Question: On my return from England I brought with me a Bay Leaf Tree. It is about 8" tall. Can you tell me how to care for it? Do I keep it indoors or out, how do I water it, and when should it be repotted?
Answer: These plants will not withstand freezing weather, so you will need to overwinter it indoors in a very bright location. Take special care not to overwater it during the winter when its growth slows. In spring, acclimate it gradually to the outdoors and move it to a sunny or partly sunny spot. Fertilize with a dilute water-soluble fertilizer only when it is in active growth, and do not expect it to grow very fast -- this is a relatively slow grower in the best of conditions. Repot during the growing season as needed into a well drained or soilless mix.
Sweet Bay (Laurus nobilis) is originally from the Mediterranean region where it grows to be a tree over 30 feet tall. Luckily, it adapts well to growing in a pot! Here are some tips on pruning: 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 your currently vigorous young cutting.