- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 9, 2003

That plant grows as much as a foot a day and can be very invasive, but is also attractive and creates effective audiovisual screens?

Answer: bamboo.

“I think it’s a beautiful plant, but you have to work hard to contain it,” says Bronwyn Dean, whose Capitol Hill yard contains a growing patch of 15-foot-tall bamboo. “If you don’t, it’ll take over your yard.”

The explosive growth of bamboo can be beneficial — creating privacy screens and, for other cultures, providing a popular, cheap building material and a source of nutrition — and detrimental — killing other plants and growing out of control.

This is why gardeners need to learn about the type of bamboo — there are many varieties, the tallest of which can grow to 100 feet — they are planning to plant, says Ted Jordan Meredith, a gardener based in Kirkland, Wash., and author of “Bamboo for Gardens.”

“The key is understanding its growth habit. Then you can figure out what control methods work for you,” Mr. Meredith says.

New bamboo, which is generally a hardy plant and has few demands for special soils or watering conditions, goes through a growth spurt in the spring where it can reach 90 percent of its final height in 30 days, he says.

“Bamboo is a real survivor of a plant,” Mr. Meredith says. “It doesn’t have a lot of demands.”

Types of bamboo that do well in this mid-Atlantic climate include Fargesia murielae and Fargesia nitida, both “running” bamboo. Running means that the main stem sends out underground roots several feet long from which new shoots come up.

There is also a “clumping” type of bamboo. This type sends out shoots only a few inches from the main stem.

Both types can be invasive, spreading quickly and shading out other plants if not appropriately controlled.

Containment

Ms. Dean says she cuts the new shoots during the spring growing season to prevent her bamboo from spreading.

“I’m out there every weekend during the growing season, cutting and breaking off new shoots,” she says.

Mr. Meredith says it’s important to start pruning the bamboo in the late winter or early spring. In their first year, the roots will be close to the surface of the ground and tender and much easier to dig up and get rid of than later on when they become thicker and tougher.

Mr. Meredith, who has a bamboo garden at his Kirkland home, uses a flat-bottom spade to dig up new, unwanted root extensions.

Another method of containing the growth is to use polyethylene or other types of plastics as barriers. The barriers should be placed vertically in the ground, about 2 feet to 3 feet deep, to stop the bamboo roots from spreading.

Bamboo also can be contained by planting it next to natural barriers such as bodies of water — for example, streams — and roads.

Alexandria resident Ed Raduazo, a retired engineer and bamboo enthusiast, has helped the American Horticultural Society, also in Alexandria, cut down and contain its bamboo.

“We went from four acres of it to less than three acres,” Mr. Raduazo says.

Mr. Raduazo says it’s important to use caution when cutting down bamboo, since the remaining stalk can be very sharp.

“I got a big cut in my forehead once when I was cutting down bamboo,” he says.

He says to cut the stem as far down and close to the ground as possible. The cut should be completely horizontal, not creating any sharp corners, he says. He uses a regular pruning saw to cut down bamboo. Since bamboo is hollow, it’s easy to saw through. It is also lightweight and fairly easy to handle once felled.

While Mr. Raduazo loves bamboo and has learned how to build tomato cages, fences and other structures in the past few years, he says he would never plant it in his own garden.

“I just don’t have that kind of space,” he says of bamboo, which he also calls “your classic bad neighbor vegetation” because of its invasiveness.

Building with the plant

Many bamboo gardeners end up with more bamboo than they expected. One way to reap benefits from this excess growth is to use the bamboo to make simple structures, such as fences, tomato stakes or cages, and even fishing poles.

“I like making supports for tomato plants,” Mr. Raduazo says, “and you can make a fence in a minute.”

With the right tool — a bamboo-specific splitter — it is easy to split the stalks into manageable pieces. It’s also important to pick aged bamboo, more than a year old, to use for building material, Mr. Raduazo says. The older bamboo is drier and less likely to be bug-infested, he says.

For short and temporary wicket fences, Mr. Raduazo just arches the split bamboo stalks, which may be a few feet long, planting the ends in the ground. He then takes another piece of split stalk and does the same thing, overlapping the first one by a few inches.

For more durable fences, he plants posts of a stronger hardwood a few yards apart and then fastens a weave of bamboo onto the posts. The classic way of fastening the weave is tying it on with twine, but Mr. Raduazo has found that drywall screws are more durable, if less attractive.

It’s important to note that outdoor bamboo structures only last for so long, up to four years, Mr. Raduazo says. They take a beating in rain and wind, and can split and rot at the end of their life span.

Other easy-to-make bamboo items are fishing poles (no need to split the bamboo if the stalks are thin) and tomato stakes (split the stalk and use the split pieces to support plants).

Part of the appeal of bamboo to such enthusiasts as Mr. Raduazo and Mr. Meredith is its versatility. People use it to build everything from homes to fences. It is an important food in Asia, and people all around the globe enjoy its beauty.

“When I first got into bamboo, I thought, ‘Gee this is a pretty plant,’” Mr. Meredith says, “but then when you find out how useful it is for so many people around the world, it really becomes beautiful.”

More info:

Bamboo sources

• www.bamboo.org — for general information — American Bamboo Society’s Northeast chapter: 518/458-7618.

• www.hidatool.com — for tools

• www.bamboosourcery.com — for plants

• www.bamboonursery.com — for plants

Books

• “Bamboo for Gardens,” by Ted Jordan Meredith, Timber Press, 2001.

• “The Craft and Art of Bamboo: 30 Elegant Projects to Make for Home and Garden,” by Carol Stangler, Lark Books NC, 2002.

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