What to do about Bamboo?

[Please note that I wrote this in 2004 as an article in the HPSO Bulletin.  A recent FB posting has prompted me to revive/revise and repost it here.]

My first significant relationship with a bamboo,15 years ago, (this was the summer of ’89 when we moved into our current home) was a fatal one.  Phyllostachys aurea, Golden Bamboo.  I had heard all of the usual stories, yards lost, asphalt heaved and cracked, good neighbors gone bad.  Our new house confronted me with several problems, that I knew would get worse if I put them off.  It was another example of a homeowner picking the wrong plant for a screen, or failing to take the precautions to contain it.  With my limited knowledge and biases I had no doubt about what I needed to do.  I got my shovel and chased every rhizome down.  I was thorough and a good hunter, none survived.

More recently bamboo has been making a big time comeback.  Attitudes are beginning to change.  Point of fact, I now own two books dedicated to Bamboo and five plants including: Chusque culeou, a South American clumper; Phyllostachys aureosulcata ‘Spectabilis’, a 25’ beautiful yellow culmed bamboo with a green sulcus or groove; Semiarundinaria yashadake ‘Kimmei’, kind of a scaled down version of ‘Spectablis’ with copper tones in the winter sun; Sasella masamuneana ‘Albo-Striata’, a plant whose value aesthetically I’m still weighing against my ability to contain its spreading; and Pleioblastus viridistriatus, a beautiful bright golden variegated dwarf I keep but limit to a pot.  I’ve recently added a Himalayacalamus falconeri ‘Damarapa’, a colorfully variegated clumper that grows to 23’ of somewhat questionable hardiness (It’s still in a pot).  Then there’s Phyllostachys atrovaginata a stocky, strongly growing upright plant with a sandlewood fragrance.  Do I have room? Hmmm.

The silver bullet in the land of bamboo is the thick black poly sheeting on a roll, known as Bamboo Barrier, BB.  “Stops Rhizomes Dead”.  Not really.  Like all silver bullets this one has a weakness as well.  While visiting with Scott Hill, owner of the Bamboo Guy, and some other friends similarly struck by Bamboo’s allure, we got to talking about ‘BB’ and the maintenance issues unique to it.  Anyone who has grown a strongly rhizomatous plant in a plastic pot has seen it happen.  Bananas, Agapanthus, Cannas, Gingers can grow beyond the bursting point.

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I planted this short ‘hedge’ of Fargesia as I wanted a shorter bamboo as a backdrop in this design. My friend, Ian Conner suggested this one, F. ‘Jiuzhaigou’ IV. It was planted from 10 gal pots plunging the crowns several inches below the soil to help stabilize them. These will not only tolerate such treatment, they will actually root from the upright culms. Magnolia laevifolia to the left. This is ‘Jefferson Circle’ at Waterfront Park.

A few years ago it was common for homeowners and some landscapers to install black visqueen, thin poly sheeting, as a surface weed barrier.  Over time weeds began growing in the mulch on top and other problems began to appear.  The sheeting was impermeable not allowing for water percolation making watering difficult and stressing out desired plants.  Later planting required cutting through it.  At some point this became a nightmare with pieces of black plastic blowing around the garden and a big mess to remove.  I’ve seen in Hawai’i where this was used by pineapple growers several years ago and now, scraped away, mixed in soil, it is still flapping in the wind, looking like a poorly cared for land fill.  My point, BB, if not cared for, may become a similar problem in the garden.

Growing in a plastic pot, I have often extricated neglected plants by cutting away the heavy pot with my pruning shears.  Bamboo in the ground, burst through its plastic barrier, I suspect, is a different story.  You do not want to be in this situation!

A while back I heard Ian Conner address this problem at the horticulture industry’s Far West Show.  His statements corroborated and expanded what I had previously known.  There are several basic ideas to remember regarding bamboo in the landscape.  Bamboo is alive and as such it grows.  It is not static, not some fixed element in the garden.  As such its habits must be understood and respected.

Every species and, to some extent, variety, are unique in their appearance and pattern of growth.  Roughly split into runners and clumpers for obvious reasons, the choosing of a bamboo for a specific site and purpose is critical.  Large, running, timber type bamboos demand space,…if you don’t have it, don’t use them!  While they may make great screens the battle lines will be early and clearly drawn if you attempt to contain them in a too narrow hedge space.  Dwarf growing ground cover type bamboos are just that, very successful ground covers.  Don’t plant them next to your polite and behaved perennials.

Bamboos tend to be shallow rooters.  Take advantage of this.  Give them the space they need to produce a balanced looking stand.  Even if you can confine a 35’ tall bamboo to a 6’x3’ space doesn’t mean it will look right.  Such a planting would look top heavy.  Layout an adequate area and dig a trench about a foot deep and across, around it.  Fill it with sand.  The rhizomes will be easy to extract when they get to the trench so that once or twice a year you can walk around and snap them off.

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Chasquea culeou ‘Caña Prieta’, once known as the species C. nigracans, has proven hardy here on the Willamette, where it like the Fargesia in the picture above have proven tolerant of the winter wind. This one is pruned up somewhat to show its arching form. You can also see how densely it grows….If you think dividing large over grown ornamental grasses is difficult, this will make that look like a piece of cake

If you must keep a bamboo away from something, e.g., your neighbor’s property, your stone patio or a pond, put the BB on that side, in a “U” shape only.  Then, once a year or so take a heavy spade, or loppers, and “trim” back the rhizome away from the critical areas on the ‘open’ side.  The rhizome tend to spread near the surface and are easy to find…unless you confine them, in which case they will circle their enclosed soil volume going deeper, forming an extremely difficult to deal with mass.

If, like me, you completely surrounded your bamboo with BB, after 3 or 4 years you will have to periodically dig out sections of your planting, without damaging the BB, and replace the soil in your newly created hole.  If you do this at the proper time in your plant’s growth cycle you can pot these up for sale or trading stock (Check first but it is often in the early spring).  Of course, this is not easy to do because the rhizome is so hard and the barrier is susceptible to damage from your shovel (Be aware that BB is sold in both 60 and 40 mil thicknesses, the heavier one being significantly more durable).  When you lay out your planting, seriously consider how much room you are going to need to remove sections of rhizome.  I recently used a boom truck to remove a 30” diameter, barrier bound, Golden Bamboo, from a garden in which I had very little room to work!!

When you plant a running bamboo you have made a life commitment.  Whether it’s spread is limited by a barrier or your diligence alone you are responsible for bringing it in to the world.  Don’t make this decision lightly.  If you sell your home make sure the new owner understands the situation, or get some help to remove it.  Even the obnoxious neighbor who was your original reason for installing it may move, pass on or have a change of heart.  Remember, bamboo can be forever.

I caution the gardener who thinks that growing a clumping type Bamboo will solve their problems…it only changes them.  Each year your clumper will grow in girth, its rhizome more massive.  These need room!!!  You are not going to want to have to fuss with these every year!  In many ways, when properly sited and installed running Timber bamboos are much easier to deal with…but you have to do it every year.  At minimum getting in there in spring before shooting season to cut back the spreading rhizome.

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Phyllostachys bambusoides ‘Richard Haubrich’. As a Phyllostachys, you would expect this bamboo to be a runner, but it isn’t very vigorous at all. Part of this may be due to its relatively low amount of chlorophyll in its leaves, as indicated by the large amount of white. This specimen is not contained. It is very demanding of the conditions on its site, loose rich soil, protection from mid-day and afternoon sun and even moisture. This plant is actually in decline. A rescue may be in order, Ian!  Keep in mind, buying such rare forms as this bamboo, though expensive, tells you that it is relatively difficult and slow to propagate.  Cheaper bamboos are cheap in part because of their faster growth rate!  Something to keep in mind.  People are always buying bamboos for a ‘quick’ screen or hedge, a common issue with hedge plants in general.  Cheap and fast…pay later, forever.  With Bamboos choosing the right plant for the site and having a commitment to its care is vital.  Low care/no care landscapes and plants should be a red flag!  Someone will be paying sooner or later.

While I have written these cautions, I still recommend bamboo’s membership in the home garden.  There is nothing else like them.  Properly selected and cared for your bamboo won’t transform into a beast.  There is still a lot of misinformation out there, so talk to one of our area’s responsible and knowledgeable growers.  The right Bamboo is out there to fit your garden’s requirements. There is nothing that can create the effect in the garden that bamboo can for that Asian or tropical inspired garden.

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Bamboos in downtown Parks:
Borinda angustissima (clumper) at City Hall in the 4th St. garden.  This one was cut back to the ground by the building staff…I have no idea why,  It may have suffered some leaf damage, but downtown tends to be milder due to heat island effects.
Chusquea culeuo ‘Cana Prieta’ (clumper) in the 5-Flags planter at the north end of the Riverplace Esplanade.
Fargesia sp. ‘Scabrida’ (clumper) at Friendship Circle on the Esplanade near the Steel Bridge.  This one is mostly full sun and is smaller than indicated in the literature, it is also quite floppy and sometimes subject to abuse by homeless people who stash their stuff in and around it.
Fargesia sp. Jiuzhaigou’ IV (clumper) in Jefferson Circle at the south end of the sea wall.  These four plants have grown substantially  and could be divided in the appropriate season.
Phyllostachys bambusoides ‘Richard Haubrich’ (runner) at the NE corner of Chapman Square.

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3 thoughts on “What to do about Bamboo?

  1. Alyse

    Nice summary of the garden needs of this species, and the practical BB info, long term maintenance, and your personal experience and honest opinions. Much appreciate the latter especially! Rare to find. Interesting that even among the experts, the best ways to use bamboo barrier are still being discussed.

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  2. Joan

    My young neighbor has planted bamboo very close to my new fence, used BB but am concerned for the future. Can I somehow print off this article to give to him? I can only foresee problems in the future.

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    1. gardenriots Post author

      If you think that it will be of help, go ahead. Hopefully, your relationship with them is a positive one and they will be receptive to your help. Your neighbor planting Bamboo does not mean that it will automatically end up crossing into your garden. Many gardeners are very aware of and concerned about the aggressiveness of the plants that they use. People plant bamboo as a visual barrier for many reasons, some of which may have nothing to do with you, it may simply be their response to living ‘close’ to a neighbor. You know your neighbor better than I do and will continue sharing an edge for time to come so do this with a positive ‘spirit’!

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