How To Plant, Fertilize, Prune & Water Aucuba Plants In The Ground Or Pots And Containers

Aucuba, commonly called Japanese laurel by some, are prized for their bold foliage and adaptability to shade, dry soil, pollution, and coastal conditions. When planted right and in the right spot, they are exceptionally easy to grow and care for. Their tropical-looking evergreen leaves make Aucuba plants a perfect choice for bringing a flare of the tropics to your landscape. You can also grow them indoors as a houseplant. 

Here's a breakdown of what you need to know regarding planting and caring for Aucuba...

Cultural Preferences

Soil Preferences

In The Landscape

Aucuba adapts to a wide variety of soil types provided the soil is well-drained. They prefer growing in a well-drained soil rich in organic matter. As with so many other types of ornamental plants, constantly soggy or wet soil can cause root rot and other harmful plant diseases. So make sure to plant them in a well-drained site. Heavy clay and other compacted soils should be amended with organic matter to improve drainage. More on that in the planting instructions further below.

In Pots & Other Containers

Aucuba grows best in a very well-drained damp to somewhat dry soil. Therefore, when planting and growing them in containers, I recommend a using a premium potting mix or potting soil, or a 50/50 mix of the two, in a container that has a drainage hole(s). More on planting Aucuba in containers below. 

How To Test Soil Drainage  

If you are uncertain about soil drainage in the area you intend to plant, it's well worth taking the time to test the drainage before planting. To test soil drainage, dig a hole 12" wide by 12" deep in the planting area. Fill the hole with water and let it drain. Then, after it drains, fill it with water again, but this time clock how long it takes to drain. In well-drained soil the water level will go down at a rate of about 1 inch an hour. A faster rate, such as in loose, sandy soil, may signal potentially dry site conditions. A slower rate indicates poor draining soil and is a caution you need to improve drainage, plant in a raised mound or bed, or look for plants that are more tolerant of wet or boggy conditions.

Soil pH

Aucuba tolerates a wide range of soil pH between 4.5 to 8.0 on the pH scale. That said, they grow best in a moderately acid to neutral soil ranging between 6.0 to 7.0 on the pH scale. Most average garden soils fall between a pH range of 6.0 to 7.0. 

How To Test Soil pH  

Soil pH is a measurement of the alkalinity or acidity of soil and is measured on a scale of 1-14, with 7 as the neutral mark. Any measurement below 7 indicates acid soil conditions, and anything above 7 indicates alkaline. If you're unsure about the pH of your soil, and whether or not it's suitable for growing Aucuba, it's a good idea to test the soil pH in the planting area. You can quickly test soil pH with an inexpensive soil pH tester probe. To raise the pH (make more alkaline) you can add pelletized limestone to the soil. To lower the pH (make more acid) you can apply Soil Sulfur, Aluminum Sulfate, or Chelated Iron. Adding organic compost to the soil or using compost as mulch can also help to increase acidity and maintain acid soil conditions.

Light Preferences

Aucuba grow and look their best in full shade to part shade. Morning sun is okay but direct afternoon sun can and often will scald leaves. 

Planting Aucuba In The Ground

Scroll down for container planting instructions and care tips

Step 1

Start by digging your planting hole at least two to three times as wide and only as deep as the height of the rootball of your plant. The wider the hole the better. Place native soil removed from planting hole around the perimeter of the hole, in a wheel barrow, or on a tarp.

Step 2

Depending on the type, fertility and porosity of the soil in the planting area you might need to mix in a soil amendment to the native soil removed from the planting hole. When planting in dense clay or other poor draining soils it is beneficial to thoroughly mix in some good organic matter such as bagged top soil and/or a good planting mix at a 25-50% ratio with the soil removed from the planting hole. When planting in very sandy or quick-draining soil mixing in some top soil, peat moss and/or compost will help to retain moisture in the soil.

Step 3

Remove your Aucuba plant from the nursery pot. Be careful not to damage the plant when removing it from its pot. If the rootball is stuck in the pot cut the container away. After having removed the plant from the container, use your fingers to carefully loosen some feeder roots around the surface of the rootball.

Step 4

If you are planting in well-drained soil, which is a must for Aucuba plants, set your plant in the planting hole so that the top edge of the rootball is at or just slightly above ground level to allow for settling. If your soil is moderately drained, meaning it drains slowly after rain, the top of the root ball should be 2 inches or more above ground level, as shown in illustration below. If necessary, add some backfill soil mixture to the bottom of the hole to achieve proper planting height. 

Note: If the soil is poorly drained (constantly soggy or wet) take measures to improve drainage or select a different plant species tolerant of wet soils. 

Step 5

After setting your Aucuba in the planting hole, use one hand to hold the plant straight and your other hand to begin back-filling your soil mixture around the root ball, tamping as you go to remove air pockets. When you have filled the hole to the halfway point you can soak the soil. Then continue back-filling to the top edge of the root ball. If you are planting the root ball higher than ground level, as shown in the illustration above, taper your soil mixture gradually from the top edge of the root ball to the ground level. To avoid suffocating your plant, avoid placing any soil on top of the root ball.

Step 6 (Optional)

When planting your Aucuba in a site far away from a water source, and in well-drained soil, you can use remaining soil mixture to build a water retaining berm (catch basin / doughnut) that is 2 inches or so high around the outside perimeter of the planting hole. This basin will help to collect water from rainfall and irrigation, which helps to reduce the need for hand-watering. The berm can be removed after the first growing season.

Step 7

Next, deeply water the planting area, including the root ball, to a depth equal to the height of the root ball. For an extra boost, you can water your newly planted Aucuba with a solution of Root Stimulator, which stimulates early root formation and stronger root development, reduces plant shock, and promotes greener, more vigorous plants.

Step 8

To conserve moisture and suppress weed growth, apply a 1 to 2" layer of cured, shredded or chipped wood mulch or pine straw around the planting area. Avoid using freshly chipped wood for mulch until it has cured in a pile for at least 6 months, a year is better. Avoid placing or piling mulch directly against the base of your plant as this could cause the bark to rot.

Planting Aucuba In A Container

Aucuba plants growing in pots appreciate a moist, but well-drained soil. Constantly soggy soil can and often will cause root rot or other harmful or deadly plant diseases. Therefore, to ensure good drainage, use a pot with a drainage hole(s) and a quality potting soil or potting mix, or a 50/50 combination thereof, for planting. Optionally, you can also add some pumice or perlite (maybe 10 to 20%) to the soil mixture to help with drainage.

Choose a container that is large enough to allow for 2 to 3 years of growth before having to shift up to a larger size container. This might mean your planting pot would be 6 inches or more in diameter (width) than the root ball of your plant. 

Container color will matter as well. Not only will you want to pick a color of container that goes well with the foliage color and texture of your Aucuba plant, you'll also want to pick a container that matches the style of your home or other structures and other plants in the surrounding environment. 

Many nursery & garden centers offer a wide variety of containers to choose from. Before heading out to buy a container take pictures of your home and the surrounding environment. Doing so will help you to choose just the right color and style.

Container Planting Instructions

Step 1

Before filling your container with the soil mix, I recommend lining the bottom with shade cloth or a porous landscape fabric. This will keep the drain holes from becoming clogged with roots and soil. If you use gravel or rocks in the bottom of the container lay the fabric on top of it. 

Step 2

Remove your Aucuba plant from the nursery pot. Be careful not to damage the plant when removing it from its pot. If the rootball is stuck in the pot cut the container away. After having removed the plant from the container, use your fingers to carefully loosen some feeder roots around the surface of the rootball.

Step 3

Pour a small amount of your soil mixture in the bottom of the container. Set your plant in the container and make necessary adjustments by adding or removing some soil so that the top edge of the root ball will sit approximately 1" below the rim of the container.

Step 4

Backfill with your soil mixture around the root ball, tamping as you go, until the level of potting soil is even with the top edge of root ball.

Step 5

Water thoroughly until water starts to drain from the holes in the bottom of the container. Add more soil mixture if settling occurs during watering.

Step 6 (Optional)

Apply a 1/2" layer of wood chips or sphagnum moss to soil surface to help conserve moisture. Stone mulch can also be used.

Aucuba Care & Maintenance Tips

Aucuba are very easy to care for and maintain. Below are some helpful care tips that will have you growing them like the pros.

How To Fertilize Aucuba

To maintain good health and appearance, Aucuba will appreciate fertilizer.

When To Fertilize?

Feed Aucuba plants in late winter or early spring before new growth begins to emerge. 

What Type Of Fertilizer & How Much?

In The Landscape: Fertilize Aucuba growing in the ground at rates recommended on the product label with a slow-release shrub & tree type fertilizer that contains iron and/or sulfur for deep greening. Alternatively, you can feed plants with an organic plant food. If plants look like they could use a second fertilization, you can feed them again in mid to late summer. To avoid frost damage to new growth stimulated by fertilization, cease feeding plants two months prior to the first frost date in your area. 

Note:  If the foliage of your Acuba plants develop chlorosis (fading of foliage) this could be an indicator of a high soil pH (alkaline soil). To acidify soil and for deep greening, simply apply iron or soil sulfur at rates suggested on the product label.

In Pots: Feed as directed on product label  with a slow-release or water-soluble plant food listed for use in containers.

How To Apply Fertilizer? 

Shrubs feed themselves from their root system. The feeder roots of established shrubs are found at and beyond the outside perimeter of the branch system, what many professionals call the "drip line." Therefore, this is where most of the fertilizer should be spread. 

How far outside the drip line you spread fertilizer will depend on the age and size of the shrub. As a general rule, spread the fertilizer under the plant and 3-4 inches beyond the drip line for each 12-inches of shrub height. For example, if a shrub is two feet tall spread the fertilizer about 6 to 8 inches beyond the drip line.

Feeding Aucuba In Pots

Feed Aucuba growing in pots and other containers as directed on the product label with a slow-release or water-soluble plant food listed for use in containers. 

How To Water Aucuba

Young -plants will need some water to develop a root system, but not too much. When established, Aucuba are exceptionally drought tolerant plants. Here's some tips for watering them.

At Planting Time

Immediately after planting deep soak the soil in the planting area to a depth equal to the height of the plants root ball. For an extra boost, to stimulate early root formation and stronger root development, you can also water you newly planted Aucuba with a solution of Root Stimulator, which reduces transplant shock and promotes greener, more vigorous plants. When planted during the winter dormant season plants will require less water. So, be extra careful not to overwater during winter!

During the First Growing Season

In average garden soil you should not have to water your newly planted Aucuba every day. More often than not, this causes soggy soil conditions that can lead to root rot and other harmful plant diseases. In the absence of sufficient rainfall, water only as needed to keep the rootball and surrounding soil damp to moist. 

Keep in mind that deep soaking less frequently, and allowing the soil to dry out somewhat before watering again, is much better than splashing just a little water on the plants every day. Aucuba planted during the winter dormant season, when plants are not actively growing and evaporation is much slower, will require much less water. So, be extra careful not to overwater during winter!


Aucuba plants are exceptionally drought tolerant when established. That said, during prolonged periods of drought they'll appreciate some water. If during a drought you see leaves wilting or falling from the plant, or new branch tips are drooping, this could be a sign your plants could use a good, deep soaking.

Note:  When watering with an automated irrigation system it's best to set your timer to water during the early morning hours and not in the late evening or at night, which can lead to the onset of fungus and other foliage diseases. During the first few weeks after planting, check soil moisture often and adjust irrigation time if necessary to keep the soil moist, not wet. 

Pruning Aucuba Plants

Aucuba do not require pruning, however respond very well to almost any amount of it. Older, healthy plants that have outgrown the space they were intended to fill can be pruned back almost to the ground and will usually grow back.

When to Prune

Pruning to shape or remove stray or damaged branches can be performed any time from early spring to late summer. If at any time a branch dies remove it immediately by cutting at a point several inches below the dead part. 

Heavy pruning, to substantially reduce the size of the shrub, should be performed in late winter or early spring, before new growth begins to emerge. Cease pruning 2 months prior to the average first-frost date in your area. 

How To Prune

Aucuba pruning on young plants may only require a thumb and forefinger. Pinching off tip growth will help promote bushiness. 

For general shaping and to keep your Aucuba plant tidy, you can use a sharp pair of bypass hand pruners to prune branches that have outgrown the rest of the shrub and are spoiling the shape of the plant. Make your cuts an inch or two above a leaf. 

To reduce the height of the shrub, prune the growth to the next growing point for best results. 

Note: Hedge trimmers are not recommended for pruning Aucuba as their blades cut into the large leaves leaving an unsightly appearance.

Rejuvenation Pruning

If you have an Aucuba plant that has outgrown the space it was intended to fill, or is looking old and tired, a hard or rejuvenation pruning may be in order. This type of pruning is performed in late winter, when the plant is dormant and before new spring growth begins to emerge.. 

Rejuvenation pruning is a drastic form of pruning in which the entire shrub is cut back to a height of 6 to 12 inches above the ground. After cutting back a healthy shrub it will usually start growing new branches and foliage in spring. 

Note:  While Aucuba plants typically respond well to rejuvenation pruning there are no guarantees your plants will survive it. That said, if your plants are dying from disease or old age what do you have to lose? Even sickly plants sometimes are rejuvenated by this drastic type of pruning.


Plant Long & Prosper!

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