Shine the spotlight on dim garden or interior corners with Aucuba japonica, commonly called Japanese laurels. Delicate purple spring flowers adorn the lustrous-leaved evergreens, and fiery red fall berries intensify the impact of pollinated female plants. Many Japanese laurel cultivars feature yellow- or cream-variegated foliage. Suitable for U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 6 through 10, depending on variety, the shrubs overwinter indoors elsewhere. Also known as spotted laurels and gold-dust plants, Japanese laurels grow up to 10 feet tall.
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The Watering Schedule
Size and age dictate a Japanese laurel’s watering schedule. A 1-gallon shrub requires between 4 to 6 gallons of water weekly during the first year after planting. For efficient watering, use a soaker hose to water slowly and deeply around the base of the plant, wetting the soil out to the dripline where rainwater falls from the branches to the soil. When new growth appears, cut back to 2 gallons weekly. Even drought-tolerant, established Japanese laurels grow more quickly with 18 gallons of water -- including rain -- each month. After they've reached the desired size, rain is enough. Plants in pots of 8 inches in diameter or larger need water when the top 1 inch of their soil feels dry. For smaller pots, make that the top 1/2 inch. Use only pots that have drainage holes so the roots don't sit in water.
The Feeding Schedule
For vigorous growth and rich leaf color, feed established Japanese laurels twice yearly with slow-release, granular 12-6-6 fertilizer. In spring, apply 1 1/2 to 2 pounds, or the label's specified amount, for each 100 square feet. Scatter it lightly beneath and just beyond the branches. In fall, fertilize with 1 pound per 100 square feet. Dose actively growing potted plants every six weeks. Use 1 teaspoon for a 6 inch pot or 2 tablespoons for each 1 square foot of soil for a larger one. Keep the fertilizer away from the stems and leaves, and water it into the soil well.
Pest and Disease Management
Aphids, mealybugs and armored scale insects feed on Japanese laurel sap. Greasy, black sooty mold fungus often accompanies aphids and mealybugs. Remove small infestations of the bugs with a blast of water, and scrape armored scales off with a toothbrush. Suffocate large insect colonies with ready-to-use insecticidal soap, spraying on a cloudy day until all the plants' surfaces drip. Repeat weekly, or the label's suggested intervals, until the bugs are gone. Irregular, brownish or yellow spots on your plants’ leaves indicate a Phyllosticta fungal infection. Removing those leaves controls it.
Pruning Your Plant
Japanese laurel responds well to heavy pruning. Don't hesitate to reshape an overgrown plant before its new leaves open in late winter or early spring. Cut back lanky stems whenever they begin to bend. If leaves on a variegated cultivar begin reverting to solid green, remove the offending branches. Never take more than one-third of the branches at a time, and use sharp, clean tools you disinfect between cuts with a solution of 1 part household bleach to 9 parts water.
Look, But Don't Taste
Eating Japanese laurel’s red berries or leaves can make you sick. To be on the safe side, keep the plants off limits to small children and pets.