Bamboo: elegant solution or flora nightmare?
May 15, 2012 4:10 PM   Subscribe

Should I plant bamboo?

So, I've got two spots in my yard. I'd like to put tall, running bamboo on the north side of the yard to visually break up the huge mass of vinyl-sided two-story garage that my neighbor built close to the property line. We have had a hippie bamboo guy out to discuss installation and he wants to do a 3 sided barrier. You control the runners toward the rest of the yard with a trench and your wiley knife skills. Plus, we'd probably hire him or someone like him for annual maintenance.

We've got two other spots where we are considering clumping bamboo to screen our other neighbor's un-curtained windows (their bathroom and bedroom). These are shady spots which bamboo guy says is good for the plant.

I've heard horror stories but I'm also charmed by the bamboo I've seen out there. Tell me what you think, those who have experience with bamboo!
posted by amanda to Home & Garden (34 answers total)
We had bamboo suddenly appear on its own in our back yard one summer in San Antonio. It was pretty, but much of the yard was impenetrable evermore :-)
posted by lukemeister at 4:20 PM on May 15, 2012

No, no, no running bamboo!!!!!!! NO! In some areas running bamboo is considered invasive and not allowed.

I have a ton of bamboo and I love it. I've got maybe 20 clumps of Hawaiian Gold along my back property line. There are lots of gorgeous varieties of clumping bamboo to be had, check out Tropical Bamboo. The folks there are lovely and very passionate about bamboo and will be happy to answer questions.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 4:21 PM on May 15, 2012 [4 favorites]

Oh, the clumping bamboo along my property line has formed a 50 foot high dense hedge. Total privacy can be had with clumping varieties.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 4:22 PM on May 15, 2012

We had bamboo in a house we were renting. It was everywhere and just kept growing and growing. So, if you have someone to do maintenance on the plants, I think it would be a great idea.
posted by KogeLiz at 4:23 PM on May 15, 2012

*not IN the house, outside of the house
posted by KogeLiz at 4:23 PM on May 15, 2012

No. It will not die, and can you ever be sure you or your heirs will be willing to control it in perpetuity? Also, your neighbors will also have to deal with runners. In perpetuity. And whomever buys the neighbor's houses. Also successive owners of your house. It's really difficult to kill.

It may even be illegal to plant it -- it is in many places.

Please don't. Consider a native species instead.
posted by amtho at 4:26 PM on May 15, 2012

Mr. erst and I are currently battling running bamboo in the yard of the house we just bought. The neighbors tell us the previous owners planted it about 5 years ago.


It is utterly uncontrollable and invading the neighbor's yards, tunneling under fences and control barriers. The neighbors are not very happy about this.

We try to cut it back, and runners that grow almost a foot a day (and no, I'm not exaggerating) spring up near-daily. We're probably going to wind up hiring someone to come dig it all out. We could spend an hour a day trying to keep the bamboo under control. We've spent hours of our weekends just trying to keep it from spreading AND keep it from growing insanely tall and wide.

There is lovely clumping bamboo in the front yard, and it is not a problem. The running bamboo in the backyard, though... *shudder* The word "bamboo" has become a swear word in our household.
posted by erst at 4:27 PM on May 15, 2012 [6 favorites]

I wanted to find a source of ornamental clumping bamboo when I was living in Georgia, so I called the county extension office to see if they could point me towards a nursery anywhere in the state that sold the stuff.

"You want to do what?"
"Plant bamboo."
"Everyone else who calls here is looking for a way to get rid of it."

He wasn't much help.

Anyway, there are nurseries out there that sell the stuff, but for the love of Pete, don't plant the running kind. Shoots will appear many yards away from the main stand and you have to knock them down quick. This is fine if you can stay on top of it in your yard, but may not endear you to your neighbors or public maintenance workers in your area. O_o.

I agree that the stuff is beautiful, by the way - especially in the winter, when a light wind hits it. It was used quite a bit at UGA when I was a student there - large concrete planters that were many yards away from dirt. So, one thing to consider might be planting - even the clumping stuff - in some sort of above-gound impenetrable container of some kind.
posted by jquinby at 4:30 PM on May 15, 2012

Also - what zone are you in? Hollies make a nice privacy screen, remain green year 'round and have the added beauty of the berries in the winter. Ligustrums might work too, though some folks object to the smell of the flowers. Bees love them, though.
posted by jquinby at 4:36 PM on May 15, 2012

Response by poster: FYI: I'm in Portland, Oregon. It is not illegal to plant it here as far as I know.
posted by amanda at 4:55 PM on May 15, 2012

I also live in Portland, and a neighbor's bamboo is currently attempting to take over my backyard, with inch-thick stalks which are impossible to kill.

If it isn't illegal, it ought to be.
posted by xil at 5:03 PM on May 15, 2012

Ah, you're in Portland! Take a trip to the Bamboo Garden Nursery north of Hillsboro (directions: get on 26, take the exit for North Plains, drive until the pavement runs out, drive further). It's a neat place to walk around, and the folk there are happy to answer any questions you may have. And they seem to have nearly every variety known to man, so if they have one to suggest, you can just walk around the nursery and see it.
posted by curious nu at 5:11 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Looks like several varieties of bamboo are on the Portland invasive species list.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 5:18 PM on May 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

Bamboo is beautiful. Never plant the running kind. Only the clumping kind. Double-check before planting any and be sure. Be double sure. Folks warning above know what they're talking about.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 5:39 PM on May 15, 2012

Response by poster: Would love to hear of any experiences with bamboo and barriers....
posted by amanda at 5:47 PM on May 15, 2012

There are 3 Big Lies: 1) The check is in the mail. 2) I'm from the government and I'm here to help you. 3) No, no, this isn't that running bamboo -- this is clumping bamboo.

We bought clumping bamboo from a reputable nursery. We planted it in a cut out section of our concrete-covered backyard. Within a year we were staring at bamboo shoots in the grass part -- more than 10 feet away, under concrete the whole way. Everyone we've talked to agrees that it is impossible to kill. Tiny bits get left behind, and grow back into thickets. It's grass, after all. Have you ever tried to clear grass out from somewhere?

That said, we don't get too upset. In fact, we've started cutting the shoots and putting them around for people to find (coming out of the bathtub drain was a good one). Of course, we don't have to spend hours at it; I don't think I'd be so amused if it was that assaultive.

I've seen bamboo growing in tubs; that might provide enough of a screen without the all-out bamboo experience.
posted by kestralwing at 5:54 PM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

I came in to suggest tubs, on weed matting, on gravel, over concrete, if you must have bamboo.
posted by b33j at 5:55 PM on May 15, 2012

I have bamboo. It is gorgeous to look at - black stalks and green leaves - and a wonderful visual addition to a formerly desolate and weedy side yard where the air conditioning unit lives. Our (former) plant guy said he was doing a barrier. He apparently did not. It is now appearing pretty much everywhere. Our neighbor's yard, under a fence. Our raised vegetable beds, under a fence. I love how it looks, I am beginning to hate how it migrates. I'd avoid it without a barrier or a pretty strong assurance that it's not the kind that spreads.
posted by Cocodrillo at 5:57 PM on May 15, 2012

We have bamboo that was here when we moved in.

Maintenance wise, I don't think it's terrible - about twice a year we thin it all out, and we spend the summer outside with a shovel in the yard chunking out runners every few days. We had a barrier installed around it to try and contain it, and the shoots/runners just tunnel under it.

I know the neighbors hate it; I would too. I will never put it in a house unless it's in an actual aboveground pot (like a bigass watering trough or something similar).
posted by lilnublet at 6:15 PM on May 15, 2012

I moved into a house with established bamboo of an unknown variety. The stand is about 1 foot wide and maybe 20 feet long. It's surrounded by a sheet metal barrier that sticks up a few inches out of the ground - I don't know how deep it goes. I cut back shoots all summer that are 1-2 feet away, with an occasional rogue in the middle of the yard (up to 10 feet away?).

The real problem I have is keeping the stand of bamboo itself orderly - the canes are always flopping over into the yard and I have to cut them back to keep it open. Also, they lean on the fence behind them and the weight has dislodged all my fence posts, so now the fence is flopping over too. I like the way it looks, but having dealt with it for 2 years now, I would never voluntarily plant it anywhere.
posted by periscope at 6:25 PM on May 15, 2012

Yes. But only in pots with the drainage holes blocked so that water can escape but new shoots cannot.
posted by mudpuppie at 6:29 PM on May 15, 2012

The idea that a trench could stop running bamboo is adorably naive. If that, and knives, are your attempts at limitation, well... buy a big knife is all I'm saying.

Running bamboo is the devil's work and an astonishingly fast way to get your neighbours to hate you with the fiery heat of a thousand suns. They might even take you to court. Once you put it in, you will never get rid of out without hundreds if not thousands of hours of work. It is the The Hulk of the plant world: Strong, huge, unstoppable, invincible, green.

Think twice, I beg of you.
posted by smoke at 6:40 PM on May 15, 2012 [6 favorites]

Don't plant running bamboo! Seriously, don't do it. Barriers don't work.

If I saw my neighbor planting running bamboo I'd do everything I could to stop them up to and including taking them to court. It's not going to stay in your yard, no matter what you do and it's hugely time consuming to deal with.
posted by fshgrl at 7:58 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

We have some--the legacy of a long-ago neighbor, apparently. The first year I rented here, I cut and cut and dug and shoveled and all but burned it down to the bedrock, on the landlord's advice. It came back. A tiny corner across a neighbor's fence between a shed and the fence was enough to keep it lively and spreading. I wasn't thrilled with my neighbors or landlord for the last few years, though--so now, I let it grow everywhere, and just knock it down when it gets in the way, trimming some for improvised fishing poles. It's very pretty, but it's a curse and a weapon of neighborly aggression.
posted by LucretiusJones at 8:32 PM on May 15, 2012

Response by poster: So, I'm gonna put you guys in the "No" column then...?


A little more info: the barrier that is installed would be 3' deep with 6" proud of the ground. My understanding is that bamboo runners are shallow. The idea of an open edge is that instead of bunching up and trying to bust through the barrier, they would run out and basically the trench sends those shoots up. Of course, some would run out but easier to cut these in this trench which would be filled with mulch or hazelnut shells. It's an interesting method.

But, I hear ya. We are actually going out to the bamboo farm near Hillsboro tomorrow and I may lean more towards clumping for the window spots and then I don't know what the hell for this ugly garage. Grrrr.
posted by amanda at 8:58 PM on May 15, 2012

Clumping bamboo is wonderful. Do your research, make sure the species you buy really is a clumper (nurseries are not a good source for this info but there's a ton of info online), and you will be glad to own it. My giant timber bamboo (Bambusa old amici) is the best thing I ever planted. Strongly recommended. Do not let people's hatred of running bamboo put you off of clumping bamboo.

It's pretty appalling to go looking for bamboo in a nursery. They'll happily sell you the worst crabgrass of a runner with no warning at all. As you know, runners can be okay with an appropriate investment in containment, but they rarely even mention the need for that. They let unsuspecting customers take home the most invasive species without a word of warning.
posted by artistic verisimilitude at 9:09 PM on May 15, 2012

My bamboo is Bambusa oldhamii (curse you autocorrect!). 45 feet tall, 4.5-inch thick culms, does not spread more than any good shrub or tree. Beautiful. You must get some of this, if you don't get freezes below 27 degrees Fahrenheit.
posted by artistic verisimilitude at 9:13 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


If you haven't already got the message, running bamboo is very bad news and nothing, no trench or barrier or anything else will stop it spreading. Anyone that tells you a 3' deep barrier will stop it spreading (I won't even mention the idea of a trench filled with hazelnut shells) is either lying to you or doesn't know what they are talking about. You cannot contain running bamboo and you cannot kill it. Not that it matters to you where you are, but all forms of running bamboo are illegal to plant here.

On the other hand, I also have Bambusa oldhami at my place, along two boundaries for a total of about 160 metres. After three years of neglect, it's grown to about 12 metres high and is firing up culms up to 50mm in diameter at an alarming rate. But all within a nice area of about 2m x 2m per plant. It is absolutely spectacular and I love it. There are lots of smaller varieties, as this one is not really for the average backyard.

posted by dg at 9:30 PM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

In 2005, we installed a 12-foot line of Golden, a mid-size (~15 ft tall) running bamboo, along our fence line at our home in the Seattle area. We've let it do it's thing, which it's doing quite well, perfectly contained in it's rhizome barrier without any threat of spreading it's leptomorphic tendrils across county lines (at least, not yet). Really, it's all about a quality installation by a professional and occasional rhizome pruning using a sharp, flat-blade shovel (the bamboo farm will probably carry the tool--the blade reaches a good 12" deep). Our installer, a followed the method illustrated here-- a very deep trench with an 80-mil double poly barrier. Your results can vary, of course, but we've been blessed with a healthy, gorgeous tall screen of green that has transformed our side yard. When the sun is filtering through the leaves, and a slight breeze hushes through the stand--just wonderful.

With that said, bamboo will always find a way to outsmart humans. The barrier will, in time, fail. But if you can manage a twice/year maintenance (that takes all of 20 minutes) and the eventual barrier replacement (10 years down the line?), you may find it's well worth the responsibility.

Just an aside: our neighbors inherited a grove of bamboo that runs free in their backyard. It was installed at least 15 years ago by previous owners. The grove is about 10x10' inside the yard, and spreads under the fence in a mirrored 10x10 patch. But, through the years, it hasn't spread beyond this range. Not sure if it's unfriendly glacial till (unlikely) or what, but it's happy with the claim it settled more than a decade ago. Bamboo's weird.
posted by prinado at 10:42 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I work in horticulture. Recently my parents wanted to plant bamboo. After spending a reasonable amount of time trying to persuade them out of doing so (even with clumping bamboo, with a good barrier system, blah, blah blah), I talked to friends in horticulture to make sure I wasn't being over cautious. Uniformly, and loudly, their opinion was that planting bamboo was a bad idea. I think the most frequently used phrase was "Oh God No!"

I was able to report that back to them.
posted by sciencegeek at 2:18 AM on May 16, 2012

"If you hate your neighbors, plant bamboo" is the phrase most often used in our house.

On the other hand, I have heard of success if you: dig a massive hole in the ground, find a cattle trough, dump it in the hole, and plant the bamboo in there.

Since you're in Portland, it might be worth a trip to the Joy Creek Nursery in Scapoose to see the massive stand of bamboo on the property. I think that was the result of one plant found in a dumpster somewhere? I may be mis-remembering the story. And actually, it's almost always a good idea to go to Joy Creek, they're very knowledgeable and it's a nice drive.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 8:18 AM on May 16, 2012

We deliberately planted incense bamboo in our backyard six years ago and it never ran anywhere. Some running bamboo is pretty dang sluggish.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:16 AM on May 16, 2012

You can still use clumping bamboo to hide that garage - just put several plants in along a line. My Hawaiian Golds are 7' on center and when I look out my back windows its just one long line of bamboo. It's beautiful and I highly recommend planting bamboo, just not the running kind.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 11:43 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

The neighboring property to ours has Japanese knotweed in the backyard - not technically a bamboo, but very similar in habit. Folks on our block have tried just about everything we can think of to stop it. Here are just some of the things that do not kill it:

- digging out the root systems, which can be ten feet deep and sixty feet wide (!)
- covering with opaque, watertight tarp for two years (comes right back up as soon as it's uncovered)
- cutting down the stalks (two weeks later you won't even know you did anything)
- treatment with Roundup (may kill individual stalks, but see above)
- gasoline
- muriatic acid
- weed torches
posted by echo target at 12:28 PM on May 16, 2012

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