Everything has its pros and cons, and growing bamboo is no exception. Here’s our foolproof guide on how to plant and grow bamboo at home.
I love bamboo: growing, eating, crafting, building, and listening to the sounds of creaking culms and rustling leaves in the wind.
It provides me with microclimates, windbreaks, privacy screens, animal fodder, wildlife habitat, an endless supply of mulch, delicious tender eating shoots, lots of materials for the garden and building small structures.
My patch also sequesters the amount of CO2 generated by two overseas work flights to Asia each year, or one flight to Europe or the Americas.
Everything has its pros and cons, and growing bamboo is no exception.
What is bamboo?
Bamboo is the world’s largest grass and fastest growing plant, and responses to it range from severe animosity to zealous passion.
The animosity has been driven largely by the invasive and rampant nature of running bamboo species, which don’t respect property boundaries and have thwarted many creative strategies for containment.
What type of bamboo should I plant?
I generally recommend planting only clumping bamboos, which range in size from the smaller hedge species, through to giants of up to forty metres high with culm diameters of twenty centimetres.
Clumping bamboos tend to be tropical and subtropical species. Some species can handle frosts down to –8 °C, whereas others are frost sensitive. Clumping bamboos usually shoot with the onset of the wet season in summer.
5 downsides of bamboo
- Bamboo is greedy: it has an insatiable appetite for water and nutrients.
- It’s allelopathic: excreting compounds from its roots which inhibit the growth of many other plants. So don’t plant bamboo close to your veggie garden or fruit trees.
- It’s a bushfire risk: bamboo burns exceptionally well, and the culms can explode in fire. Don’t plant it too close to your home or where it could be a liability during a bushfire.
- Difficult to remove: running bamboos are almost impossible to get rid of once established. Clumping bamboos are very hard work to dig out and usually need to be removed with the help of an excavator; but even with machines it’s not a cheap or easy process.
Turning problems to solutions: How to grow bamboo
I’ve turned bamboo’s greed to advantage with a hedged Bambusa multiplex ‘Golden Goddess’ windbreak along the southern fence of my chicken forage yard.
In our high rainfall wet season the bamboo keeps the ground from becoming a quagmire – important for chicken health. The chooks make their dust baths under the bamboo where the silica in the broken down leaves reduces problems with external parasites.
The hedge provides protection from cold southerly winds. The canopy provides cooling shade in summer, and makes it hard for birds of prey to attack the chooks. In winter it’s a suntrap and favourite sunning spot for our flock. It has also grown into an impenetrable chook- proof living fence, with a bonus, endless source of materials for garden stakes.
The dense network of bamboo’s fibrous root system makes it an excellent soil stabiliser on steep slopes prone to erosion. You won’t need to do much maintenance around bamboo as it suppresses weeds, but do take care where you plant it.
Selecting and siting suitable bamboos
Design is the art of relative placement, and bamboo can be placed advantageously or detrimentally to surrounding systems.
The first question to address before you start to grow bamboo is: what do you want it for in terms of yield? If you want a ready supply of garden stakes and trellising material, then a hedge bamboo will do just fine.
If you’re after materials for building and crafting, there are many species to choose from, depending on what space you have for growing, your climate and the type of construction or crafting materials you require.
Do your research before you start to grow bamboo. Check both the height and potential diameter of the clump at ground level, and also look at the overall growth habit and shape of the clump: is it upright or does it fan out at the canopy? What aerial space will it occupy? Don’t underestimate how big a clump of bamboo can get.
Design with harvest in mind
Plant bamboo plants where you can access them for harvest, especially large construction species. Ensure you have space to fell the culms and drag them away without damaging other plants or nearby structures.
Once the bamboo is felled, you need space to clean off the branches, and somewhere to treat or cure and store it.
You also need space for piles of unusable bamboo branches, tops and damaged culms, where they won’t be a fire hazard. Bamboo waste also makes exceptionally good biochar.
Harvesting and managing bamboo
Culms are best harvested at three or more years of age. I mark the individual culms of my most valued structural bamboos each year so that I know their age for harvesting.
The most effective way to manage bamboo clumps is by harvesting: young shoots for eating; and mature culms for building and crafting. Most large clumping bamboos are susceptible to the powder borer beetle and require treatment for durability.