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Growing bamboo – the beginner’s guide
Last Updated on January 21, 2020 by John
Bamboo makes for a very desirable plant no matter the garden you have, they seem to fit into nearly any planting theme. There are ample types of bamboo that make large cluster ideally suited as a focal point in your garden or as a hedge or screen to the perimeter of your property. They add a great deal of structure and texture to any border. Bamboo grows so prolifically that it can be invasive if it is left to its own devices but you can keep it under control with some simple maintenance or it can even be grown in pots. Below we go everything you will need to think about when growing bamboo from planting to prune as well as some of the favourite varieties.
Types of bamboo
Bamboo comes in two forms: clump-forming or running.
As the name suggests, running bamboo produces runners, long underground rhizomes that will spread like wildfire if not contained in either a pot or with propper pruning. If you want to grow runners, you can pick from bamboos such as hinanobambusa tranquillans ‘Shiroshima’, arundinaria gigantea, chimonobambusa marmorea, or bashania varieties among others.
Clump-forming grows in clumps and are not as invasive so make a popular choice for smaller gardens. These include fargesia, chusquea, thamnocalamus, and others.
Bamboo thrives in moist, well-drained soil and it prefers sunny or locations. All varieties enjoy well-drained soil and sunny spots but are otherwise tolerant of soil types so long as they are not exposed to constantly wet or extremely dry conditions. One exception is the Shibatea variety which prefers acidic soil. Before planting, we recommend digging in lots of well-rotted manure or compost into the soil. If you plan on growing them in pots then we recommend mixing 50% potting compost with 50% soil improver.
Plant in spring and add plenty of organic matter into the soil
When planting, do so in the spring when the energy stored in the rhizomes can be put to use to produce strong canes come summer. The rhizomes for bamboo will need time, also, to produce roots before the plant goes into dormancy over winter. As already mentioned you want to add compost or manure to soil before planting, remember to dig it well into the soil so it’s mixed well.
When you dig a hole, it should be sized such that the root ball sits about 2-3 cm below the soil line. You then want to fill in the space around the root ball and pack it firmly in place. Once planted, water well.
Once your bamboo is established it can usually grow well without feeding as they grow well in poor soils, however, it can help them along if you give them a high amount of nitrogen in the springtime and a more balanced fertiliser the rest of the growing season, something like a general water-soluble plant feed once a month. If you are experiencing a particularly hot, dry spell, give it regular watering.
Growing Bamboo in Containers
If you are growing bamboo in containers, you want the same drainage and considerations for runners versus clumps. You should also be cognizant of the pruning you will have to do to keep a container-grown specimen at the right size and also help the canes stand out.
When growing in containers you will need a large pot, ideally as large as you can but it a good idea to pot up smaller plants in stages. We recommend mixing 50% normal potting compost with 50% soil conditioner as this help retain moisture as ads lots of goodness to the soil which bamboo like. It’s also a good idea to add controlled-release fertilisers and give extra liquid feed during the summer once a month. If you have very cold winters you can insulate your bamboo with fleece or bring them inside.
If you choose to grow bamboo in pots they will need watering regularly, probably at least once a week as they don’t respond well to drying out and the leaves soon start to show signs of lack of water by curling and turning brown and the effected foliage also usually never fully recovers.
Pruning and thinning bamboo
Given how it grows, you can contain runner varieties by planting your bamboo inside of a physical barrier. This is also a great way to make pruning easier.
To contain your bamboo with pruning and thinning, you will need to decide where you want your bamboo to grow and mark a line. With proper spades and sharp tools, you can cut along that line to remove any clumps or rhizomes that are have spread below. Above the soil, you can thin out the existing canes to allow for better shape, airflow, or prevent it from getting out of hand.
As there are so many ways to prune bamboo, including topping which is where you control the height, we have written a full detailed guide on pruning bamboo explaining the different techniques which you can read here
Propagating bamboo by dividing
You can divide your clump bamboo at the middle of spring with a spade or pruning saw but for larger clumps you may need an axe, Simply cut apart the clumps and from them divide them in several clumps ready for replanting. If you are removing rhizomes you can to pick one cane and cut the soil away from it, then cut the rhizome off of the main plant. Reduce its size to 30cm and put it in a tray of compost, lightly covered. Water it and keep it somewhere warm. Propagation is also possible via seed but less common.
There are literally varieties for all garden types. If you have a shaded garden, you should grow the chimonobambusa bamboo which stems are lime green and marbled with brown and white. It thrives in partial shade and will grow in moist well-drained soil. It also is one of the low growing varieties only reaching 2 meters.
If you have an area in your garden with direct sunlight, the phyllostachys varieties are a good choice with the aureocaulis bamboo being a stunning choice with its yellow canes. It prefers full sun but needs to be planted in a sheltered position in moist but well-drained soil
Some varieties for exposed sites include bashania fargesii, sasaella masamuneana ‘Albostriatus’ which is a low growing bamboo growing to only 2 meters and best of all it grows in any position from full sun to dense shade. Pseudosasa bamboo also makes a good choice for exposed sites as its wind tolerant but it does grow to 6 meters but this can be controlled with a bit of topping.