Growing Bamboo in the Northeast
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Promoting the Beauty and Utility of Bamboo

Growing Bamboos in the Northeastern U.S.

By Paul Schneider

Years ago, I began a long love affair. I discovered bamboo in Chinese and Japanese art, and I nurtured that love during time spent in Japan and Hawaii. Then seven years ago, I read an article by Wayne Winterrowd, “Bamboos at the Limit,” in Horticulture magazine, and attended an Arnold Arboretum seminar on bamboo. From that point on there was no turning back.

I discovered David Farrelly’s The Book of Bamboo that put me in touch with the real worldwide ethic and importance of bamboo. I joined the American Bamboo Society and through it found that there were others who felt as strongly as I about this plant. As soon as I realized that there were nursery sources for bamboo, I decided that I would try to incorporate as many hardy species as possible in my landscaping plan. Bamboo has proven to be an aesthetic asset to our garden here in Cambridge, New York (north of Albany on the Vermont border; confirmed Zone 4). It mixes well with many other plants both perennial and annual. Depending on the species, it can be used as a tall or medium background plant, a “statement” plant or as a low border or ground cover plant. Now, my love grows in my own garden.

This time of year, when my heart is yearning for warm, I walk the paths of my garden, taking a certain pleasure in knowing that beneath the mulch and snow my bamboos are getting ready for spring. At times like this, my mind turns to the questions I get from garden visitors during the rest of the year when the bamboos are out of their snowy retreat and growing lustily. I’d like to build this article around some of these questions.

  1. "Why bamboos in this climate [Zone 4]? There are several answers that come to mind as far as “Why?” I’ve already expressed my growing “love affair” with this plant and it’s garden versatility. Yet another answer is the challenge to try to work with a plant that normally doesn’t grow in your gardening area. I think I can safely say that most gardeners I know are willing to experiment with new plants particularly if they feel challenged by the opportunity to grow the plant in question.
  2. How can bamboos grow in this climate? To grow bamboos, New England gardeners must be willing to accept the challenge of working with a plant that normally doesn’t grow in their climactic zone. And they must also understand that the taller bamboos will not grow to the height they would reach in Zones 5 or warmer. In a particularly hard Zone 4 winter (worst case scenario: a bare ground January, minus 30°F with wind) most bamboos will act like herbaceous perennials, losing leaves and stems to ground level. For most Zone 4 gardeners, this shouldn’t be too much of a shock since this is the norm for most plants in our area.

    The good news is that if you choose your plants carefully for hardiness, you will find that they tend to have double hardy root (rhizome) systems. In seven years of experimentation, I have yet to lose a bamboo completely. To manage this the gardener must consider two factors of primary importance: site and protection. Proper siting of a plant can give as much as a whole zone’s worth of protection. For example, the south side of my house is a warmer environment than the north side. The evergreen trees along the western border prevent cold prevailing westerlies from sweeping across the area, making it a micro-climate perfect for safely growing Zone 5 plants. Locating these areas on your property will give the bamboos (or any “tender” plant) their best chance of success.

    Protecting your bamboo plants is the second step to consider and this is where you can get a bit innovative. Here in our garden, protection starts with plenty of mulch from the time the bamboo is first installed. For years we have used various combinations of the following: spent mushroom compost, straw from a brood mare farm, chopped maple leaves, and pine needles. This heavy mulching makes a rich organic feeding bed for the bamboo rhizomes and gives them a friable insulated blanket against the winter cold. The second step of protection is bending the bamboo canes over so that they can be held low to the ground and then fixed in that position for the winter. Green bamboo is very supple. The live stems or “culms” can be grasped at the base, forced down and held in place with strips of bamboo pushed into the ground perpendicular to the canes, over the canes and then into the ground on the other side, creating half hoops of bamboo to hold the culms down. (Hoops can also be made from stiff wire, cuttings from other shrubs, etc.) With the culms in this position it is easy to mulch them with straw or any sort of evergreen boughs. Don’t mulch so heavily as to block all air flow to the plant or it can cause rot during the winter. The idea of this mulch is to catch enough snow to give the plant a perfect blanket of insulation.

    Even in a winter like this one, where we have had first heavy snow cover, then warm temperatures causing melting, then subzero temperatures, the live stems will remain strong with proper mulching. There may be some leaf die-back, but ultimately the plants will leaf out in the spring.

  3. Isn’t bamboo terribly invasive? Usually the person asking this question has heard horror stories about what a problem it can be to remove bamboo when it has gotten out of control. There is no doubt that the temperate running bamboos are the ones that do best in a Zone 4 climate. As a result, unless you have unlimited space in which to grow your bamboo, you need to take precautions to control rhizome spread.

    For someone who wants to use bamboo as an accent plant and contain it in really tight quarters, you could use a method that I have found to be quite successful. Take a large plastic pot and using a saber saw (with a very fine toothed blade) remove all of the bottom except for about one inch. You now have a pot with sides and a one inch lip in the bottom. Cut two layers of coarse plastic window screen into circles that will fit into the pot and rest on the bottom lip. This pot can now be placed into a hole dug at your selected location. The hole should be deep enough so only the very edge of the pot is visible. Use a mixture of humus (rich garden soil) and gravely sand as a basic mix for planting. To this mixture you can add fine pine bark mulch, compost or composted sawdust, or a mixture thereof to free up the mix. Plant the bamboo in the center of the pot using normal potting techniques. Lightly dust pine bark or the mulch of your choice over the planting so you don’t see the edge of the buried pot. Depending on the size of the pot, general growing conditions and the aggressiveness of the species you are growing, a plant can grow under these conditions for at least three years or more without having to be removed and split up for repotting. Here in our garden we have plantings of Phyllostachys aureosulcata, Golden groove bamboo, which will be celebrating their fourth summer in 40 gallon Rubbermaid garbage barrels, cut in half and buried to the rim. Last summer’s new growth was nearly eight feet. Truly a fine accent plant!

    Another form of invasiveness control is the use of a buried barrier. This could be some form of flexible plastic. I have been experimenting with Vivak, a clear flexible glazing material purchased in four foot by eight foot sheets, approximately 40 thousandths of an inch thick. This is cut in half to create two strips, two feet by eight feet. By overlapping the ends and securing them together with small screws, you can make long barrier strips which are buried in a ditch around the bamboo planting. This sort of barrier allows you to make freeform patches of bamboo or mini-groves that have a more natural look. A mini-tiller of the Mantis type, is the perfect tool to dig ditches for barrier material. This barrier method may seem like a lot of work, but the end result is worth it. If your soil is particularly sandy, it may be a good idea to go as deep as three feet with the barrier. When placing the barrier, tip the top edge of the material away from the planting area. When the rhizome hits the barrier, it will follow the upward angle of the plastic, thus leading it out of the barrier where you can trim it off.

  4. What about general care? Bamboo is a woody stemmed perennial in the grass family Poaceae (Gramineae). As such it normally likes a well-drained soil high in organic matter. Very few temperate bamboos like to grow with wet feet. In fact with potted bamboos, the most difficulty I have encountered has been from over-watering or not having an open enough soil mix to drain properly. Many growers fertilize three times per year (late winter, early summer, and late summer) with a high nitrogen fertilizer. I have had success with a controlled release fertilizer applied twice -a late winter/early spring application followed by a late summer/early fall follow-up. Remember that bamboo is a grass and as such needs plenty of nitrogen for healthy growth. Any fertilizer recommended for lawns will work well for bamboo, and the application can always be enriched with dried blood for an extra nitrogen boost. Well-rotted cow manure also works well. Siting is also important: try to place the taller species in sunny locations and the shorter species in shadier locations as this tends to replicate their normal habitat.
  5. What species do you recommend for the northern garden? I have some favorites that seem to prove out each year. Many people are trying other species and certainly will have their favorites. The species I’ll list are by no means the only bamboos that will work in the northern garden.

    Of the taller bamboos that do well, Phyllostachys aureosulcata (golden groove bamboo) and Phyllostachys bissetii (David Bisset bamboo) are two of the best for winter hardiness. Phyllostachys nuda is also reputed to be very hardy. Medium sized species that do well are Arundinaria gigantea (canebrake, the native North American species) and two Fargesia species, nitida and murielae. Particularly interesting, these Fargesias are hardy Chinese mountain bamboos that have a clumping (sympodial) growth habit as opposed to the running habit of most temperate bamboos. This means that these bamboos do not have to be grown in a contained area. They are also quite beautiful, particularly when used as accent plants.

    There are many small bamboos that do well in northern gardens. They are very effective as ground covers, border patches or in hyper-tufa planters. Though they usually will die back in winter, they actually seem to benefit from a severe prune back before they start new spring growth. Remember that these are some of the most invasive of the hardy bamboos and thus should be carefully contained. My favorites include Pleioblastus variegatus (dwarf white stripe bamboo), a beautiful green and white variegated plant; Pleioblastus distichus (dwarf fernleaf bamboo); and Pleioblastus viridi-striatus with its chartreuse/golden foliage in the spring. The smaller bamboos seem to do particularly well in shady locations as they are understory plants in their native habitat.

For me, raising bamboos in northeast New York has been a challenge and a real joy. Broadening my plant base, it has taught me not to be fearful of experimenting with adventurous, vigorous architectural species. Although it would be foolhardy to plant bamboo anywhere in your garden scheme, it would be sadder still to miss the grace and beauty of this most versatile plant by not including it in your garden plans.

Paul Schneider
122 West Main Street
Cambridge, NY 12816

References

Winterrowd, Wayne. “Bamboo at the limit.” Horticulture: The Magazine of American Gardening. September 1988.

Farrelly, David. The Book of Bamboo. Sierra Club-Random House. 1995.

Adapted from New England Gardening News, March/April 1996 issue.


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