Zen and the Art of Gardening

About Bamboo

Running and clumping bamboo

Running bamboos spread by sending out underground rhizomes in all directions, many feet each year.  New canes come form buds on the rhizome.  They can be very aggressive in a warm climate and quickly take over a yard or field. Most runners are cold hardy and have their own special beauty. If you have seen a bamboo grove that has canes spread out that you can walk through, that’s a running bamboo. The bamboo on the left is Giant Moso bamboo and is the largest of the running bamboos.  Notice how spread out the canes are.  The bamboo on the right is Spectabilis bamboo.  It only grows to about 2 inches in diameter and has canes closer together. But is is a runner and will spread rapidly in all directions.

How running bamboos grow and spread

Bamboo grows very differently from most plants. You may have noticed that bamboo grows in clumps or groves. It is sometimes called a “colony” plant. The two basic types of bamboo are runners and clumpers and there are hundreds of each in all sizes and colors. Most (not all) clumpers are sub-tropical to tropical and most (but not all) runners are cold hardy. I grow cold hardy runners.  

The plants I sold were divisions from a grove of bamboo. The bamboo grove has an underground system of rhizomes that cover an area like a net, just a few inches below the ground. I dig a piece of rhizome that has a small cane growing from it. When this “division” is planted it’s canes will not grow but the rhizome will start spreading underground, branching and growing many feet the first year, in late summer and fall. In the spring the buds on the underground rhizomes come up and grow into new canes in a matter of weeks. With a new division of bamboo the new cane will be about the same size as the old ones.  As the grove gets more canes (each cane lives for several years) with more leaves it puts up more and bigger canes (called culms) each spring and in just a few years, with a little care the bamboo will be putting up giant canes, several inches in diameter and 50 to 60 feet tall. They will come out of the ground and grow to full size in the spring and never grow any taller. This is why bamboo is called the fastest growing plant in the world. The largest cold hardy bamboo is called Moso and it can get up to 7 inches in diameter and 70+ feet tall. Pretty amazing plant.

How bamboo spreads – After the new shoots come up in the spring and grow into mature canes the entire grove is thriving and feeding the rhizome system which stores the nutrients and will use them for the next years canes. In late summer and fall the rhizomes start growing and can extend from a few feet to 30 feet or more depending on the species and enviromental conditions. A well cared for bamboo grove will about double in size most years so it will cover a large area quickly, if not controlled.

Planting and care of bamboo

Before receiving your bamboo you should have picked out a place to plant. Most of the larger bamboos will need at least a few hours of direct sun or filtered sun all day. They may grow in areas without much sun but will be much slower growing and will be spread out quite a bit. If you can plant the bamboo near water it will be happiest. This does not mean the bamboo should be planted in a wet area. Most bamboos do not like wet roots. If you are in a colder climate and trying a bamboo that is borderline hardy to your zone, then try to pick a well protected area. On the south side of a wall or building is an idal spot. Anything to help block the north wind will help. Of coure you should plan on mulching heavily.

When you receive a new order of bamboo try to plant as soon as possible. If you are unable to plant as soon as it arrives, cut a slit in the plastic and paper surrounding the rootball and add some water, a cup or so. Place the plants in a shaded area until you can plant it. It’s not a bad idea to mist the leaves a few time during the day. When ready to plant, dig a hole just a little larger than the rootball and place the plant so that the top of the rootball is even with the top of the hole (groundlevel).Some nurseries suggest digging a hole much larger than the rootball. This is not necessary. A better method is to take a pick and break up the sides of the hole allowing openings for the roots or rhizomes to spread out. Backfill with the soil removed from the hole or any good top soil. Water thoroughly after backfilling. I like to leave a dish shaped depression around the plant to make watering easier. I also like to mulch with leaves or straw in order to keep the plant from drying out. It is very important to keep the plant watered for the first few weeks but don’t over do it! More plants have been harmed or killed from over watering than from underwatering. Let the ground dry out a little between waterings. You may need to water regularly the first year, depending on your climate and soil, and how much sun or wind exposure the plant receives. After the bamboo has been in the ground for a few months you will rarely need to water except during drought conditions. However, providing plenty of water wil help speed up the growth of your bamboo.

In the spring use a general purpose fertilizer (after plant is well established) such as 8-8-8 or 10-10-10. Even better is a layer of rotted manure. I have used both with good results. Leaf or hay mulch will both protect the plant from the cold and from drying out. This will also keep weeds under control and help enrich the soil as it decomposes. A healthy, well fed bamboo is the best protection against pest and disease.

Bamboo for erosion control

Bamboo is an ideal plant for erosion control. Running bamboos spread out forming a dense, underground network of rhizomes and roots making a very effective barrier to erosion. Planted along streams or gullies it can help to stabilize the sides. With two streams and a pond I’ve had several opportunities to try out different species in different situations and evaluate their effectiveness. One of my first plantings, specifically for erosion control, was in the bend of a small creek. With development upstream creating more and more run-off, the small streams on our place have changed over the years. Thirty years ago they were small streams that usually increased in flow after a hard rain but it was nothing dramatic and rarely caused much damage. Now, during the spring, these streams can swell to dangerous levels after a heavy rain and erosion has become a real problem. While I can’t do much about the source upstream I have been able to stabilize some of the worst areas downstream on my property. These streams naturally form S-shaped curves along their length. With the heavy flow in the spring the banks of these curves have begun to erode and in several places we now see red clay banks where before it was leaves and undergrowth. There is an especially bad stretch along my driveway where the damage is highly visible. About five years ago I planted five Giant Leaf bamboo plants. The area is in full shade and the soil was just red clay. It took some time for the plants to establish and spread but now they have filled in nicely and cover an area about 20 feet long and 10 feet wide. The red clay bank is completely hidden and erosion has stopped in that area.

Another area that I was concerned about was the back of a dam that forms a small pond. There is a concrete spillway that handles the overflow from the pond. When we built the pond about 20 years ago we made the spillway large enough to handle what we thought would be the maximum flow we could expect in the spring. Beside the spillway is an area that the water can go through in the event the flow gets to be too much. Water rarely flowed thru this area even in the heaviest rains but in the past few years it we’ve seen it overflow the spillway regularly going through the overflow area and down the back of the dam. We planted P.n.Henon in the overflow area about 10 years ago just because it was such an ideal place and looked so nice there. On the back of the dam we planted Sasa vetchii never thinking it would be needed for erosion control. This year water levels reached their highest levels ever. The Sasa vetchii was completely covered with flowing water and was flattened. After the water went down the bamboo sprang back up and looked fine. Best of all, there was no erosion of the dam!



How to grow big bamboo, fast

You can buy the fastest growing bamboo in the world but if you want it to get big, faster, follow the procedures below!  When I got serious about collecting bamboo there was a time when I planted many species each year, often in multiple locations. I wanted lots of bamboo fast. I live near a horse farm. I was able to get free manure (mixed with straw) and placed a 2 to 4 inches of this around each planting, usually 3 to 4 feet in diameter the first year. I might add some artificial fertilizer such as 8-8-8 spread over the area. I would cover this with straw or leaves or whatever was available. When fall came I raked up a very deep mulch around each planting, at least a foot or more of leaves in a 5 to 10 foot circle. If planting a fence row I fertilize and mulch in a long row connecting the new bamboo plantings, however thick I wanted the screen to be. 

The newly planted bamboo will start sending out rhizomes which will divide and spread so the bamboo is eventually going in all directions. However it may spread much faster in some directions. You may be able to control the spread somewhat by fertilizing in the directions you want the bamboo to go, as when planting a row of bamboos for screening.

In the winter/spring of the following year I would spread manure again, this time in about a ten foot circle with a new layer of leaves or straw and would follow this procedure for at least a couple of years, often 3 to 4 years. I did this for most of nearly a hundred plantings spread over several years and acres. I could drive my truck up to or even around most all the groves, especially when they were young so it was fairly easy to spread the manure with a shovel. After 2 to 3 years I usually stopped with the manure but continued with 8-8-8 or even ammonia nitrate. I also continured to rake up leaves for a mulch but it doesn’t take too long for most bamboos to self mulch. Soil ph should be neutral to very slightly acidic for most bamboos. Lime acordingly.

When I was following these procedures I was giving bamboo to my brother and sister who also had land to plant it on. They planted and watered and that’s it. After 5 years all my groves of the same species were at a minimum twice the size, usually even larger. Many more canes, much larger canes. I think at a minimum you should mulch heavily with leaves for a few years. It will cut down on weeds while the plants are small, protect the plants in the winter by insulating the ground, and as they decompose they will build rich soil. The mulch will also help keep in moisture during hot periods. When the groves were young and the manure and mulch were thick, the soil below was just alive with worms and was damp in the hottest periods. The mulch and manure together decompose fairly rapidly.  My largest grove of bamboo, in the most choice location is Moso bamboo, the largest cold hardy bamboo. I drove to Anderson,South Carolina to dig 5 nice plants to start the grove. I planted these in a circle and spread a truck load of horse manure. I did this for the next few years and the Moso responded accordingly. It grew deep green and put up more shoots than I expected each spring. Today this grove has beautiful 5 and 6 inch canes that cover an area 50 feet in diameter.

I’ve seen this over and over. I planted P.vivax, the next largest cold hardy bamboo and gave it this treatment. In less than 10 years I had multiple 5 inch canes, like a small forest. I planted P. vivax aureocaulis in an odd place that never got the manure and mulch. The difference today is amazing. The Green Stripe Vivax has a few 4 inch canes, most are smaller.


Preparing bamboo for winter

The following information refers to cold hardy runners, mostly Phyllostachys spcecies. This is primarily what I sell.In most cases your bamboo should be fine during the winter without doing anything. However, there are several things you can do to help cut down on the stress of winter and reduce or eliminate damage from cold and wind. As the bamboo gets older and better established it will be able to withstand even colder temperatures.

First, you should mulch your bamboo heavily. This is a good idea in general as it will both build and improve your soil while adding fertility.A thick layer of mulch will help prevent the soil from freezing while maintaining moisture at the same time. I have somtimes had trouble with voles in ares with a heavy mulch. These mice-like critters build tunnels between the mulch and soil and eat roots and rhizomes. My observation has been that the benefits of mulching far outweigh the minor damage of the voles.

Cold air is often very dry and combined with winter winds can rapidly dehydrate the bamboo, leading to freeze damage. Protecting the bamboo from these drying winds is another way of reducing damage. Bamboo planted near a wall or near shrubs that block northern winds will often suffer less damage than bamboo planted in an open area. You should check the bamboo often and water when necessary. If you have bamboo in containers that you plan on leaving outside you should know that they are much more likely to suffer cold damage as the roots are more likely to freeze and dry out. You can place the container in a protected area such as an unheated garage. Just try to give it as much light as possible and water ocassionally. Don’t overdo it, let the bamboo stay a little dry during the winter. If the bamboo is too tall to place inside, you might consider digging a hole and placing the container in the hole with a good mulch over it all. Just make sure the hole will drain and not drown the bamboo roots. If this is impractical you can insulate the container in some manner. I’ve used hay or leaves heaped up around a container to protect it.

There are anti-dessicants meant for spraying on the leaves to help slow down the rate at which the plant loses water. I’ve never used these but have heard from customers that have used them with good results. I sometimes mist the leaves of bamboos that appear to be particulaly dry and stressed. With a little attention and work your bamboo can withstand colder temperatures with less damage. This will pay off with more and larger culms and bamboo that holds it’s beauty through the winter.


Plants often mistaken for bamboo

Plants often mistaken for bamboo.Japanese Knotweed

Lucky Bamboo
You often see this in asian restaurants and grocery stores.  It has rings and internodes sort of like bamboo but is not a bamboo, it is related.  It is a type of house plant.

Japanese Knotweed is a perennial that spreads by rhizomes. It has stems that are jointed somewhat like bamboo. This, along with it’s rapid spread is probably why it is sometimes mistaken for bamboo. However, it has heart shaped leaves and creamy white flowers. It can reach 5 to 10 feet in heigth and produces new canes each spring forming a dense thicket. The dead stems and leaves decompose slowly and form a thick mulch which, along with the dense growth, prevent other plant seeds from germinating. The rhizomes can spread up to 20 feet from the parent plant and as deep as 8 feet. It forms a rapidly spreading mono-culture and is considered an invasive pest. It can reproduce from very small pieces of the rhizome or fresh stems. You can find lots of information about this plant by doing a search for Japanese Knotweed.


Heavenly Bamboo – Nandina domestica

I’m not sure why this plant is sometimes mistaken for bamboo. It has woody stems, white flowers, and red berries in the fall. I suppose the very erect, straight stems are the reason but they are not jointed and are usually brown and woody looking. A nice shrub but not realated to bamboo.


Giant Reed – Arundo donax

This plant has canes much like bamboo but the leaves are long and tapered and attach directly to the canes(not to limbs that attach to cane). The canes will easily sprout new plants from the nodes and the rhizomes are easily divided to produce new plants. I’ve had this growing beside a pond and canes that fall over into the water routinely sprout new plants at each node on the cane. It has become a pest in many areas and has invaded many rivers in California. It has a large seed head at the end of each growing season. The canes are used to make reeds for musical instruments and the variegated form makes a pretty landscape plant.


Horsetail – Equisetum hyemale

The stems of this plant superficially resemble bamboo due to colored bands that appear to be nodes, much like a bamboo cane. It grows in wet areas and makes a pretty addition to a water garden or bog. It is often called the Scouring Rush as it’s high silica content make it ideal for scrubbing pans and polishing metal. This plant has also become an invasive pest in many parts of California. It is sold in most nurseries in the water garden section. I have both a dwarf form and a very large form growing beside my pond.


Bamboo Palm

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James Mortensen