Saturday, August 8, 2009

My Bamboo Is Scaring Me!

As you may recall from my earlier post, I have a favorite sitting corner in my garden (The Red Umbrella!) that is surrounded by four robust specimens of Bambusa oldhamii; giant clumping timber bamboo. This species was suggested to me by a trusted plantsman, who then found them for me and presented them as a gift for my new garden. So I was meant to have them! And they are fabulous.

This is how my corner looked two years ago, about three months after planting. The bamboo had just been through its first 'shoot' which is the period in July/August when the new growth starts. The culms are noticeably thicker each year, and reach full height by winter, staying tightly sheathed all the way up (tallest are well over twenty feet now). In spring they let loose leafy side branches. Here you can see the utility pole in the corner; but you never will again!

That same new growth from two years ago has turned golden, and is considered mature. Last year's culms are still green. And this year? Um, can you see why my bamboo is scaring me?

My task as a responsible, rule-breaking gardener is to keep these beasts in check. Which is surprisingly easy to do, if you deal with them before they are bigger than you are! I have three ways of helping my bamboo do my bidding.

The first approach is a short, sharp, shock. You can see this unfortunate fellow at the far right in the picture above. Too close to the path, no shoot for you!

Until it is about two feet tall, a bamboo shoot is very pliable and loosely connected at the joints, just give it a wiggle and it pops right out. To further control growth from this spot I could dig it out more, but it won't be up to any more mischief this year.

This species of bamboo is also edible; if I were more adventurous in the kitchen I'd think of something tasty to make with it. For now, it's nicely compacted green waste. [see comment from Annie below for a preparation suggestion, courtesy of none other than Allen Lacy, one of my pantheon!]

The second way I work with bamboo is by training the new culms, which are often pointing in odd directions (continuing the trajectory of the rhizome below the ground, I guess). Such waywardness can be turned to an advantage with the right training, giving the culms graceful curves.

When they have reached about four feet and their bases are hardened
a bit, I train new culms by tying them to older ones (built in plant stakes!) By doing this I can separate canes that are growing too closely together, position the tall plumes just where I want them, and encourage the elegant interplay of the culms at ground level. I like to use raffia-wrapped wire, as it is inobtrusive, strong, and reusable.

Old-Hammy would love to be leafy to the ground, but for my small space I want to keep the lower part of the culms clean. So the third trick to bamboo dominance is removing the leaf nodes at the joints. Again, if done cleanly and early, they won't sprout again.

One of my design inspiration books is about Japanese courtyard gardens. My favorites feature timber bamboo, trained by skilled masters to just a few choice culms, in some impeccable setting.

So I am NOT insane!

The tallest culms now meet over the top of the Red Umbrella. Between the dappled shade and the way it catches every breeze, my scary bamboo has made this a heavenly place.

Understanding that I am the master here, and making the sometimes ruthless choices needed to develop the space, has been critical. I think of it as editing the garden; removing what is superfluous and grooming what remains so that it can shine.


  1. I do the same things with my non-architectural clumping bamboo which we planted years before I knew anything about gardening. Since then I've even taken some of it out to make room for other stuff, and I let a passionflower grow in one clump.

    My neighbor's spreading bamboo (a yard of utter, complete neglect) has been shooting up in my yard lately. The most recent shoot that popped up appeared suddenly at 2' tall and a good 4" in diameter. *Terrifying!*.

    I snipped the shoot about half way down, just below one joint, and I poured a puddle of Round-Up in the hollow. Happily, the shoot died. Meanwhile the bamboo on his side continues to send up shoot after shoot in August, 4 months after the last bit of rain.

  2. Looking forward to the next time I can sit under the red umbrella! :)

  3. I wish more people would be, as you so aptly put it--be a responsible gardener and keep their beasts in check.

  4. I love this series of how-to/garden tour posts! I am really looking forward to planting bamboo - you have shown me not to fear the dragon. hahahah!

  5. I've never grown bamboo, Interleafer, but can see how it could put shade where you want it.

    In "The Gardener's Eye" wonderful garden writer Allen Lacy relates his method of keeping bamboo under control by cutting off new unwanted shoots below the surface (he & Hella used an asparagus knife). They wrapped the shoots in paper towels, made them moist & microwaved 10 minutes, then squeezed out core and used like artichokes. That book was published in 1992 - maybe you'd need less time for a current microwave!

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  6. I LOVE me some Bambusa oldhamii!
    Just WAIT until it's 50ft tall - will it reach full size up in your neck of the woods? It's great that you write about taming the beast - because it is big, but not scary! SO many people are afraid of planting ANY bamboo, and it's a shame - they are so useful for screening and layering.
    My favorite is Otatea acuminata - Mexican Weeping Bamboo. Such a sexy plant! I also have the painted bamboo - Bambusa vulgaris vitatta - and I adore it.
    What am I talking about - I adore all bamboo. There is no bad plant, just bad plant choices and bad placement.
    I must say, the image of the bamboo above the red umbrella - I drool. I die. I love.
    XOXO, sistah!

  7. Haha Germi, I love your comments! When I first moved in, this tiny corner was DOMINATED by a huge, messy utility pole; I mean, you walked out and it loomed over you, complete with yellow high-voltage sign. Something clean and narrow at the bottom, very tall, narrow and leafy above was the obvious choice. Um, 50'? Maybe not quite so tall here; it's borderline hardy. Plus I got a little lean on water. But still, better than a redwood (eventually) right? And if the PG&E guys ever want to trim the tips, they can be my guest!

  8. Chuck, I have a similar situation on the west side of my house, rampant spreading bamboo from a since departed neighbor has made the leap to my side of the fence...very fortunately, it only has an 8" wide bed to work with, and is now getting tall enough to block the view of the big house that was built there. It's perfect. And their irrigation waters it too! bonus!

  9. Bamboo gets a bum rap! As does my beast: english ivy... but it does provide a wonderful ground cover... and as long as it knows whos boss ... its lush and I'm happy! Love your oasis! The red umbrella is gorgeous!

  10. I've been told that severely limiting the amount of water the bamboo gets once it reaches the desired height will dramatically slow its growth. Is this true, Great Bamboo Expert?

  11. Susan, that sounds right. I'm sure my guys would love to get more water than they do, but I'm trying to keep my landscape water at subsistence /borderline suffering and no more! If they don't get as tall or thick as they would with more water, that's ok with me! (That should be my 4th piece of bamboo advice...don't encourage them!)

  12. Thank you for the sweet comment on my blog about twittering. Love ya for it!

    Your bamboo does look entertaining and comfy. I can hear it, enjoy the rustling breezes, and enjoy the shade under your red umbrella. Marvelous!

  13. And it will continue to grow - you'll be amazed!

  14. i love this sitting area. what a wonderful place to go and relax!

    we are also fans of bamboo and are planning on potting some in several spots around our yard as it can become quite invasive in our area if we directly sow it.

    beautiful blog and garden!

  15. Dear GG & Cat, thanks for visiting, glad you found me! My little sitting area is used constantly at least 10 months of the year (Dec-Jan gets a little cold and damp back there, since it's on the north side of the house.) But that's when I can be found basking on my south facing front porch (but that's another story!)

  16. Ever since hearing about the concept of staking your enemies over emerging bamboo shoots as a form of torture, bamboo has scared me too. But I do see that it's a beautiful addition to your garden and worth whatever effort it takes you to control it. And if it gets out of hand, can always move!