The Bamboo Dilemma

BambooBefore you shake your head, and say “you should have known better”, let me just say that I did know better, and I still planted bamboo in my front yard.

Sure, I heard all the horror stories about how hard bamboo is to contain, and how difficult it is to remove once it takes hold. Bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants on the planet. It’s not something to include in your landscaping without a great deal of forethought as well as a bit of fearlessness.

In defense of myself, I plead insanity. I couldn’t help myself. I just love bamboo!

A few examples of my obsession with bamboo include a section of a bamboo maze from a book I created for Dover Publishing, a railing on the second story of a themed fort in our backyard and the logo for my graphic design company.

Bamboo CollageIt all started about ten years ago, when I set my mind to replace a dying photinia hedge that served as a sight and sound barrier to the traffic in front of our house.

I decided that a bamboo garden would be really cool. The garden included some great moss covered rocks, four types of bamboo and various ornamental grasses and flowering plants.

Dwarf Varigated BambooEven as I dug the holes for the root balls, I knew this day would come. It was inevitable.

But during the first five years, as the plants grew and filled in the area, I enjoyed my little garden. The difficulties of bamboo had definitely been blown out of proportion. As I watched the plants Crooked Bambooswaying in a gentle breeze, I could see why bamboo was a symbol of serenity. And in no time the garden took the place of the hedge.

But soon enough I discovered, firsthand, the darker side of bamboo. It started innocently enough. The bamboo extended its territory, almost imperceptibly, as spikes broke ground just outside the perimeter of the designated garden area. No big deal. Then the series of events took a maniacal turn. A sprout appeared in the middle of the lawn, some 15 feet from the edge of the garden. How did that get there?

Trying to remove the roots leading back to the original bamboo turned out to be more of a challenge than I anticipated. Not only did the sod need to be removed around the roots, but the roots themselves were buried as much as a foot underground. Furthermore, the roots IMG_1089were hard to cut or pull out and had spread out in all directions. And once the roots were removed and the trenches filled in, it was only a mater of time before it would all happen again. Bamboo does not like to be confined.

This summer I was able to successfully dig up and transplant two flowering bushes that had been enveloped and obscured by the bamboo jungle.

At some point I plan on instituting a more permanent solution, but for now, I just dig areas of the lawn up when necessary to slow the advance of the jungle.

The Good News

If you are considering bamboo in the landscaping (or at least were before reading this article), I would urge caution. However, bamboo does have some really nice things going for it:

  • Besides being attractive, this relative to grasses is in most cases a hardy evergreen (although they regularly drop a portion of their leaves), so you can enjoy it all year long.
  • Established plants are drought tolerant. They don’t need to be watered all the time. I tested this out during a 50 day rainless period this summer by carefully watering the other plants in the garden, but for the most part avoiding the bamboo. It didn’t seem to make much difference. One IMG_1082of the varieties did curl its leaves a bit, but that was about it.
  • As mentioned above, bamboo tends to grow fast. If handled correctly this does not have to viewed as a curse. How many times have you landscaped an area, only to wait for years for the plants to fill in the space?
  • There are several ways to manage bamboo growth. It is, however, better to plan this out and implement it before you plant the bamboo, rather then wait until you have a serious problem.
  • The easiest way to manage bamboo is selecting a variety that has less of a tendency to spread. Bamboo is placed in two basic growth categories, clumping and running. Clumping bamboo produces short rhizomes near the base of the plant. I Fairy and Bamboo have a clumping bamboo in my back yard next to a pond. In the eight years I have had it, this plant has grown considerably taller and filled in, yet the space it occupies is barely double what it was when I planted it. I would bet I don’t need to say much about the behavior of running bamboo at this point.

I hope I have painted a clear picture here about the potential for bamboo to be both magnificent and disastrous. My own experience has lead me to regard it as a little of both (or maybe a lot of both). So as you weigh the evidence and consider whether or not bamboo is right for you, you may very well be caught in the bamboo dilemma.

Bamboo & Christmas Lights

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11 Responses to The Bamboo Dilemma

  1. Bruce Hagen says:

    You are a better man than I Gunga Din. I too have done battle with bamboo, but In my defense though, I did not plant it. I’m not guilty of that crime. When I realized what a noxious weed it had become, I started digging it up–hacking and hewing at the unsavory plant. There were great piles of soil in my yard and vanquished roots or runners? Despite my fervent efforts, my nemesis just grew back stronger and more verdant than before. I wasn’t going to let this rascal beat me. So, I threw caution to the wind and resorted to chemical warfare, and in doing so laid waste to my yard, but ultimately I won. Well at least I think so. Hopefully the ecological damage was minor and only temporary.
    I have to admit though, that I do admire the plant for its beauty, durability and tenacity, but I prefer it in someone else’s yard.

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  2. A great post! I enjoyed reading about your bamboo adventure. I think you gave a very fair report. I just posted a different sort photo of bamboo the other day (a more abstract one of bamboo sticks.) My grandfather had a bamboo garden in his yard that was quite large, and when my siblings and cousins and I were little, we used to sneak in there to play and really could get lost in it like a labyrinth. It was great fun.

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  3. I love bamboo, but doubt its hardiness this far north. As you have found out it’s always best to plant agressive invasive plants in containers in the ground and even then you have to keep an eye on them. Bamboo is right up there with mint and plume poppy when in comes to taking over the yard!

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  4. Good-luck with your ongoing bamboo dilemma! It does sound a bit like our more northerly mint challenge. I had no idea bamboo had a dark side. Hope you have a wonderful holiday, Rick!

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  5. Finn Holding says:

    A cautionary tale indeed. And very timely too. We have bamboo encroaching in our garden which has come under the fence from next doors bamboo screen. I’m very keen to get rid of it but the good lady has answered me nay. So it’s got to stay. I’m going to try and contain it but it looks as though I have my work cut out!

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