Growing Bamboo in the Home Garden

Woman holding bamboo plant
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The idea of growing bamboo sparks both intrigue and fear in gardeners. We've all heard about bamboo running amok, making the term 'invasive' seem tame. But we've also seen a lot of garden magazines with photos of gorgeous golden, striped, and even black, rustling, graceful, plants, that would look wonderful in our own gardens. Is it worth the risk?

There is a very real chance that bamboo planted in your garden could become uncontrollable. Non-native plants can behave erratically, depending on the climate, conditions and care they receive. But there are more and more reputable bamboo dealers who are marketing clumping varieties of bamboo, suitable for growing in various areas. For the most part, you still have to mail order bamboo plants, since the bamboo sold most commonly in nurseries is the most easily propagated type - aka, invasive. Here's a breakdown of what you need to know.

What is Bamboo?

Bamboo is a grass (subfamily Bambusoideae within the family Gramineae). It can range in size from a few inches to over 100 feet and can grow a foot or more a day. Bamboo is one of the most useful plants grown in the world. It's used as food, building material, animal fodder, ornamentation, and screening. Bamboo plants are recognizable by their nodes, the joints between the hollow segments of the branch or culm.

The easiest way to classify bamboo is to divide it into runners and clumpers. Botanical names can vary from region to region as much as common names, making it very confusing to try and sort out what type of bamboo you have. Err on the side of caution when planting any bamboo and always install some type of in-ground barrier immediately, at planting time.

  1. Clumping BambooClumpers or sympodial bamboos will expand, just like any other plant. However, it tends to stay in one place, slowing widening from its center, rather than reaching out and popping up throughout the garden and lawn. Most are perennial down to  USDA Hardiness Zone 4, making them very adaptable garden plants.
  2. Running BambooThis is what makes gardeners run for cover. Running or monopodial bamboos spread by underground rhizomes and can cover great distances quickly. Since they are all connected as one plant, it becomes impossible to kill without removing every last piece of rhizome. However, the rhizomes grow at a depth of only 2 - 18 inches and can be contained with 2 - 2 1/2 ft. plastic edging buried around the circumference of the plant. Use a good edge. Any cracks or seams in the edging will allow rhizomes to get through. Most of the temperate, cold hardy bamboos are runners. (Temperate bamboos are used to a period of cold weather dormancy and may suffer leaf drop if you try to grow them indoors.)

    What to Consider before Growing Bamboo

    • Most bamboos prefer full sun and a soil pH of around 6.0 - 6.2.
    • Newly planted bamboo requires regular watering, to become established and to send out new culms.
    • Lack of water is the biggest problem with growing bamboo, however, the soil needs to dry out between watering, because standing water will also inhibit growth.
    • Bamboo doesn't like competition from weeds.
    • Taller bamboo should be staked, to prevent it from uprooting.
    • Bamboos are evergreen and will lose and replace leaves as they grow.
    • Since bamboos are grasses and are grown for their foliage, you should feed with a high nitrogen fertilizer.
    • Mulching will help control moisture and will protect cold-hardy varieties in winter.

    Pruning Bamboo

    Bamboo culms do not live forever and some pruning should be done annually to remove old or damaged culms. Pruning does not hurt the plant. Cut back to just above a node, to avoid a stub.

    Problems with Growing Bamboo

    Bamboo Mite: This pest is similar to spider mites, in that it sucks the juices from leaves, but the bamboo mite only creates webbing within the yellow striation along the parallel veins of the bamboo leaf. Yellow streaking will slowly expand and spread.

    New bamboo plants should be thoroughly inspected before being planted in the garden or near other bamboos. If an infestation occurs, insecticidal soap will offer some control, but it is hard to reach the mites under their webs. The use of a systemic miticide may be necessary.

    Mealybugs: Mealybugs are part of the scale group of insects. They attach themselves to plants, often at hard to reach joints and often protect themselves with a cottony or shell-like covering. This makes them hard to kill with a contact insecticide. The Bamboo Society of America recommends the use of Cygon (dimethoate), if necessary.

    Still interested? Here are some selected bamboo varieties to try in your garden.

    Suggested Bamboo Varieties for the Garden

    Fargesia murieliae "New Umbrella"

    Makes a beautiful specimen or screen. Nice golden fall color.

    • Clumper
    • Zones 4 - 9
    • Full Sun to Partial Shade
    • 12 'H x 12'W

    Fargesia nitida "Great Wall"

    Considered a fountain bamboo. The emerging culms are covered in bluish-white powder and don't leaf out until the following spring. This branchless, leafless appearance gives it the 'fountain' shape throughout the winter. Extremely cold hardy.

    • Clumper.
    • Zones 4 - 9
    • Full Sun to Partial Shade
    • 18' H x 12' W

    Pleioblastus fortunei "Litte Zebra"

    Green and white striped leaves make a bright groundcover under trees and shrubs. Can also be grown successfully in containers and indoors.

    Phyllostachys nigra "Black Bamboo"

    New culms start out green and turn black in the sun.

    • Runner
    • Zones 6 and up
    • Full Sun
    • 30' H

    If you're still intrigued, but hesitant, try growing bamboo in a container. However, even in a container, you should keep close tabs that the roots don't find their way out of a drainage hole and into the ground.