One of the living trees you may see during the holidays is bay laurel (Laurus nobilis). This multi-trunked tree sports 3- to 4-inch deep green glossy leaves growing densely along smooth-barked branches. The dense leaves plus a relatively shallow root system makes it an ideal candidate for pruning into a topiary.
Once the holidays are past, transplant your gift bay laurel in a pot at least 18 inches deep to provide adequate room for roots. Allow it to get used to its new home for at least a month. You can start working on the topiary shape once your laurel resumes growth and reaches a foot tall. If you have more than one trunk, select the straightest one and prune away all the others. Then remove the leaves and stems along the bottom 4 inches of the main trunk to get started with the shaping.
After it reaches about 18 inches tall, you have a decision to make. How tall do you eventually want your topiary? If you only want the finished plant to be about two feet tall, clip off the top leaves from the crown to encourage bushiness. If you want it much higher, wait until the crown is about six inches from its ultimate height. Once the height is set, you can begin shaping your tree into a ball (the most common shape), or a pyramid, or a cube – your choice.
Bay laurel tends to grow more slowly in a pot than in the ground, which is good when you’re creating a topiary. Place the container where it will get morning sun. Water whenever the top inch of potting soil dries out. Fertilize monthly to maintain health. Bring your bay laurel under protection or bring indoors during below-freezing temperatures. Water sparingly during winter—just enough so it doesn’t dry out – and you will soon have an elegant bay laurel topiary.