Growing Bamboo Is Not For Sissies!

While bamboo may be beautiful–even exotic–in concept, it can be treacherous and very difficult to deal with in execution. To demonstrate my point, I offer this cautionary tale.

I am currently dealing with clients who are in the process of selling their home while having to contend with a next-door neighbor who is badmouthing both them and their property. This has come about because the stand of bamboo on my client's property has sent runners under their neighbor's garage. The bamboo runners are forcing their way up through the floor of the garage, breaking up its concrete foundation.

While my client's are doing their best to resolve the situation, which is one reason I'm involved, it never would have happened had they not planted bamboo.

What is Bamboo?

There are over 100 species of bamboo, which is an evergreen member of the grass family, and it ranges in size from petite miniatures to massive giants that can reach over 30 feet in height. It can be found from the tropics to the tops of mountains and while most bamboos are tropical or subtropical, there are hardy bamboos that can survive temperatures of –10° to –20°F.

Running v. Clumping

Clump Bamboo

There are two main types of bamboos: running and clumping. Running types send out far-reaching rhizomes and can colonize large areas. Clumping types stay in tight clumps that slowly increase in diameter. Bamboo is a remarkable plant that has been used since before recorded history to make all manner of things. Today, it has become the darling of the eco-friendly construction business providing structural support for housing, as rebar in concrete, paneling, scaffolding, bridges, floor tiles, as well as material for musical instruments, fishing poles, hunting equipment, furniture, toys, rafts, clothing, baskets, medicine and food. Taiwan alone uses 80,000 tons of bamboo shoots annually, creating a projected $50 million industry.

Running Bamboo

For all of the bounty bamboo provides, its very hardiness and rapid growth make it a problematic plant for most yards. Here are five reasons to avoid the use of bamboo unless you really know what you're doing.

1. Bamboo can spread into neighboring yards. Many homeowners plant bamboo to create a fast-growing privacy screen around their home. But as some bamboo species can grow more than three feet per day, it can spread as quickly as it grows, and it doesn't respect fences or property lines. Instead of just blocking the view of nosy neighbors, you could be turning your property line into a war zone by planting bamboo.

Some bamboo species may even be categorized as noxious weeds or invasive exotic plants, meaning a neighbor could legally force you to remove your bamboo. You could also be liable for the cost of any damage to the neighbors' property caused by your bamboo, and for the cost of removal from their property.

Barrier Installation

2. Containing bamboo can be expensive and difficult. The best ways to contain spreading bamboo can be expensive and may not be worth pursuing for many homeowners and … it may not work. The common method of containing running bamboo is to bury thick 60-ml polypropylene or fiberglass about three feet deep around the plant, leaving two inches of material above the soil.

Some suggest creating a solid barrier made of concrete, metal or pressure-treated wood at least 18 inches deep. The purpose of these barriers is to stop shallow bamboo rhizomes from spreading, but during the early summer peak-growing season, monitoring the area for escaping shoots is essential.

Bamboo Containment

3. Getting rid of bamboo can take years. Bamboo is a long-term relationship that should not be entered lightly. It may take years and vigorous effort to remove it.

The first step in removing bamboo is to remove all root mass and rhizomes. This is easier said than done, and many homeowners with bamboo-loving neighbors complain they can't get rid of the spreading grass. No matter how much they dig, the shoots keep coming back.

4. Getting rid of bamboo may require herbicides. If digging and mowing don't work chemical herbicides are often necessary for controlling bamboo. This can be a problem for those trying to maintain organic gardens and avoid herbicide use.

Quick Kill Grass and Weed Killer and other herbicides containing glyphosate are the preferred choices. This broad-spectrum herbicide has minimal residual soil activity and typically kills only the plants that are directly sprayed. Mow or chop the bamboo and let it regrow until new leaves expand. Then spray the herbicide on the leaves. However, this could take years because one application will not solve your bamboo problem.

5. The right bamboo can be hard to find. Bamboo's defenders will argue that not all of the more than 1,000 bamboo species are equally invasive. They recommend clumping bamboo species rather than spreading types. The problem is that even clumping species spread. It also can be hard to differentiate between the types, and some are mislabeled.

Determined to Have That Bamboo Hedge?

If you're still interested in growing bamboo, one of the best sources of information is available online at http://www.americanbamboo.org/. This booklet is written in an attempt to filter through much of the available information and make a simple, user-friendly information guide on growing bamboo.

Five Beautiful Bamboos

Here's a list of five excellent bamboos for home landscapes and their characteristics:

  • Bambusa multiplex 'Alphonse Karr' (hedge bamboo): Up to 20 feet tall; good for containers; clump-forming habit. Zones 8–10. 
  • Borinda boliana: Up to 30 feet tall; heat-tolerant, noninvasive timber bamboo; clump-forming habit. Zones 7–10. 
  • Fargesia dracocephala 'Rufa': 8 feet tall; vigorous, cold hardy, and wind tolerant; clump-forming habit. Zones 5–9. 
  • Phyllostachys nigra (black bamboo): Up to 30 feet tall; jet black canes with green foliage and a running growth habit. Zones 7–10. 
  • Pleioblastus viridistriatus (dwarf green-stripe bamboo): 3 to 4 feet tall; variegated foliage, running growth habit. Zones 5–10. 

Do your homework and treat bamboo with the respect it requires.

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If you're interested in learning more about our design, contracting and maintenance services and would like to set up a phone consultation or arrange a site inspection, please give me a call (323-461-6556) or email me. I also love giving advice and have provided garden consultations to any number of folks with great results.

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Black Bamboo

Phyllostachys nigra or Black Bamboo, with its jet black culms and feathery green leaves is perhaps a most sought after bamboo. Under ideal conditions Black Bamboo will grow to 35 feet in height with culms over 2 inches in diameter, but 25 feet is its average height in most climates. There has been at least one instance where Black Bamboo has been measured at over 45 feet, but this appears to be very rare. In most residential gardens it usually reaches a plateau of about 25 to 30 feet in height.

New culms emerge green every spring and gradually turn black in one to three years. There is always a contrast of light and dark culms balanced by slender, dark green leaves.

This bamboo is initially slow to spread, through when mature, it can be quite vigorous. If planted in poor soil it tends to grow in a tight cluster, producing mostly thin, weepy culms.

Black Bamboo in Pot

P. nigra should be given a generous layer of rich topsoil, composed of compost or aged manure and mulch, and space to grow unimpeded. It makes an outstanding specimen, if well cared for, and can be the focal point of any garden. It can also be shaped to form a dense hedge for privacy.

Black Bamboo and P. nigra 'Bory' are among the most prized bamboos for decorative wood working. Both will retain their dark or mottled colors when dried.

Black Bamboo

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