Portuguese laurel (Prunus lusitanica) is the hedging shrub that gardening legend Monty Don called ‘superior in every way’ to the cherry (or English) laurel, its main rival for hedge glory. Still, if you own or are planting a Portuguese laurel hedge, this doesn’t mean it’ll sprout up whatever you do – some forward planning and a little thought is needed.
I’d love to bring you all my experience and knowledge as a tree and plant expert (and a smattering of scientific research) to take the pain out of the process – so you’ll know what to do and how to do it.
Planting a hedge isn’t something you want to get wrong – it’s imperative that they all grow and survive – or it won’t look good at all. So how is Portuguese laurel hedge planted?
Portuguese laurel hedges are best planted between late autumn and late winter. A spacing of 50-100cm between each laurel is appropriate, depending on how quickly a dense hedge is required. Planting young bare-root plants is less expensive and usually more successful.
What’s the best time to plant a Portuguese laurel hedge?
While Portuguese laurel can be planted at any time of year, it is much more likely to be successful if planted between late autumn and late winter, when the ground is cool and moist and less likely to dry out. This gives the shrub time to establish its roots before the growing season begins.
It does depend on what form you’re buying the plants in though (rootballed, bare-root or in containers). More on that further down in this article.
Of course, summer is the time that many of us gardeners feel like planting a hedge – who wouldn’t prefer to do this job in the sunshine? The big thing here is that you’ll need to water much more often – especially as the laurel navigates the tricky transplanting period when transplant shock can occur (read more about transplant shock in Portuguese laurel).
Particularly if planting in summer, I’d invest in a soaker hose (a hose that leaks water along its length, rather than just out of the end) that will be ready to go as soon as the hedge is in the ground – or be ready to carry a bucket of water to each plant every day or two unless there’s a proper rain.
How long does it take to grow a Portuguese laurel hedge? What’s its growth rate?
Portuguese laurel is, happily, a fairly fast-growing hedge – putting on about 18 inches per year. It will do this in full sun or shade, and in most soils, including acid and alkaline pH’s – even tolerating chalk, which its rival cherry laurel doesn’t take well to.
It might put on more than 18 inches a year – 2 feet per year isn’t that uncommon. But from the table below, you’ll see that it’ll be a short time until you have a rather tall hedge. Portuguese laurel can be grown as a standalone evergreen tree, and will routinely reach 25 feet in total height, or even more – so be aware that this shrub (like most) will require pruning to stop it from becoming too tall.
|Portuguese laurel age (years since planting)
|Expected increase in height since planting
|1 foot 6 inches (46cm)
|3 feet (91cm)
|4 feet 6 inches (137cm)
|6 feet (182cm)
|7 feet 6 inches (229cm)
How far apart should I plant Portuguese laurel?
Consensus varies among gardeners as to whether you should plant 2 per metre (50cm apart) or if you should be spacing them out further (100cm apart, or one per metre). It comes down to timescale -planting them more closely together will create a closed screen in less time, but the plant is more than capable of closing a 1m gap.
The more you space them out, the less you’ll spend on them and the less water they’ll require. They’re also going to be less likely to develop fungal illness such as powdery mildew, or shot hole diseases, which are caused by a variety of organisms (read more about Portuguese laurel pests and diseases here – you should probably know about vine weevil in particular).
So if you want a privacy screen or windbreak to be there in 2 or 3 years, go for 50cm apart. If you’re playing the long game, I recommend 1 metre spacing.
You’ll be planting the first laurel about 25cm (1 foot or so) from the end of the row.
|Length of hedge required (metres)
|Approx. number of Portuguese laurel required (50cm spacing)
|Approx. number of Portuguese laurel required (100cm spacing)
Remember though – always buy one or two extra plants when making a hedge, in case one gets damaged or looks diseased or unwell when you’re all ready to plant.
Buying Portuguese laurel – bare root, rootballed or containerised?
Most experts recommend starting a hedge with bare root trees – the roots have all the soil shaken off them. Typically these are the smallest and youngest that are available, and the cheapest. Although it’s tempting to buy larger plants, with the idea that your hedge will look like a hedge much sooner, bare-root trees will often overtake them and look better in the long run. There are pros and cons though.
|Roots trimmed and soil shaken loose
|Roots and soil wrapped in hessian sack and tied up with twine
|Roots in a pot
|Early winter to early spring
|Early winter to early spring
|Autumn/winter ideal, but can be planted in spring/summer
|How quickly do they need planted once bought?
|Within a few days (spray roots with water every couple of days) unless heeled in*
|Within a few days (spray roots with water every couple of days) unless heeled in*
|Can be kept in pot for months
*’Heeling in’ refers to temporarily loosely burying the roots of trees or shrubs that have come as ‘bare root’. You might have a vacant flowerbed that you can quickly use to throw soil over them. This give you flexibility and time to plant – as the roots will be prevented from rapidly drying out. If you don’t heel them in, you should be planting them on the day they come and they should be kept moist at all times – throwing soaked hessian cloth over them is a common method.
A planting checklist
- Your trees
- Twine or string, and 2 sticks
- Organic mulch
- Organic compost
- Grit if the soil doesn’t drain well or is heavy clay
- A spade
- A hose or bucket to water them in
OK, 1 and 6 are a little obvious!
THE PLANTING PROCESS
1. Loosen the soil
Before you start, if you’re planting along a line that’s covered with grass or weeds, scrape it all off and discard it – including the roots if you can.
We’re going to be applying lots of mulch (I suggest organic bark chippings) to this area after we’ve planted, which will suppress weed and grass regrowth. So I don’t usually recommend weed control fabric – together with the mulch and the thick laurel hedge that will shade it, very little else will try to grow here.
The whole area should be dug up and turned, which aerates it and makes it a happier environment for the laurel roots to grow through. With a spade, loosen and turn all the soil along the strip – about 2 feet (60cm) wide and about 1 foot (30cm) deep.
If the soil tends to be boggy here, consider mixing in some grit to help with drainage. Laurel aren’t as intolerant to wet feet as other hedges such as yew, but they won’t grow as well for sure.
Should you mix in organic matter or fertilizer at this stage? Reasonable minds disagree on this, but many horticulturalists think that it’s actually better to get trees and shrubs used to their new soil’s nutrient content as fast as possible – and that therefore it may be better not to artificially amend it – which may risk discouraging the roots from reaching out. As long as you water the new hedgerow well, I don’t think you need to add any compost or fertilizer here, but it probably won’t harm it, either.
2. Dig your trench
Dig a 30cm wide trench along the centre of your strip, piling the soil up on either side. It’s better to dig a long trench than individual holes for each tree. How deep this trench should be depends on whether you have young bare-root laurel (dig down 20cm) or that are root-balled or in pots (30cm).
3. Make a guide line using string
A simple quick tip – stick a piece of bamboo (or any stick, or a screwdriver even) into the ground at each end, and tie a piece of string taught between them. Keep the string about 2 inches above ground level the whole way along – this should keep you both straight and level as you plant your hedge.
4. Put in your laurels
Now you’re essentially going to put them into the trench, regularly spaced as planned, and shove the piled-up ground on either side of the trench back in.
This part’s important. The root flare – the base of the laurel’s stem, where it widens a little, right above where the roots start – should be left visible, not buried. Don’t worry if you end up with a bit of a mound after pushing all the soil back – it’s actually better to have a mound than flat ground (or worse, a basin). This helps with soil drainage, and most arborists think it helps with root development as well.
If you’re planting a laurel that came in a container, you should loosen and tease out the roots a little before you bed it in. You can even be a little rough with this – even slicing down the edge of the roots with the corner of your spade. This encourages the roots to spread outwards into their new environment.
If you’re planting a rootballed plant, leave the hessian sack on the roots – it will slowly rot away over time.
Also, you’ve still got to firm in each laurel with your boot, gently compressing around it. It’s important to do this to stop it from falling over – but don’t try to crush the soil too much, or you’ll squeeze all of the air out of it.
Your string will be handy here – keeping you at the right height. If your string’s 2 inches above ground level, I’d use this as the level you want the root flare to be at.
4. Cover the soil with mulch
You’ll need some sort of weed or grass suppressant – be it gravel or be it organic – covering the roots.
I use bark chippings, which have the added advantage that they slowly decompose and with time, add organic matter to the soil.
A 2-3 inch (5 – 8cm) thick layer is good, covering all the loose soil. And it’ll look great. As mentioned above, you’re likely to end up with a bit of a mound, and that’s good – it’ll help your laurel grow all the better. But – try to avoid the mulch touching the actual stem/trunk of each plant, where it can lead to rot – clear a 1-2 inch (2.5 – 5cm) gap just around each stem.
The mulch will help water permeate into the soil, insulate the roots from freezing temperatures, and prevent evaporation that dries them out during hotter months. It’ll stop weeds and grass (which will compete for available water) from growing around your young Portuguese laurels).
5. Water them in
The most important time for watering is right after planting.
Give each laurel a slow pour of at least 2 buckets of water (which is 6 gallons or so, for a UK bucket).
MAINTAINING YOUR PORTUGUESE LAUREL HEDGE
Now that you’ve got this far, don’t rest on your laurels! My apologies for using this pun, but I couldn’t resist it… what’s a hands-on gardener to do?
Irrigating Portuguese Laurel
You should continue to water your laurels DAILY if you’re planting in summer, and weekly if it’s in Autumn. If you’re planting in winter, after the initial soak, I’d recommend watering them once a month to reduce the risk of windburn and winter desiccation (read more about it in Portuguese laurel here).
Ideally though, you’ve rigged up some sort of irrigation system to make life easier for you. The easiest is a ‘soaker hose’ – a hose that lets water out from pores along its length, instead of just at one end like a regular hose. Run in for 20 minutes a day during the summer. Even better, buy a timer to do this for you.
Personally, I always use Hozelock products – finding that the connections of other brands don’t last anywhere near as long. They have a good range of timers and porous soaker hoses of different lengths on Amazon.
Check after a couple of days, before the water comes on, that the soil isn’t saturated already (more likely if you’ve got clay soil) and reduce the frequency accordingly if you need to.
Wind protection for Portuguese laurel
You’ll regularly see new laurel hedges with green windbreak netting material strung along the length of the hedge. It’s often kept there for the first 3 years or so; this reduces the risk of windburn – the drying effects of wind, especially over winter when, being evergreen, the laurels continue to lose water from leaf transpiration, but sometimes have trouble replacing all of it via the roots – resulting in brown leaf tips (read more about identifying and preventing Portuguese laurel wind burn in this article).
It’s not expensive to buy, and with a couple of posts driven into the ground it can easily be strung along your hedge on the side that gets the wind.
It also makes a bit of a barrier – in the past I’ve found it helpful for keeping passing dogs from peeing on my hedge as well.
Pruning Portuguese laurel
You’ll most definitely need to do some pruning eventually to keep your laurel growing in the right shape, and to stop it from becoming overgrown.
It’s a good rule to cut only the sides of your hedge until it has reached the desired height. Cutting the top can send the message to hedging evergreens (particularly yew) that it’s time to stop growing up!
You can either use handheld secateurs – clipping off individual stems – or larger two-handed hedge shears, or even electric hedge trimmers.
Handheld secateur pruning is time-consuming but very tidy, and it’s quicker to collect what you’ve pruned off as you don’t have parts of leaves strewn everywhere when you’re done.
If you use shears or hedge trimmers, you’ll be cutting many of the leaves in half as you go. It doesn’t look so tidy, but in reality, it won’t be long before new growth covers it.
What’s the best time of year to prune Portuguese laurel?
Most experts recommend pruning Portuguese laurel in late spring or early summer, after the hedge has flowered.
That said, you can get away with pruning at almost any time. If you do cut it back before flowering though, you may cut off many of the buds that would otherwise turn into those delightful white blooms.
If you’ve got any dead or damaged branches, go ahead and cut them off, regardless of the time of year.
How much can I remove when pruning Portuguese laurel?
When you prune, aim to make an ‘A’ shape – i.e., slightly thinner at the top. This looks good and means you’ll have foliage right down to the ground, as the slightly narrower hedge above won’t shade out the lower parts.
Portuguese laurel is extremely tolerant to pruning – meaning, it’s renowned for being able to grow back from some seriously aggressive cutting. Unlikely many other hedge plants, it can regenerate from old wood – so you can cut back as much as you need to.
Cutting back up to a third each year is quite normal.
How to make Portuguese laurel thicker
If it’s looking thin, gardeners often avoid pruning. But pruning more often (not less) is the way to make it thicker. Cutting back actually stimulates new growth at those parts. “Growth follows the knife”, as the famous gardening saying goes.
To be specific, if you’re using secateurs, cut back the shoots to a junction where it splits into two or three, leaving the offshoots, which will branch out and make the hedge thicker.
Does Portuguese laurel have deep roots?
Portuguese laurel root systems are shallow and are highly unlikely to invade into nearby spaces or affect walls or foundations.
In theory, they could affect paving slabs or concrete – but as long as you keep the hedge under control (preventing them from growing into full-sized trees) this is very unlikely to be an issue – I’ve never seen it happen.
How to make Portuguese laurel grow faster
Can I emphasize this one more time – the most important element is watering your hedge. I’d keep this going regularly until your hedge has reached the desired height.
Will fertilizer help? Well, it’s not usually deemed essential, it might help give the laurels that extra couple of inches each year. Nitrogen in particular is useful for boosting leafy growth and shoots.
I’d recommend a slow-release granular fertilizer though. These can be spread over the roots and break down over time. There’s less chance you’ll overdo it (and get ‘fertilizer burn’) this way.
I recommend Miracle-Gro All Purpose continuous release plant food for the job. Just make sure you follow the instructions – less is sometimes more!
I hope you found this article helpful. The post below is essential reading for anyone who’s been through this one.