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Running Bamboo! How to Get Rid of thisaggressive grower if you don't want it —or plant it safely if you do
Question. You once discussed usingvinegar to kill bamboo. Can you provide this information again? I amdesperately trying to kill the bamboo in my back yard.
---Dianne inBowie, MD
Mike: I have a property that borders an apartment complex and want toblock the view with some tall evergreen plants. I see bamboo used a lotaround here, but I've also heard it called 'Damn-Boo', and am concernedabout it spreading into unwanted areas. What do you think? Andwhat variety of Bamboo would grow tall enough (20+ Ft) here? Thanks,
---Jim inSwarthmore, PA
Dear Mike: Several weeks ago I was talking with my 80 year old aunt inWestchester, New York, and she mentioned that her son had plantedbamboo in his rose garden. I have seen it out of control in nearbyyards, told her what a nightmare the stuff can become, and suggested mycousin read your columns on the subject. Well, instead she tore it allout without telling her son, who was angry to say the least. He said itwas a special variety that does not spread that he had spent $118on! (He did add that he knew of the problems with other types, asa friend had rented a backhoe to clear a bunch that had spread from aneighbors yard.) Are there really non-invasive varieties? And lessexpensive places to get them? (I am thinking of replacing his.) Andwhat do you think about bamboo and roses?
Answer. Poor Sue! That's a tough wayto learn Gardening Lesson #1: You can tell other people what you thinkall you want, but never pull up their plants. Or pants.
Anyway, yes; there are 'nice' ones. As our good friend Ric Venzie,bamboo curator at the famed Japanese House in Philadelphia's FairmountPark has explained many times on the show, the wide, wide world ofbamboo (there are around 2,000 different varieties; here are a few ofRic's favorites: http://www.whyy.org/91FM/ybyg/bamboo.html)can be broken down generally into two groups: Well Behaved andGodzillas of the Garden.
"Clumping bamboos" grow like ornamental grasses—in big clumps thatdon't 'run' like the invasive varieties. But they DON'T just sit thereeither. The clumps expand outward by a few inches to a few feet everyyear, depending on the variety—and the soil and climate they're growingin. So 'yes' to some, but 'no' to others amidst roses. (Actually, 'no'to me, period. I think these plants look best displayed as 'specimens',all on their own.) The best-known clumpers for the Northeast are oftenreferred to simply as the "Fargesias" (often whether they technicallyare or not). And yes, Ric assures me, clumping bamboos can beexpensive. To help you shop around, here's a link to a great list ofsources (including several that seem nicely local to Sadly SorrySuzie): http://www.americanbamboo.org/SpeciesSourceListPages/PlantAndProductSources.html#DomesticSources.The source of this link is also one of the best overall websites aboutgrowing bamboo in the US: www.americanbamboo.org. Lots of great infothere.
The ones that are always threatening to take over the world are knownas 'running bamboos'. They spread by underground rhizomes, and CAN besafely planted inside restraints, but are perhaps the toughest invasiveplants to eradicate when they are not.
Ned Jaquith, proprietor of "Bamboo Garden Nursery" in Portland,Oregon (www.bamboogarden.com)explains that the most accepted method of containment is to excavate atrench 30 inches deep and line it with "rhizome barrier", a heavyplastic sheeting designed to control aggressive plants. Most are 40 milthick, but Ned had a 60-mil product made especially for his nursery (heestimates that 60 mil is about one-twentieth of an inch).
The pieces must be clamped together with special metal straps andbolts, the side facing the bamboo should be angled so that the rootsare always deflected up (if its leaning the wrong way, the roots canget under the barrier, especially in loose fertile soil), there shouldbe a lip above ground, and you should always be pruning back any culmsthat come up right next to the barrier. And that's just the shorttake—here's a link to more detailed containment directions from Ned'sexcellent website: http://www.bamboogarden.com/barrier.htm. (Note: Just about any specialized bamboo nursery will carry rhizomebarrier and fasteners, and—perhaps most important—be able to recommendprofessionals to do the actual work. I get tired just thinking aboutit!)
You can also contain running bamboo with a steam or other form of waterthat does not include a liner (they'll sneak under it). A wide, deepditch filled with gravel will also stop them, as will a real road—butthey'll sneak under a typical asphalt driveway. You could also pourconcrete. "Bamboo Ric" Venzie and I have often discussed using sheetmetal or corrugated roofing plastic as a kind of Cowboy RhizomeBarrier, but Ned and Ric both warn that the pieces would have to befastened together perfectly to prevent the rhizomes from sneakingthrough.
Properly contained, however, running bamboo makes a perfect privacyscreen. "Arrow bamboo" (Pseudosasa Japonica) is the one most commonlyused in the Northeast; it grows to be around 20 feet tall, is thick anddense, looks great all year long—and believe it or not, is lessaggressive than many other running types. (God help us all.) Varietychoices vary greatly with climate—find a source close to you and asktheir advice.
Eradicating running bamboo is tough. Take a good look at thatadvancing grove—it's actually one big plant, all growing out of onegiant rhizome. The backhoe option is a good one; use it to remove everyblessed piece of rhizome, which of course you won't be able to do. Butany new culms that sprout up from rhizome shreds will be individuals;you should be able to dig these little orphans up and be done. But bewarned; if it's coming over from a neighbor, you'll still need arhizome barrier to stop future incursions.
If you have the patience, Ric and many others report success starvingthe roots. Cut the entire grove to the ground, preferably beginning inthe Spring, when the rhizome has the least inherent energy. Let itre-grow until leaves appear on the culms, then cut it again. Andagain…. Producing culms takes a lot of energy out of that big honkin'rhizome underground, but the culms can't collect solar energy to feedit—only leaves can. Ric says you'll see each successive run gettingweaker, until finally, what he calls 'the last gasp' will appear—afinal desperate spurt of growth that looks more like zoysia grass thanbamboo. That's the time to soak the area with a 20% vinegar or otherintense non-chemical herbicide (see lastweek's Q of the Week for all the details) and finish it off. Ric says he's been able to eradicate groves this way in 3 or 4 years.If that's too long for you, I got two words: "backhoe". OK—its actuallyone word. Stickler.
And finally, a gentleman named George Shor, who was unavailable for anactual interview (but who kindly directed us to Ned instead) createddetailed directions on long-term grove eradication for the AmericanBamboo web site. Here's the link: http://www.americanbamboo.org/GeneralInfoPages/ControllingBamboo.html.)
You Bet Your Garden Question of the Week ©2005Mike McGrath