ISSUE 62  |  Japonesque

Bamboo, the Re-Think

March 06, 2013 2:00 PM

BY Jeanne Rostaing

Mention bamboo in a room full of professional gardeners, as I did recently, and they are likely to recoil and say “nooooo” in unison. This useful and lovely Asian staple has a reputation as an uncontrollable, invasive thug. A gardener in business for years told me she never plants bamboo for clients because she is “scared to death of it.”

But is it possible that the very bad reputation of bamboo–which is actually a member of the grass family– is undeserved? With proper handling, the Public Enemy No. 1 of the plant world can join polite society. Are you up to the challenge? Or have you had a horrifying bamboo experience? Let us know where you stand on the bamboo question: pro or con?

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Photographs by Jeanne Rostaing except where noted.

Bamboo fans say “yes,” but with the caveat that you must absolutely know which type of bamboo you are dealing with. It seems there is running bamboo and there is clumping bamboo. Ignore the differences in them at your peril.

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Above: Timber bamboo, underplanted with feverfew. Photograph via Gray Matter.

Running bamboo is extremely aggressive and swift to escape its bounds by sending out widely spreading underground rhizomes. An example is timber bamboo, most commonly the genus Phyllostachys, which grows tall, up to 50 feet in some cases. Of concern is its propensity to produce many new canes, known as “culms”, that can grow at the amazing rate of 4 inches a day. For Phyllostachys and a wide selection of other varieties, go to Bamboo Garden, which identifies each of the dozens of bamboo types for sale as either clumping or running; prices range from $10 to $350 per plant, depending on type and size.

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If special planting methods and rigorous maintenance are employed, running bamboo can be kept under control and can provide a statuesque, evergreen hedge that can block an unsightly view or provide privacy in a large garden. At the Brooklyn Botanic Garden Phyllostachys Nigra, black bamboo, is surrounded by concrete to keep it in its place. A 1- to 3-foot tall plant is $25 from Bamboo Garden.

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If you prefer less maintenance, less worry, and don’t mind a smaller plant, clumping bamboo is the better choice. It also sends out rhizomes, but they are closer to the plant so the spread is not so vigorous. Some examples of clumping bamboos are in the genus Fargesia which includes Fargesia nitidia (Chinese fountain bamboo) and Fargesia rufa (“Green Panda”). Both can be seen in the Japanese Garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. “Green Panda“ is $60 at Rare Find Nursery.

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Also in the Japanese Garden is an excellent example of a running bamboo under control. Kumazasa bamboo (Sasa veitchii) is a native of Japan and gets its beautiful variegated appearance when the edges of its leaves wither in cold weather; here it is bounded by a stone patio and a paved path. Sasa Veitchii is $15 from Bamboo Garden.

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The best insurance against out-of-control growth, of course, is planting your bamboo in containers. Tara Douglass of the Brooklyn Plant Studio, recommends smaller clumping bamboos such as Pleioblastus kongosanenis “Aureostriatus” for terrace containers. Because bamboos like moisture, Douglass suggests using a clay-based soil. Prune back the bamboo and rake it out in the spring to encourage healthy new growth. Pleioblastus Kongosanenis “Aureostriatus” is $20 from Bamboo Garden.

In the end, it does seem a shame to avoid a plant that has been growing on earth for millions of years. Yes, stories abound of nightmarish plantings taking over yards, tunneling under fences and cracking open concrete barriers. But a little research–plus appropriate planting methods and maintenance–can enable you to add this unique and exotic plant to your garden without fear.

For more of our favorite ways to use bamboo in the garden, see 10 Easy Pieces:Instant Fencing and Bamboo Cloches for Your Garden.