Bamboozled over whether bamboo is a garden pest or a garden saviour? Graham explains why this lovely group of plants can be both – and how to choose the right one for your needs.
Non-invasive tropical and subtropical bamboo varieties are making a comeback as garden designers fall in love with their strong, upright stems and light, airy foliage.
Don’t dismiss bamboo as only being suitable for Balinese-style or tropical gardens – it works well in native, contemporary and classic gardens, too.
Where to grow
With a bit of research you will be able to find a bamboo that suits nearly every position in the garden: sun or shade, hot or cold, pot or free. Striped, coloured, golden, or black, dwarf, tall or medium – bamboo is a diverse group of plants. Not all bamboos are for tropical climates; some of the bamboos featured in this story will withstand temperatures of minus 15 degrees. Some require good soil while others thrive in poor soils, some sun while others prefer shade.
Photo - zhu difeng/Shutterstock.com
Why choose a bamboo
It is a shame that the bad reputation of this versatile plant precedes it. Many shudder when I suggest its suitability for gardens. But as soon as you see bamboo growing with grace and majesty, many minds will change. As a rule the Bambusa varieties will grow into clumps from 1 to 2m in width, and will never move out of this zone and run into other parts of the garden.
Bamboo is made up of stems or poles called culms and they are the bamboo’s most wonderful attribute, some have striking colours: black, gold, forest green or white, some change as they age – so strong are these poles they are used in the tropics for building, scaffolding and fine art. The foliage is textural, light, tactile and again comes in many colours and variegations. To me, bamboo clumps evoke the uniqueness of China and the pandas but in reality provide a much-needed contrast to other more common garden plants.
All bamboos are happier if fed occasionally: at least once a year during the growing season to encourage the new growth. Bamboo in pots may have to be fed more often as fertiliser quickly leaches out of planters and pots. We recommend a foliar feed of plant health spray sprayed all over the leaves twice a year, mid-spring and mid-summer as well as a dose of pelleted manure in early spring.
Prune bamboo by cutting older canes out at ground level. This makes way for younger fresher canes. To keep clumping bamboos (the non-invasive varieties) vigorous, remove every second or third pole/stem at the base to prevent the stand of bamboo becoming too dense. Choosing the right variety of bamboo to suit your needs will mean you will never have to partly prune back the feathery tops of the canes because they have grown too large.
Photo - hadkhanong/Shutterstockcom
Avoid running bamboos of all descriptions: these are the enemy of all gardeners. These garden pests have Phyllostachys as their genus name and can cause trouble when they grow from one property into another. These bamboos are classified as noxious weeds in some areas.
We understand you may be tempted to grow one of the dazzling coloured running bamboos such as the golden bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea), green onion bamboo (Pseudosasa japonica 'Tsutsuminia') or black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra). It you can’t resist, it’s essential to confine them in pots or in garden beds lined with concrete, special rubber or other impervious root barriers. The depth of the barrier needed varies among species but to be safe it should be at least 1m deep.
The best way to eradicate inherited pesky bamboo is to tackle the whole clump, one stem at a time. Cut off each stem about 15cm above ground level and immediately paint it with undiluted Round Up or Erase. The sap moves back down the stem and draws the poison back with it, effectively killing the whole plant. Repeat treatments may be required.
And while we’re advising on what not to grow - steer clear of sacred Bali bamboo as it is prone to sooty mould and we think ‘Black Brandisii’ bamboo is ordinary; there are much better black-stemmed varieties available.
Did you know?
Given how quickly bamboo shoots, it’s enticing to think of it as a handy homegrown crop. Just make sure you prepare the shoots properly as they contain a toxic substance that can lead to hydrogen cyanide poisoning. To prepare bamboo, choose the freshest shoots and cut at ground level. Slice along the length of the shoot, through the outer leaves, to make these tough leaves easier to peel away. Trim any hairy or fibrous tissue at the base and discard. You should be left with a creamy-white cone of bamboo flesh. Cut it into 1cm slices and boil in lightly salted water for 20 minutes. Drain, rinse well, and conduct a taste test. If there are still bitter flavours in the bamboo boil and rinse again. Your bamboo shoots are now ready for use in a stir-fry or Thai-style curry. You can keep these prepared shoots in a sealed container in the fridge for a week, or freeze them.
Where to buy
Mr Bamboo, Terrey Hills (02) 9486 3604
Bamboo World of Alstonville, mail order service (02) 6628 6988
Bamboo Down Under, Gold Coast (07) 5573 1844 www.bamboodownunder.com.au
Designing with bamboo
Bamboo has many uses and can solve some common garden problems such as lack of privacy, narrow garden beds and dry shade. Here are some of our favourite ways of using bamboo in the garden:
1. Grow bamboo along a fence as a screen to provide the green ‘walls’ of your garden.
2. Plant bamboo in clumps in certain areas of the garden to provide foliage contrast and a focal point.
3. Plant a thick hedge of tall-growing bamboo to give you privacy from a second-storey neighbour (see plant notes for suggested varieties).
4. Plant bamboo as a long border along the driveway to give you a soft foliage wall against the fence.
5. Plant bamboo as a mini forest and let a path meander through, evoking a tranquil Japanese scene.
6. Plant bamboo up in containers, planter boxes or pots to create columns of foliage (see plant notes for suggested varieties). We love the look of colourful feature walls behind that add a wow factor to the courtyard.
How to: grow a bamboo screen
Step 1: Select an upright variety that grows to the height you want. Decide if you need it to grow to one, two or three storeys high.
Step 2: Work organic matter into the soil before planting and add water crystals, then plant at 1-1.5m centres. Plant a soft groundcover beneath, such as liriope or mondo grass to act as living mulch.
Step 3: Prune older canes that look tatty back to ground level and this will make way for younger more colourful canes (or culms).
* Best for narrow screens with less 75 cm planting space:
Bambosa multiplex ‘Gold Stripe’ or B. textilis gracilis
* Best for screens in dry shade: Nepalese Blue and Khasia bamboo with purple and white stripe rings.
* Best to screen a second-storey neighbour quickly: Bambosa vulgaris ‘Oldhamii’ is a great all-rounder if you have the room. It grows very quickly, very erect and lush, will block out the neighbours in 6-12 months and can easily block out a 3-storey window.
* Best to screen a shed or clothes line: B. guangxiensis ‘Chinese Dwarf’ is a green-foliaged bamboo to 3m that looks as though it has been pruned even though it hasn’t
* Best wow factor: ‘Timor Black’ or ‘China Gold’ (4m), which is a gold-stemmed with lovely variegated foliage
* Best for pots: Shade-loving Himalayan blue bamboo and black-stemmed bamboos are two of the best bamboo for pots; they like root restriction and don’t grow too tall. While pots of the smaller growing ‘Baby Panda’ needs to be keep moist. Make a stunning specimen planting with Bambusa multiplex ‘Silverstripe’ in a large container.