Watch an experienced gardener’s face when you tell them you are going to grow bamboo. Depending on where you live, most people think that in a matter of months, your garden will be overrun with a bamboo forest and they’ll be worried for you.
The truth is, your garden will be taken over if you choose the wrong type of bamboo, or if you simply plant and walk away. Bamboo grows fast, which is part of its appeal, but it’s a wonderful plant that provides building material, privacy, and a tropical feel to your garden.
If you’ve considered planting bamboo, but were put off by the horror stories, see what you think after reading this.
What is Bamboo?
That actually sounds like a silly question because we all know and have seen bamboo, but did you know bamboo is actually a grass? In fact, giant bamboo is the largest grass in the world.
These plants are from the Poaceae family and there are about 1,500 species across the world. Bamboo spreads by rapidly growing aggressive rhizomes that keep producing underground regardless of how much you cut the plant back.
One species can even grow up to an inch and a half every hour!
Bamboo generally grows in tropical and sub-tropical environments and is a hardy perennial in all sorts of weather. We all think of bamboo as only growing naturally in Asia and in hot islands in the Indian Ocean, but did you know there is native bamboo in the United States? You can find them on river banks and in marshy areas.
The stems of bamboo are known as culms and they emerge from the soil at their mature diameter. Then, over the next three or four months, they reach their full height. Over the next few years, the exterior of the culm hardens and the interior decays.
Within about five years, the bamboo is ready to harvest and use for construction, crafts, or other uses.
Varieties of Bamboo
We’re only going to look at the varieties of bamboo that are suitable for planting in your garden or landscaping. There are many varieties that can be used for construction and making things like furniture, textiles, tools, food, or bamboo farming.
There are two types of bamboo growth habits and it’s important you know the difference. It all comes down to the rhizomes under the ground.
Clumping bamboos are sympodial which means they have short rhizomes. They stick close to the plant and spread slowly and controllably.
When you’re told to avoid bamboo, it’s running bamboo. This is the type that takes over your garden seemingly overnight. Running bamboo is monopodial. The rhizomes are long and spread quickly and away from the original plant. Avoid this type in the home garden.
Here are some excellent options for running bamboos:
This genus of bamboo is diverse and includes some attractive species.
Oldhams (B. Oldhamii) is a popular, large variety and is seen all over North America. In ideal conditions where it receives lots of water, it can reach a massive 50 feet high and 15 feet across. It is a strong bamboo used in construction and furniture making.
Buddha Belly (B. Ventricosa) comes in both a dwarf and giant variety. The stem parts in between the rings resemble a fat Buddha belly. The giant variety can reach 45 feet high with a 15-foot spread. The dwarf variety is compact and even suits being planted in a container.
Tiny Fern (B. multiplex) is. as the name suggests, a little variety. It won’t grow any higher than three feet, so if you want to dip your gardening toes into bamboo growing, or you just have a tiny spot, this is a great start.
While most bamboo is grown in warm regions, many Fargesia species will survive freezing temperatures.
Umbrella Bamboo (F. Murielae) has new shoots that start out as a striking blue, before turning green and yellow with age. The culms are narrow and can withstand temperatures as cold as -20ºF.
Blue Fountain (F. Nitida) has culms that are dark blue to purple, with robust, cascading foliage. The plant gets to about 15 feet tall with culms about one inch in diameter. This is another cold-hardy variety.
Dragon Head (F. Rufa) grows to about 10 feet tall, and this species of bamboo likes a little shade. The culms are thin and are fine and can survive down to -15ºF.
This genus comes from Latin America and is also cold tolerant. While most culms are hollow, these ones are almost solid.
C. gigantea grows up to 25 feet tall with a narrow inch-and-a-half culm that is yellow with green nodes.
Borinda is a genus with many decorative bamboos originating from areas around Southern China and Nepal.
Chocolate (B. Fungosa) has dark brown culms and is a weeping variety.
B. papyrifera is an amazing-looking bamboo. The new culms start out light blue and white. As they age, they turn yellow with a wide circumference.
Planting and Propagating Bamboo
You can grow bamboo from seed, but starting off with rhizomes is much easier and more reliable. Of course, it’s also more expensive so you have to decide what works best for you and your budget. If you have a friend with some bamboo, you might be able to nab some free rhizomes from them.
This is my favorite way to increase my bamboo plants.
- Water your bamboo plant well at least a day before, but not to the point the soil is soggy.
- Dig down to the rhizomes as far from the start of the plant as you can.
- Gently lift the rhizomes and look for the roots coming off. You want a section with plenty of roots.
- Choose a section of roots with multiple small culms or buds. These are new bamboo plants in the making. Try to dig up two or three shoots.
- Cut the rhizome off with a sharp pair of secateurs.
- Wash the dirt away from the rhizomes and make sure they’re healthy and disease-free.
- Cut the rhizome into sections, making sure one shoot is on each cutting.
- Fill a container halfway with a seed-raising medium and lay the rhizome flat with the roots facing down and the shoot facing up.
- Cover with some more seed-raising mix, making sure to cover the shoot completely.
- Keep the soil moist.
- The time it takes for the shoot to appear varies wildly, so be patient. Often you will see root formation through the drainage holes of the container before you see the shoot appear out of the soil.
Once you see new growth, stick the plant in the soil where you want it to grow.
Bamboo flowers sporadically and rarely produce seeds. You can buy seeds, but bamboo seed is unreliable when it comes to germination. They also don’t stay viable for long, meaning if you buy some fresh seeds and don’t plant them immediately, they may not germinate by the time you get around to it.
By all means, give seeds a go if you want, but they aren’t the best way to go for growing bamboo.
When you plant them, keep the soil moist and only lightly cover them with seed starting medium. Keep the soil moist until you see new growth.
This strategy is easy. Simply dig a clump away from the mother plant. Make sure you have at least six inches of rhizomes and a few shoots or stems. Replant where you want it to go and water well.
If none of your neighbors have bamboo that they’re willing to share or you just want to start with something new from the nursery, you can always purchase bamboo transplants.
I’d recommend heading to a local nursery to buy transplants because they can guide you as to what will grow best in your area. Big box stores often just carry the same few cultivars that generally do well across the country.
To plant, dig a hole twice as wide and the same size as the container it comes in. If your soil is sandy or clay, dig even wider and amend the soil with plenty of well-rotted compost or manure.
Remove the plant from its container and plant it in the center of the hole. Fill around it with amended soil to firm the bamboo in place. Water well.
How to Care for Bamboo
There are so many types of bamboo that you can find one for almost any area, from USDA Growing Zone 3 to 11. There are cold-hardy types, and varieties that prefer sub tropical and tropical environments.
What is important is determining what grows in your area and making sure the conditions are right for successful growth.
Soil should have rich organic matter dug in well. Bamboo is a forest plant and enjoys a thick layer of natural organic mulch. Loamy soil is best with a pH level of around 6.0.
Most bamboos require full sun with a little shade. Other types are happier in shadier positions. Determine what your type prefers.
Freshly planted bamboos generally require frequent watering. If it is hot and dry, you should look at watering up to four times a week. The soil should stay moist but not wet, though some dryness is tolerated by some species.
Use a fertilizer high in nitrogen. Usually, a standard grass or lawn fertilizer is sufficient. Feed once in spring and again in summer. Bamboo is a fast-growing plant, but fertilizer keeps it healthy.
If you are looking to form a dense screen, plant bamboo about five feet apart (depending on the cultivar). For a bamboo grove effect, you can plant 10 to 20 feet apart depending on the type and its growth habit.
Clumping bamboo should be thinned or pruned to keep it looking good. Aim to maintain an upright appearance by cutting the outer culms back to ground level. Trim away any damaged or unsightly interior stems.
4 Tips For Containing Bamboo
- Dig a trench around your bamboo plant to prevent it from spreading to where you don’t want it to go. The trench should be about 20 inches deep. Backfill it with stones or large rocks.
- Use a bamboo barrier. This is usually made of plastic and comes in various thicknesses. It is best installed when you first plant the bamboo, much like deciding on the size of the garden when setting up a raised garden bed.
- Remove rhizomes that appear out of the soil. Make sure to dispose of them so they don’t grow elsewhere in the garden.
- Plant in big, sturdy pots and repot every year to remove some of the root system and rhizomes.
- Plant in raised beds.
Companion Planting For Growing Bamboo
Plant the following with bamboo, but feel free to experiment with shade-loving plants with shallow root systems.
- Ornamental grasses
Problems and Solutions For Growing Bamboo
Bamboo is fairly hardy and you don’t have to do much to help it grow big and happy. That said, from time to time, pests and diseases might attack. Here are the most common issues to watch for.
Bamboo Spider Mites
These tiny creatures (Stigmaeopsis spp.) appear when it is especially hot and dry. You may notice yellowing leaves combined with webbing on the undersides. Preventing the mites from increasing in numbers is essential.
Use a good insecticidal soap or regular sprays of neem oil. If you know hot and dry weather is on the way, consider preventative spraying.
As with most plants, bamboo is susceptible to aphids. See our comprehensive article on how to identify and treat aphids here.
Like aphids, bamboo (Palmicultor lumpurensis) and noxious mealybugs (Antonina pretiosa) suck the sap out of the leaves creating loss of vigor. You may see a sticky, white fluff on the plant. Peel this away and you will see little pink bugs underneath.
Introduce parasitic wasps from the genera Coccophagus, Leptomastix, Allotropa, Pseudaphycus, and Acerophagus. Lady beetles, lacewings, and pirate bugs are also natural predators.
You want to encourage natural enemies like these which is why you should avoid using broad-spectrum insecticides. Instead, you can wipe the mealybugs with isopropyl alcohol.
Bamboo Mosaic Virus
Bamboo Mosaic Virus (BaMV) usually spreads from infected with gardening tools carrying the virus or a plant that carried it from a nursery. Leaves become discolored and the plant begins to die back from the top, down.
There is no real cure for this, but hard pruning may help to keep the plant alive and healthy. Otherwise, you’ll need to pull the plant and start over. Give the soil a year to recover (and the virus to die) before you plant new bamboo.
Rot is caused by is a fungus (Armillaria spp.). You will often see mushrooms growing on the outside of the plant, especially in the middle of the stem clumps. Unfortunately, you will need to remove the stems and the rhizomes to prevent spread.
Rust is another fungal disease, caused by pathogens in the Kweilingia, Puccinia, Uredo, Phakospora, Stereostratum, and Tunicopsora genera.
This disease usually appears in older plants or bamboo that is heat stressed. You will see rust appear on the leaves and eventually spread to the canes. Use a copper-based fungicide and make sure the bamboo receives the water and fertilizer it requires.
Beyond just allowing it to look nice in the yard, there are so many ways to use bamboo. Tools, textiles, furniture, food, flooring, fuel, trellises, stakes, and more.
If you have a chicken coop, use the larger stems to make perches. Have an unsightly wall you want to cover? Make a bamboo fence or facade. You’re really just limited by your imagination.