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Urban Gardener: Bamboo Bamboozle Blizzards

Saturday, January 04, 2014


The ever green and resilient bamboo.

Urban gardeners are a special breed adaptable to many schemes. We deal with fences, buildings, pavements, foundations and whatever else wandered into the neighborhood and just stayed. Sometimes we need a bright green spot, a place where nature asserts herself in friendly perpetual motion. I refer to the opinionated and irresistible, bamboo.

Does the house across the street and down a little drive you straight towards anti-depressants? Is there an eternally ugly twin pair of heavily creosoted telephone poles rooted forever in your sidewalk? Perhaps you have that urban version of New Orleans voodoo spirit traps disguised as utility wires, braided, twisted, coiled up above your cobblestone entry spitting a buzz simply to annoy squirrels.

The bamboo solution

The answer to all this and more, much more, is easy to grow and fun to watch. You’ll never again glance south and pray for a new coat of paint. Beware, tough urban gardener that you are. Like anything really good there are perils. The “Richard Parker” of the plant world, one more assertive than crabgrass, as tenacious as a guilty conscience, is the bamboo tribe. Head’s up, friends, this group can be grown in containers or on baronial vistas. It is not for the faint of heart. You need guts.

Bamboos are giant varieties of grass. There are many suitable for our zone 6 climate. I was determined to create a view and censor what I could see with bamboo. Cultural requirements are the same as for any turf. Well drained loam with a penchant for the damp is perfect. The more organic material incorporated into the planting bed , the better off the roots and future growth of the plants. I’ve remarkable but hardly unusual results with bamboo.

I dug into sandy loam along the east west angle of a 50 foot long 6 foot high old cedar fence. The paved sidewalk ran along one side of the fence, getting sun all day. I planted the bamboo in the corner of the fence with great labor. Bamboo is easily grown from large root divisions. The arduous digging, separating, protecting, and transporting roots is a major hurtle. If offered bamboo, “all you can dig up” many have balked. Some bamboos create tough Gordian knots of tangled roots impossible to foil. Retreat and take a different approach. Consult local growers and survey the many varieties. Pay a little extra up front as the future growth yield strong dividends.

My first planting of 5 canes and many roots survived an ordinary summer and what seemed the windiest winter on record. Somewhere in the middle of the following May, after I’d piled manure, hay, leaves and the arsenal of organic gardening on the planting bed, large shouts began to emerge. With excitement and anticipation I kept count, 1, 3, 5, 7, 13, and each swelled upward. By Memorial Day weekend, 110 shouts had grown up through the heavy mulch and were six feet tall. At the end of summer, the patch was firmly established.

Not one to leave anything alone when I am accustomed to love and attention, I found the bamboo a perfect place to hide bag after bag of leaves. Lawn clippings, ashes, compost and manure all encouraged the bamboo.

The gift that keeps on giving

Many have warned me of the great bamboo threat. From my point of view virtually all thriving beings have merit somewhere, somehow, and living in a city is to practice diversity. I’ve found overkill to work as well as simple observation: bamboo is not difficult to control and with very little care will reward the cultivator in manifest ways.

Bamboo is moody. The canes generate an audible sound. The ground at their feet is often a monochromatic layer of grainy colored blanched leaves. Birds are attracted to the dense evergreen foliage. Wind slows down around bamboo and the plants are the very expression of resilience in the face of adversity. Heavy snowfall may bend the plants down to impossible angles and ice cruelly glue stalks to the earth. Be patient, gardener. Don’t pull and tug at the plants, a thaw is certain to come. The bamboo will phoenix like rise from their humble submission and once again dominate their place.

Light is drawn into bamboo and never emerges. Darkness hovers at the base of bamboo. The intensity of bamboo spirit is obvious to all. Tranquil gardeners align themselves with the plants and study the grove. Soon, the forest aspect of bamboo calms and one is drawn inward towards an inner peace. Time is frozen and blizzards come and go. The bamboo endures and is a study in unity.

I dug deep trenches and buried sheets of plywood wrapped in tarpaulin along the planting beds to thwart the bamboo roots. Some intrepid bamboo roots ventured outward. It spread over the soil but under a thick mulch to cross parts of the barrier not topped with slabs of repurposed curbstones. I easily snapped those roots off with loopers and transplanted the “sports” to another place along the fence. The third spring offered countless new stalks. The bed became denser and spread far beyond the corner. Greenery now shrouds the house across the street. The old cedar fence disappears like the Appian Way into a forest of ever green stalks.

Bamboo follows the path of least resistance in very predictable manners. Guide yours this spring and enjoy the year long magic of this gigantic grass. Blizzards howl and the wind chimes clamor in cold gales. Wind chill factors multiply. Yet, out there, firmly anchored is an island of peace. The howls of the gale are transformed into a chorus of endurance and hope. The virtue of bending and always striving for a happy ending are visible in every bamboo planting. Grow some.


Leonard Moorehead is a life-long gardener. He practices organic-bio/dynamic gardening techniques in a side lot surrounded by city neighborhoods in Providence RI. His adventures in composting, wood chips, manure, seaweed, hay and enormous amounts of leaves are minor distractions to the joy of cultivating the soil with flowers, herbs, vegetables, berries, and dwarf fruit trees.


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