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Bamboo basics

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Hints on Buying and Growing Bamboo

Bamboo is a type of giant grass. The shoots (sprouts) of some varieties of bamboo are edible. Bamboo is also a useful material for constrution of buildings, furniture, and other uses.

There are between 1,020 and 1,070 species of Bamboo worldwide and around 200 of the hardier species are sucessfully grown in the UK and Europe. Almost all of the species sold in the UK are fine for growing outside, all the year round, provided they are situated in a suitable place in the garden. Some like a little shade whilst others like full sun. If you have no room in your flower beds they can be grown in large tubs, providing you have a cool greenhouse or conservatory to keep them from the frost in winter. The leaves can withstand very low temperatures, but the roots cannot. Also when keeping bamboo in containers you must be careful that the soil never dries out, as this can be fatal for the plant.

Bamboo plants can be purchased from a variety of outlets including specialised nurseries (can be expensive, but you are assured of a good healthy specimen), garden centres (usually only a few species available), market stalls (usually a lot cheaper), and occasionally, for just a few pounds each, at Car Boot Sales! I have noticed that this year there are more and more outlets selling bamboo, and consequently the price has at last started to come down. There is no point in buying a large expensive specimen from a specialist bamboo supplier if you just want one of the common species and don't mind waiting a year or two for it to mature. If the species on sale is not named, and cheap enough (only a few pounds) take a chance. As long as it looks healthy it will probably make a good plant, and you can always try to identify it later. Small specimens are sometimes hard to identify until they are a few years old, and a good mature culm is visible. Most small leaf bamboos will tolerate a lot of sun, although Fargesia/Sinarundinaria species like more shade. A good guide with small leaf ones is to observe them when in full hot sun. If the leaves fold up they are probably shade preferering species. If the leaves stay open they probably enjoy full sun. Large leaf species usually prefer some shade.

When buying bamboo plants look for a good healthy specimen. Plants in very small pots 3" or 4" are likely to be recently taken divisions (cuttings) and may not have matured. These take a lot more nurturing than larger established specimens. Look for a plant in a 7" pot or larger. Always try to choose a plant with new shoots emerging from the soil, as this will indicate that they have an established root system. Avoid plant with lots of dead leaves and no new shoots, as these could be last year's divisions which have not quite made it! If possible (and a serious nurseryman will not object to this) tap out the plant from it's pot and examine the root ball. If the plant is pot-bound don't worry, as this is a good sign and shows vigourous growth. A good sign is shoots (rhyzomes) encircling the pot trying to travel or get out; this indicates an established root system. Pot bound plants should of course be replanted into a larger pot (two or three inches larger in diameter should suffice) if you intend to keep them as container specimens. If not they can be planted into a suitable place in your flower bed. They are best repotted in spring or summer (their normal growing period) but should be left in their original pots over the winter.Warning... when you plant a bamboo into your flower bed allow plenty of space for it to spread. A few species are fairly compact, but the majority will spread and try to take over your garden. Don't be put off by this, as they will take several years to become large stands (the name for large areas of bamboo), and can be kept in check by removing the straying shoots and runners each year. Another way of keeping them in check is to plant them in a contained area. A large container (minimum 18" across by 24" deep, with drainage holes in the bottom) can be sunk into the ground, or large concrete drain and sewer pipes (at least a metre deep) can be used. This will confine the plant to a small closely knit clump. A recent innovation in my own garden was to use thick plastic shuttering between and around separate species. Take care to water them regularly in hot summers as they can still dry out.

Growing From Seed

A difficult, but not impossible, excercise. You cannot buy (as far as I know) bamboo seeds in a garden centre or nursery, as they are a bit of a rarety. The Bamboo Society has had a scheme up and running for a year or more now, and members are distributed seed that is sent to the Society from all over the world. I have managed to raise over half a dozen varieties myself, in a cool greenhouse; but they do seem to do best on the proverbial 'kitchen windowsill'. They take several months to get to a few inches high, and several years to make a good plant. It is essential that they are planted as soon as possible after receiving or put into cold storage in the refridgerator if conditions are not suitable due to the climate. The best results are with seed planted in the Spring, but you can get results at any time of the year. I managed to germinate some on the windowsill in November. The germination rate can be very low, from only a few percent, to up to 80 percent, so don't be dissapointed if you only get a few to sprout. If you are interested in this please contact the Bamboo Society, below, join up and get your free supply. All it costs is a supply of S.A.E's for your seeds to be sent to you as soon as they are available. If on the other hand, you live abroad, or in a climate where bamboo is seeding, save the seeds and contact the society. Remember, some bamboo only seeds every 150 years!

For details of the European Bamboo Society (Great Britain), email the Membership Secretary, Colin Ellis at

Various Species (with images)

Bamboo Plot

You don't have to have a large garden to grow bamboo, as this picture above shows. This plot is just 10ft wide by 4 ft deep and contains 4 large species at the back and 4 small species at the front, as well as a few small ornamental grasses. The larger species bamboos are separated in the ground by thick plastic dividers, and the smaller species are in pots hidden below the surface of the soil. When, evetually the plants become too big for their individual plots they can have the outer regions cropped and used for divisions for growing on.

Original Content courtesy of Mike J. Goodall, Used with permission

Other Uses for Bamboo

  • Many varieties are edible as shoots
  • Dried, can be used in construction
  • Some varieties have medicinal properties
  • Fencing

Non-Traditional Uses

What about making a labyrinth out of live bamboo plants ? If you had a cheap enough supply of 24" flexible metal (galvanized sheet metal comes in 4'x8' and 4'x12' sheets) you could lay out the paths, then plant the walls with bamboo. After it gets going well, cover the walks with a non-decomposing mulch. What do you think ? How much metal would you need ?



WARNING!!! Bamboo can be very invasive. Even in temperate climates, it can take over a yard in no time at all. I can only image how fast it would grow in the tropics. A solid steel barrier at least 24" tall burried in the ground is one way to stop the spreading. Do not plant uncontained bamboo as a living fence. It will take over your yard, as well as your neighbors'.

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