When I went to see the gardens of the Italian lakes and visited the Villa del Balbianello one of the things that intrigued me was how their evergreen oaks were persuaded to grow as such perfect mushroom domes. The answer, it turns out, is that arborists clamber around inside them like monkeys carrying out high level pruning. We don't manage anything so glamorous, but today I did prune the willow leaved bay.
Laurus nobilis 'Angustifolia' is a really good plant. I got mine from Architectural Plants in 2002 and liked it so much I tried to persuade the plant centre to stock it when I worked there, but they didn't, dismissing it as not that different from ordinary bay. They were wrong, but the RHS now lists fourteen suppliers so it would not be too difficult to track one down if you wanted to. The leaves are much more slender than those of the normal bay, like evergreen versions of willow leaves, hence the name. The growth habit is strongly upright, and with annual clipping it will make a dense, nicely tapered specimen. According to Architectural Plants it is hardier than the type, and certainly mine came through the two successive very cold winters we had about five years ago with no more damage than some burnt and brown leaves. Normal bay can be cut to the ground in harsh winters, and while it will generally sucker generously from the root and regenerate over a few years I did not want mine to sucker, because I wanted it as a fastigiate specimen on a single trunk.
Architectural Plants say it is not a particularly fast grower and the excellent Bluebell Nursery describe it as slow to moderate. I'd say it was more moderate than slow, given that I've been lopping shoots up to two feet long off the top of mine, and as it was planted fifteen years ago it is no longer in the first flush of youth. In that last sentence the misleading element is the casual use of the word lopping.
If the bay were standing alone in the middle of a lawn or a nice big patch of gravel, or even surrounded by something low growing like lavender, cutting it would be quite straightforward. I would get a step ladder and the Henchman out and away I'd go with the secateurs and loppers. The bay, however, is standing in a large border surrounded by shrub roses, a couple of buddleia, a rare and precious tree peony, the knobbly stems of Tetrapanax papyrifera, a deciduous ceanothus, and a couple of ludicrously expensive metal tripods with clematis on them. Towards the edges of the bed are snowdrops and the emerging snouts of hyacinths. Under the shrub roses is a ground cover of herbaceous plants just beginning to emerge from their winter slumbers. The bed slopes quite steeply. Getting any kind of scaffolding in there is completely out of the question. I can wedge the step ladder against the uphill side of the bay to help me reach slightly further up it by hand, but the vast bulk of the pruning is done with a pole lopper.
It was ideal weather for pole lopping, not too cold, not windy, and overcast. You do not want to be squinting into the sun as you try to locate a stem fifteen feet above your head with what is essentially a pair of heavily geared secateurs on a very long stick, and you do not want the stems to be lashing around in the wind while you do it. It is hard work, though, holding up the pole and not letting it crash down across the very precious tree peony or anything else, and looking upwards all the time gives you a crick in your neck. In an ideal world you would step back from any piece of topiary quite frequently while cutting it, to check how you are doing, but stepping back from the bay means wriggling out from among the roses and everything else, being terribly careful with every step where you are putting your feet.
I now feel rather stiff but with this mild weather there is no time to be lost with the rest of the pruning. Buds are swelling, things emerging from below ground just waiting to be trodden on, and the sooner it is all done the better.