Does the thought of bamboo send you into paroxysms of horror? Are you convinced it’s going to take over your yard and maybe the neighbor’s too? Or perhaps you’ve had a bad experience in the past and watched as your prized peonies withered beneath the ever-spreading woody grass.
Contrary to popular belief, bamboo is not the malevolent invasive species it’s made out to be. In fact, it’s not invasive at all. It may spread like wildfire (and we’ll get back to that in a moment) but various species are actually native to North America, South America, Australia, Asia and even Africa!
Let’s talk about why bamboo is so misunderstood and then share some ways that it can make the perfect addition to your landscape.
Are You Sure It’s Bamboo?
Bamboos are members of the grass family. They have large, woody stems but produce no actual wood. There are over 1,400 species of bamboo worldwide!
But not everything marketed as bamboo is actually bamboo. Cultivated plants like Japanese Bamboo, Lucky Bamboo and Heavenly Bamboo resemble real bamboo but are not. They are not even in the grass family. In fact, they spread so aggressively that they are likely partially responsible for bamboo’s bad rap.
Other grasses or reeds are sometimes mistaken for bamboo because of their woody stems and clumping growth. If you want to plant bamboo, be sure it’s the real thing or you could be taking on something you don’t understand – and may even come to regret.
Yes, bamboo can spread like crazy. But that doesn’t mean it will. Bamboo’s unsavory reputation likely arose from being mishandled and mis-planted.
One of the first and most widely sold bamboos in the United States is of the runner variety. Runners send rhizomes (underground stems with roots) many feet away from the parent plant, and they do it quickly. New plants can pop up unexpectedly far from the original growth site, frustrating homeowners’ attempts at containing it.
Unfortunately, running bamboo doesn’t exactly come with a manual, so people who plant it haphazardly in their back yard or garden are going to be wringing their hands in a few years lamenting its “invasiveness.”
Other types of bamboo don’t spread at all. The clumping varieties are incapable of sending roots more than a few inches each year so they’ll never pop up far from the parent plant or in unexpected places. They’ll simply add a few new growth canes each year in a “clump” that stays in one self-contained place.
Running Vs. Clumping
Since clumping bamboo seems like such an obvious choice for homeowners wary of it spreading, why would anyone choose running bamboo? Well, they behave differently so depending on what you want to achieve with your outdoor space, you may prefer one over the other.
Clumping bamboo is a slow grower. It typically grows 1-2 feet in height each year, adding a few new leafy stalks within any clump. Its ultimate height can vary, but if you have a relatively small space, typically 8 feet wide by 10 feet high, then clumping bamboo can be a good option for screening and wispy beauty. It also requires patience. You’ll need 5-8 years for it to reach full height so if you’re looking for privacy ASAP, consider the running variety.
Running bamboo can grow up to 25 feet high within 3-5 years in as little as 5 feet of space. It’s known to “sleep, creep and leap” within the first three years of planting, so if you’re looking for a gorgeous privacy screen along a property line that will grow into place quickly, running bamboo is your best bet.
Planting Bamboo Correctly
If you love the idea of a tall, nearly-instant privacy screen but are still feeling cautious about those runners, you’ll be glad to learn that there are correct ways to plant running bamboo that will keep it in check.
Since running bamboo sends its roots out horizontally, and only up to a depth of 18 inches, planting it behind a polypropylene rhizome barrier will prevent it from spreading uncontrollably. Leaving the bottom of the barrier open will allow water to drain properly, as long as the barrier is deep enough to prevent roots from escaping.
A once-a-year maintenance pruning will keep rhizomes from jumping barriers.
Be warned: not all barriers are created equal. Sometimes concrete barriers are used, which can be effective – until they crack from water, pressure or temperature changes. A cracked barrier is as good as no barrier.
Likewise, metal barriers can rust, wood will decay and plastic ones have seams that can split and allow runners to sneak through.
Choosing the proper barrier and placing it correctly is the key to enjoying running bamboo for years to come without any of the worry about spreading.
Many Reasons To Love Bamboo
You don’t have to take it from us… here’s what one client said of her bamboo screen:
I am so excited about the contained bamboo barrier that Jay recommended when I explained I wanted naturalistic privacy in my backyard and did not want to be able to see my neighbor’s house/yard. We were living in a fish bowl for years. I asked for something that would provide instant gratification and it did. I cannot wait to see it grow! It looks awesome already.
Beyond its ability to screen out your unruly neighbors or provide a nicer view than a retention basin, busy road, or some other eyesore near your property, bamboo has other benefits, too.
It is a vital part of a natural ecosystem, offering shelter for many species of birds that will provide endless birdwatching pleasures and repay your hospitality by consuming pest insects.
Bamboo has the added bonus of being deer-proof. Not only is bamboo an unappetizing meal for deer, but you can use it to screen off an entry point to other areas of your yard or landscape where deer may be sneaking in to chow down on your rose garden.
It can be grown in tight spaces, which makes it perfect for even the smallest of yards. And your inner-environmentalist can smile knowing that it is a carbon-consuming renewable resource that will also help to prevent soil erosion.
If you’re not convinced by now that bamboo can be a pleasing addition to your outdoor space, then close your eyes and imagine its evergreen culms swaying in a winter breeze, or the soothing swishing sound of its foliage rustling on a summer evening.
If you’re enticed by the multi-sensory beauty of bamboo, or if you’re interested in its screening potential, contact us and let us know. We’d love to discuss how bamboo can be a year-round pleasure in your outdoor space.