Growing bamboo

by James Alexander-Sinclair

Bamboos can be divided into lectomorphs (which do run) and pachymorphs (which tend to clump). Both forms have specific uses and benefits.

BambooA fortnight ago I wrote about bamboos, and how they are used in Asia. I admit that this was a little indulgent and not completely relevant to your gardens. Still, occasionally it is good to wander off the straight and narrow.

However, some of your comments were appeals that I should give warnings about the general invasiveness of some sorts of bamboo. This is an excellent point so I thought a small blog on the subject may be helpful.

There are many myths about bamboo - the most widespread being that once planted, a bamboo will spread like a forest fire and forcibly colonise great chunks of garden. The truth is, as with all things in gardening, that if you choose the wrong plant for your situation then you are setting yourself up for tears and disappointment.

About 200 varieties of bamboo are hardy in this country. These are mostly evergreen and, having come from places like the Himalayas and China, can take a lot of harsh weather. The important thing to remember is that although they will survive most things, the growth rate will be very different depending on the situation - for example a plant in Aberdeen will never reach the height and breadth of its twin in Cornwall.

So which bamboo should you choose?

Bamboos can be divided into lectomorphs (which do run) and pachymorphs (which tend to clump). Both forms have specific uses and benefits. Lectomorphs can make a fantastic windbreak or hedge (their running rhizomes can be channelled in a specified direction by sinking concrete slabs either side of the plant). They are not really the right choice for a small garden or a tidy gardener. Pachymorphs form a clump (although the clump will, obviously increase in time) which makes them perfect as big specimen plants in lawns or as part of a mixed border planting.

Some varieties of bamboo look great in pots, but bear in mind that they will be hungry, thirsty and will need dividing – often with a saw and a lot of swearing - every two years. The following can be grown in pots:

Chimonobambusa tumidissinoda - very striking swollen nodes on the culms. Only small at 1.5m with arching foliage.

Fargesia murieliae - forms dense, arching clumps of very leafy canes. Spectacular on a terrace where the rustling and swaying becomes more mesmerising.

Semiarundinaria yashadake 'Kimmei' – lots and lots of thin yellow canes with narrow green stripes. 2.5m high

The following are clump-formers:

Thamnocalamus crassinoides 'Merlyn' - graceful 4m-high, blue-stemmed plant with tiny leaves. Perfect for the smaller garden.

Phyllostachys dulcis - grown in China for its sweet, edible shoots. Here it can get as high as 6m, with exceptionally thick culms.

Phyllostachys nigra - very popular bamboo with polished ebony coloured stems if grown in the sun.

Phyllostachys vivax 'Aureocaulis' - maybe the most spectacular hardy bamboo. It is very tall (sometimes over 6m), with striped golden yellow culms.

Chusquea culeou - wonderful plant with lots of tightly packed leaves that make bottlebrush effect. Forms a dense clump 4m high.

The following are suitable for growing as hedges and boundaries:

Pseudosasa japonica - commonly known as arrow bamboo because of its very straight culms. Lots of large glossy leaves. Between 2m and 4m high. Very invasive.

Phyllostachys aureo-suculata - strange kinks in the lower parts of the culm. Very guardsman-like and upright, so would be good for lining a pathway. Green culms with golden grooves. 4-6m high.

Obviously this is just denting the surface - if I carried on it would take up far too much room and you would soon drift away. Try the RHS Plantfinder for nurseries which can offer you more choices.

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Talkback: Growing bamboo
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Gardeners' World Web User 13/04/2011 at 12:25

I have succesfully grown Bamboos for the past eight years both in pots and in the ground, Originally started with two good plants last year had fourteen plants. But with the winter we have just had have lost (I think) ten of them only the planted (P.Nigra) survived and one sheltered (P.vivax) Do you think the damaged could be revived?

Gardeners' World Web User 14/04/2011 at 20:30

thanks that was very helpful,my son told me bamboo would invade the foundations of my house.A bit of an exageration obviously!

Gardeners' World Web User 15/04/2011 at 14:42

I have to say I'm not much of a fan of bamboo, but then the ones in my garden were planted by the previous owners and are now spreading and popping up all over the lawn. I know it'll be back-breaking to dig up the huge root balls, but does anyone know of an efficient way of getting rid of the runners without digging up my entire garden once I've done this?

Gardeners' World Web User 16/04/2011 at 00:02

Thanks James, this is a really useful post. I have experienced an invasive bamboo before in one of my previous gardens which went mad and started to invade just about every corner of the garden! In the end I had to dig it all out which was a hell of a job. Since this experience I have always planted bamboos in a dustbin or large pot buried in the ground to restrict their spread! this does actually work quite well but it's now nice to have this list so that I can be a little more 'selective' when choosing bamboos. I am planning a tropical/jungle area in my garden and bamboos will feature so I shall keep this list for reference! Many thanks Higgy

Gardeners' World Web User 16/04/2011 at 20:55

... more importantly, how do i kill it?! it's taking over the patch designated for it (my dad didn't really think it through when he was planting it) it's already made it's way to my neighbours' garden and i want to get rid of it completely without breaking my back and digging it all up. any suggestions?

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