Bamboo: A Beginner's Guide
What’s to Like
There’s a lot to like about bamboos. They’re easy to grow; they require less water than most plants; they’re fast-growing once established; and they have a graceful presence. Bamboos are evergreen and can also do a lot of screening in a narrow space. They can also be elegant and exotic—adding lots of personality to a garden.
What’s Not to Like
Unfortunately, there are also a few things not to like about them. Once you know these qualities, however, you can take mitigating actions. But you must consider these in making your decisions about which to plant. Here are two things to consider: running-type bamboos (there are clumping-types, see below) can literally take over an entire garden and can be extremely difficult to remove; additionally, while they are evergreen (meaning they retain leaves year-round,) bamboos shed leaves and leaf sheaths constantly—much more heavily during their most active growing season.
How to Minimize Drawbacks
Running-type bamboos can be contained by surrounding them with galvanized sheet metal or concrete to a depth of 2- to 3-feet. You can also use large, concrete flue pipes. Plastic sheeting or plastic pots with bottoms removed rarely work; the runners will split the plastic and off they go. Another alternative is to plant clumping-type bamboos. These expand slowly as clumps on very short underground stems. They won’t get away from you.
As for leaf litter, you (or your mow-blow-and-go guy) must either plan on cleaning it up weekly or let it fall to become mulch. In either case, you won’t want to plant bamboo near a pond or swimming pool. Or if you’re a neat-freak, near patios or walkways.
The Bamboo Family
The bamboo family is comprised of several types of plants. These include true bamboos (Bambusa,) and other plants such as Fargesia, Phyllostachys, Sasa and others. Don’t be confused—these all comprise the bamboo family.
Always buy a clumping bamboo from a reputable nursery. If the plant is unlabeled or purchased from a backyard or power-line nursery, it may not be what you’re told it is. Popular varieties are ‘Alphonse Karr’, a well-behaved true bamboo with interesting coloring; fernleaf bamboo, smaller than ‘Alphonse Karr’, with finer, closely-spaced leaves; ‘Golden Goddess’, a compact type that’s good for screening and does well in a container; and Buddha’s belly bamboo, with unique, swollen stems when grown in containers or in poor, dry soil.
Large-scale clumpers are clumping giant timber bamboo that’s great for big, dense screens; and blue bamboo, with arching branches striped blue at first, then green and yellow. Mexican weeping bamboo has very narrow leaves giving a lacy look. Stems arch, nearly touching the ground. It’s drought-tolerant once established.
There are many types, but three are most common and are desirable for their unique qualities. Golden bamboo can survive on little water and provides a dense screen. Giant timber bamboo is dramatic and can create large, beautiful groves if you’ve got plenty of room. Black bamboo is popular for its stems that turn black in the second year, creating a stunning contrast with green leaves and stems. Give it some afternoon shade in hot valleys.