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"Specializing in clumping, noninvasive varieties of bamboo for Florida landscapes."

  COMMON QUESTIONS and ANSWERS

 

Hedge of Multiplex bamboo, less than two years old.

 
 
"Bamboo grows really fast, doesn't it?"

Yes and no...and yes. How's that for a straightforward answer? Bamboo's unusual growth habit makes this a more complex question than it might seem.

When people say, "bamboo grows fast," they could be referring to the speed at which a small, newly planted bamboo grows into a large, mature plant in the landscape. Or they could be talking about the speed at which individual new canes emerge and grow to their full height within a mature clump of bamboo. And sometimes, when people speak about how fast bamboo grows, they're referring to the rate of horizontal spread of a running variety of bamboo.

The most relevant of these to someone considering planting bamboo is: how quickly will this little plant turn into a big, mature clump of bamboo in my landscape? And the answer to that is: clumping bamboo will grow faster than just about anything else you could plant. Get some three-gallon sized pots of green multiplex, set them in the ground along a property line and keep them watered, and within two to three years they'll turn into a twenty foot tall wall of green for quick privacy. Plant a three-gallon Royal or Buddha's Belly and give it good care, and in four to five years it will assume the size and stature of a mature oak tree in the landscape.

But what about the stories you may have heard about bamboo growing at a rate of a foot a day or more? That's true, too. A clump of bamboo grows new canes once a year. The plant uses sunlight to make food energy its foliage all year long, and it sends that food energy down, storing it in the underground rhizome system. Once a year, the plant uses all that stored energy to grow the new crop of canes. Because those new canes are powered by a year's worth of stored energy, they grow at breakneck pace, reaching their full height in six to eight weeks.

On a mature patch of bamboo, "full height" is whatever the maximum height is for that variety. A fifty foot tall mature Royal or Buddha's Belly bamboo sends of new canes that emerge from the ground looking like torpedoes, and those shoots rocket upward, reaching fifty feet in eight weeks. (The old canes remain as the new canes grow -- each cane lasts seven to ten years.) When a clump of bamboo adds to its height, it does so by sending up, once a year, a crop of new shoots that grow at breakneck pace, reaching their full height just six to eight weeks after breaking through the ground. The "full height" that they reach is about ten to fifteen feet taller than the previous year's canes - that's where the overall yearly increase the height of the entire clump comes from. But it's only once the clump has reached its full size and height, at four to five years old, that you start to see the really fast growth of individual canes during the late summer shooting season, in which shoots break through the ground and race upwards at rates of a foot a day or more to become fifty foot tall canes in just two months.

So, getting back to the question... yes, clumping bamboos do grow at a rate far exceeding that of most landscape plants, but no, a small, newly planted bamboo will not grow a foot a day, but yes, once your bamboo plants have been in the ground for several years you should be able to watch new shoots grow at the extraordinary rate of a foot or more per day. Got that?

"But isn't bamboo terribly invasive?"

Some kinds are. There's over a thousand species of bamboo, though, and many are not invasive - their natural growth habit is to grow in very tight, compact clumps. Those are the types we specialize in at Florida Bamboo. They are very different from the more commonly seen invasive, running types of bamboo. See Runners vs. Clumpers for a discussion of the differences.

"I want to plant bamboo as a visual screen. How many plants do I need?"

Usually a five foot spacing works well. By the time the plants are really filling in two years after planting, they'll be pretty well filling the gaps between plants. By three years, the "wall of green" will be pretty solid (assuming you're keeping them watered). At planting time, it's always hard to believe that those piddling little wisps of green that you're setting on a five foot spacing could ever solidly close the gaps in between, but they do.

It's possible to hurry things along a little bit by spacing plants closer, but you start to reach a point of diminishing returns at spacings much closer than five feet: your costs start to go up rapidly (because you need more plants) while only marginally increasing the speed at which you get visual screening.

On the other hand, if your plant-purchasing budget is smaller, it's possible to space the plants more widely, but it will take a bit longer for them to solidly close the gaps between. On an eight foot spacing, it may take five years before the plants solidly close the gaps (but you'll still get good intermittant visual screening by the second to third year)

If you've got a really small budget, a long time horizon, or a really long fence line to cover, you can even plant out just a few plants, take good care of them, and after a few years divide them yourself to plant along the rest of the fence line.

It is worth considering the possibility that if YOU would find your property that much more desirable with the privacy and beauty offered by bamboo, other people might also, and the money you spend today might well be returned to you when it comes time to sell your property.

"The type of bamboo I want comes in more than one size. Which size should I buy?"

Here again, it comes down to a question of how much of a hurry you're in, and how much you want to spend. Each larger plant size represents approximately a year's time that you're skipping to get to the time the plant first sends up mature, full-sized canes. That is, a 15 gallon plant will reach maturity about a year faster than a 7 gallon, and about two years faster than a 3 gallon plant of the same variety would.

"When is the best time of year to plant bamboo?"

Containerized bamboos can successfully be planted at any time of the year. But because they make so much growth so quickly during the warm season, for fastest results it is very important not to delay once the warm season has ended. Early spring planting will give quickest results. Every month's delay in planting after early spring means less growing time available to the plants. By year's end, bamboos set in the ground in August will be smaller than ones planted in June, which will be smaller than ones planted in March. So if it is spring or summer as you are contemplating planting bamboo - don't delay!

During the cool season (roughly November to February), plants make much less growth, and a delay in planting during that period is much less critical. Plants set in the ground in February wouldn't lag a whole lot behind those planted in November.

For field-dug plants, they are available only during winter and early spring, and should be planted immediately.

And if you are planting a variety at the northern edge of its cold hardiness, it may actually be to your advantage to wait until winter's end. Bigger plants resist cold better, and by planting in spring your plants will have a year's worth of growth on them by the time winter comes around again.

"Why are bamboos more expensive than many other plants I see for sale?"

Propagating clumping bamboo is an EXTREMELY labor-intensive process. Because these plants rarely produce seed, and most don't start well from cuttings, new plants must be started by dividing the rhizome system of existing ones. The very growth habit that makes clumping bamboos so desirable as landscape plants - tightly grouped clumps of canes that don't spread aggressively- makes them very difficult to divide. Underlying those canes is a gnarled mass of thick, woody rhizomes that resists cutting with all its woody might. And the larger a bamboo variety is, the more difficult it is to divide those rhizomes - digging pieces of eight foot tall Chinese Goddess is child's play compared to digging 55 foot tall Buddha's Belly, whose rhizome system sometimes extends as much as three feet underground.

Additionally, many varieties are quite rare and highly in demand. Generally, Florida Bamboo's prices are either in the same range or lower than those charged by other nurseries in Florida for equivalent plants, sometimes considerably lower. Since bamboos provide such an elegant, majestic quality to the landscape, and reach full size and impressiveness years faster than many plants that are much more expensive, many people find the prices quite reasonable.

"What's the best variety of bamboo to use as a construction material?"

If you live in central or southern Florida, Giant Timber bamboo (Bambusa oldhamii) is quite a good choice for a bamboo to produce canes for construction material. Unfortunately, north of about Orlando it tends to suffer winter damage frequently enough that it is not a reliable source of construction quality canes (along the coasts, that region might extend as far as Cedar Key and Saint Augustine because of the milder winter temps near the water).

For those of us in northern Florida, our choices are more limited. Royal Bamboo has wonderfully straight canes, but they are thin-walled and suitable only where they don't need to support heavy weight. Buddha's Belly canes are much thicker-walled and stronger, but they tend to have a bit of a zig-zag - this one might be a good choice for projects where perfect straightness is not critical.

Green Multiplex and Alphonse Karr are straight and thick-walled and more cold-hardy, but they usually don't get more than 1-1.5 inches in diameter, so they would be suitable only for projects where smaller-diameter material is needed (although smaller-diameter canes can be bundled together to make extremely strong load-bearing pieces).

Be sure to research proper cutting and curing and treating techniques to minimize the danger of fungus and insects destroying your canes. Try the bamboo society websites in the Links for more info on cutting, treating, and building with bamboo.

"What's the best variety for edible bamboo shoot production?"

First, let me say that I don't have much experience with harvesting and preparing bamboo shoots, so this answer is largely based on reports in the literature.

Royal Bamboo and Giant Timber are also reported in the literature as having high quality shoots. Giant Timber is another one that is most reliable in Central and South Florida, so Royal might be the best choice in the northern parts of the state (but even it would need some attention to careful siting in the colder areas of North Florida - see Cold Hardiness)

"My yard has a lot of shade. Can I still grow clumping bamboo?"

The larger types prefer full sun, but can grow quite well if they get at least a few hours of sun a day, especially if it is mid-day summer sun (that is, if there is at least a patch of sky open directly above the plant). And because the big types do grow so tall, once they reach full size the top of the plant frequently reaches into full or nearly full sun even if the original plant was planted in the shade.

The small to medium types will stay shorter and denser in full sun, and will stretch out a bit in partial shade, with less foliage on the lower part of the plant. This can actually be quite attractive, especially with varieties like Alphonse Karr that have particularly attractive canes. If there are at least a few patches of sun that move through the area over the course of the day, the small to medium types can give pretty good growth (and make a good visual screen).

"Can I divide the plants I get from Florida Bamboo to get more plants?"

Dividing bamboo is a tricky process that can be very labor-intensive to do successfully - this is why clumping bamboo prices are higher than for many other plants. For a containerized bamboo with several canes, it is frequently possible to divide the plant into one or more plants, but if the cuts are not made in exactly the right spot on the rhizome, one or more of the plants might not be viable. And even when the cuts are made successfully and viable daughter plants result, it is important to keep in mind that you are setting them back by dividing them - postponing by a year or more the time when they send up full-sized, mature canes.

The most successful method for many people to propagate their own bamboos is to plant them out in the ground, let them grow two or more years, then dig out groups of two to four canes (with their attached rhizomes) to plant elsewhere. This works best with the Bambusa multiplex varieties, especially the small ones like Chinese Goddess. For the giant clumping types the thick, woody rhizomes make this process fairly challenging.

"Since running bamboos spread so quickly, wouldn't planting some of them be a cheaper way to grow a visual screen along my property line rather than planting a clumping bamboo every few feet?"

One problem with this is that the running bamboo will try to spread in all directions at once, not just along the property line, but also away from it into your yard and your neighbor's yard. Many running types can send up shoots as much as 30 feet from the nearest existing cane, so both sides of the fence line would need to be getting mowed regularly for at least 30 feet from the edge of the bamboo hedge to take out the new shoots as they appear.

Also, since running bamboos usually don't grow as thickly as clumping bamboos, you would need to allow for a thicker hedge to get good visual screening.

"Can't I just plant running bamboo and keep it contained with a barrier underground?"

Some people claim to successfully contain running bamboos with underground barriers, but most materials eventually crack, and running bamboo rhizomes are very good at escaping through even very tiny cracks. All it takes is one rhizome to escape, and the horse is out of the barn - at that point you might as well not have done any of the work to install the rhizome barrier. At Kanapaha Botanical Gardens, two-foot deep brick walls installed to contain the running bamboos haven't worked: the bamboos have escaped.

The best containment strategy if you really want a running bamboo is to plant it in an area that is already getting either mowed or grazed for a distance of thirty feet in all directions around the edge of the bamboo planting. If you don't have this situation, you might be better off sticking with clumping bamboo! (Note: one exception to this rule is black bamboo, which is considerably less aggressive than most running types)

"How do plants from Florida Bamboo compare to those from other nurseries?"

One thing to be aware of in shopping for bamboo, especially containerized plants, is that since small potted bamboos frequently don't show the characteristics that will distinguish different varieties as mature plants, it is critical for a nursery to keep separate their different species. While there are many conscientious nursery managers who take great pains to keep their plants from getting mixed up, there are some who tend towards a less careful management style.

You do not want to spend a lot of money on a bamboo plant and years of your life caring for it, only to discover that it is the wrong variety and will not do what you wanted it to - all because of sloppiness at the nursery. This problem appears to be most acute at some nurseries who offer bamboo as a sideline to their main sales plants, and may not understand or care about the differences between bamboo varieties.

At Florida Bamboo, I take extreme care to make sure the plants I sell are what I say they are - sometimes even to the point of not selling a questionable variety until I have planted one in the ground and grown it to the point that I am satisfied that it is what it is supposed to be.

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