suspect an infestation, check the undersides of the leaves – the presence of small greyish-white insects will confirm that the problem is bay sucker.

Fortunately, bay suckers rarely cause any lasting damage to the tree. They can be controlled by encouraging natural predators such as ladybirds, birds and ground beetles into the garden or by carefully applying appropriate organic pest control.

Key takeaway

As we have shown, bay tree leaves turning yellow and brown are the most common sign that your bay tree has a problem. Simply ensuring that your bay tree is fed and watered correctly is often the only step you’ll need to take to rectify the issue. Regularly checking the leaves for pests is another straightforward precaution that will enable you to take timely remedial action. When planting a new bay tree, ensure that the soil has adequate drainage and use mycorrhizal fungi to help it establish quickly and strongly in optimal growing conditions. Further down the line, an application of mycorrhizal fungi-enriched top dressing will benefit established plants by promoting strong growth and helping them shrug off problems more easily. Browse our bay tree sizes to find the bay laurel tree that’s right for your garden.

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    michael Nadell | 2023-07-12 05:49:51
    Although my bay tree standards are covered in winter I still get brown leaves. They are in pots and watered monthly in winter, fed from spring and topped with compost each year. Spring to autumn they grow well. Is the answer thicker fleece?
    Ashridge Nurseries | 2023-07-12 05:49:51
    Hello Michael, sorry for the slow reply. These things are a bit of a troubleshoot - it could be one or more of a number of things and so a process of elimination is necessary. Thicker fleece may well be answer, as might less water in winter. As your trees begin to slow down for the year in late summer, a high potash, low nitrogen fertiliser should help to ripen their wood before winter. But all that may be a poor use of your time & resources compared to snipping off the brown leaves each spring and letting the new growth take over.
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    Jess Alexander | 2023-07-12 05:49:51
    I don’t ever water my lollipop bay trees, also in pots, unless we are having a really long hot and dry spell. I don’t cover/wrap them in winter ( I’m in Cardiff) They just sit on my patio doing their thing and have flourished for many, many years, I think I’ve had them about ten or fifteen years now… maybe fertilised them half a dozen times over the years. Getting more and more dense foliage each year. They literally thrive on neglect which is what I like most about them! They have a quick haircut once a year to smarten them up again and then they look great until next year! Perfect plants really. Maybe yours need less love??
    Ashridge Nurseries | 2023-07-12 05:49:52
    Hello Jess, Great comment & I must update this post sometime to mention that fact - it's easy to give bay trees too much of a good thing!
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    Katherine Burton | 2023-07-12 05:49:52
    I’m glad that I came across this site, as I have had my bay tree for 9 years, it was in a pot for about the first 6 years & it has always thrived, even after planting in the garden. For the past 4 months, it has been looking really stressed, brown leaves, cracking bark, so much so, that we were reluctantly thinking about giving up on it, but we’ve decided to stick with it after reading these comments. Fingers crossed!
    Ashridge Nurseries | 2023-07-12 05:49:52
    Fingers crossed indeed. It's not really possible to diagnose from a distance, but do you remember if the Bay was badly pot-bound when you planted it out?
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    Gill Gibson | 2023-07-12 05:49:52
    My bay tree in the ground for last 10 yrs approx - this year, new growth but whole tree turning yellow. Help!
    Ashridge Nurseries | 2023-07-12 05:49:52
    Hi Gill, We have been having dry weather lately so a general purpose feed, a good watering, and some organic mulch is the first thing to try. Let us know how you get on!
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    Karen Skuse | 2023-07-12 05:49:53
    Hi, really hope you can help. Just arrived back from holiday yesterday and found my lollipop bay tree very sad. It had not been watered for 2 weeks and looks very crispy , brown leaves. It sits in a container against south facing wall and it does get very hot here . I immediately watered. I am confused about what feed to use - high nitrogen or low nitrogen. I have fed with Westland bonemeal on one occassion in May. Which I was going up continue monthly . Any help greatly appreciated as I don’t want to loose it ! Many thanks
    Ashridge Nurseries | 2023-07-12 05:49:56
    Hi Karen, Water. That's all. How is the patient now after a stiff drink? Was someone watering your plants while you were away? Two weeks should be fine for a plant in a large pot outdoors where the pot at least is protected from direct sun and wind. But a pot exposed to full sun, sitting on a baking patio as the hot breeze caresses water out of it: two weeks of that can kill a lot of plants. If the pot is on the small side and the plant is pot-bound, that's worse.
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