Fear about being taken over by these fast-growing plants is much exaggerated
Bamboo. Now that’s a plant with a bad name. Put one little stalk in the ground, detractors warn, and within a year it has sprouted all over the yard and is a total, out-of-control mess.
But bamboo’s bad reputation is a hangover from the 1960s and ‘70s, said Tish Reustle, a Galveston County Master Gardener and bamboo expert. Times, and bamboo, have changed.
“Back then, everyone was planting it and it spread and spread and got a bad rap,” Reustle said. “Then no one would touch it for many years.
“But the clumping kind of bamboo is very popular now and doesn’t cause those types of problems.”
Clumping bamboo’s roots and rhizomes grow in an area that rarely exceeds 4 feet. Instead of spreading horizontally underground, the roots clump together and grow vertically, thus keeping the plant in its place. Clumping bamboo is not an invasive species and can be controlled.
At Carbide Park in La Marque, Reustle oversees a garden with 10 varieties of bamboo, but only one of them is the detested “running” variety. It’s barricaded on all sides to keep it out of other gardens. The other variations have tall shoots, or thick shoots or tiny, delicate leaves, and they all leave their neighbors alone.
Bamboo grows fast — a privacy wall could rise in a year — and is considered good for the environment. The plant absorbs more carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases than most others, and it produces 30 percent more oxygen than hardwood trees. A bamboo stalk can reach maturity in less than five years, compared with the 40 years it might take for trees to mature.
It’s a versatile plant that can be successfully grown in most climates except extreme cold. But heat, drought and wind don’t bother bamboo. One grove of bamboo plants survived the 1945 atomic bomb blast and radiation exposure in Hiroshima, Japan. That’s one tough plant.
Bamboo is a grass that grows in green, yellow, brown, black, red and blue hues. It can be striped or textured, with large or small leaves. Worldwide there are about 1,400 varieties.
Reustle began experimenting with bamboo several years ago in the Master Gardeners’ Discovery Garden with fellow Master Gardener Camille Goodwin. They planted several varieties and noted which ones did better than others. They quickly learned that bamboo cannot be ignored once it’s in the garden.
“It has to be maintained and pruned in winter when it’s dormant,” Reustle said. “Thin it out and cut it back.”
Reustle recommends feeding it a bit in the spring with lawn fertilizer.
“It is a grass,” she said. “But I am not sure you really want these to grow more. And don’t supplement with more water unless there has been a drought. They are very resilient.”
After the 2018 freeze, several of the bamboos in the Carbide Park garden looked dead, but weren’t.
“They were not happy, but they all came back,” Reustle said.
Some of her favorites are the punting pole, with thin stalks and long, graceful leaves; the weaver bamboo, a stately upright giant timber that grows to about 30 feet forming a privacy walls, with a tight column of blue-green canes; Alphonse Karr bamboo, which are great for barriers and have yellow stems with a bright stripe of green down the middle and young shoots tinged with pink; the white or blue Bambusa chungii, which is a large, fast-growing and tall species, with blue stems covered in white powder; the fern leaf bamboo for shorter, denser privacy hedges that also act as sound barriers; and the Buddha belly bamboo that stays dwarf and produces swollen stems that give it its name when confined in tubs or grown in poor soil.
“They are not hard to grow once you get started,” she said. “The key is to thin them when they are young so you can manage the clumps.”