By Julie Christensen
Native to Asia, bamboo might seem like a tree, but it’s actually a type of grass. There are over 1,400 species of bamboo, ranging from dwarf varieties that stay under 2 feet tall, to giant types that reach over 100 feet tall. The plants are prized for their stiff canes and interesting foliage. Bamboo can be used to form a privacy hedge or as a specimen plant in pots, in Asian gardens and around pools and ponds.
Before you plant bamboo, though, there are a few things you should know. Bamboo essentially has two growth forms – running bamboo and clump bamboo. Running bamboo is a hardy, vigorous plant that can grow as far north as USDA plant hardiness zones 4 or 5, depending on the variety. Running bamboo spreads through underground rhizomes. Even in cold climates, it can become aggressive. In warm, mild climates, it’s downright invasive. If you plant running bamboo, plant it in a pot or in an area with natural barriers, such as an area surrounded by hardscape or an area bordering water. Make a trench 12 inches deep around the running bamboo and install a plastic or metal barrier. The rhizomes go down only 4 to 5 inches so this deep trench should keep the bamboo from spreading.
Clump bamboo is a tender plant that grows only in USDA plant hardiness zones 6 through 10. It has a very slow growth pattern and stays compact. Even after 20 years, it may only spread 3 or 4 inches. Clump bamboo is ideal if you want to make a statement, such as in a pot or as a specimen plant.
Planting and Growing Bamboo Plants
Most gardeners start with a well-established nursery transplant or a division. Plant bamboo in slightly acidic soil that has been amended with compost and aged manure. Bamboo plants need moist, but well-draining soil. If you have very heavy, soggy soil, replace it or grow bamboo in a raised bed or container. Space bamboo plants 3 to 5 feet apart.
Large bamboo plants need full sun. Smaller varieties can benefit from partial shade, especially in hot climates. Water bamboo plants three to four times per week during the first year or two after planting. Established plants are more drought-tolerant, but they still need weekly watering. Remember, bamboo grows natively in woodland and swamp areas. It grows best with consistently moist soil.
Fertilize bamboo plants in early spring, late spring and summer with ¼ cup 10-10-10 fertilizer per plant. An annual application of compost is also helpful. Mulch bamboo plants with 1 inch of wood chip mulch and allow the leaves to provide a natural mulch, as well.
Bamboo plants are typically evergreen in mild climates. Their leaves do turn yellow and fall in early spring. This is a normal occurrence and no cause for alarm. Once the plants become established, they send up new shoots every summer. These shoots get taller and taller as the plant grows. Cut down older shoots from time to time, as they become unattractive and growth slows.
Bamboo can be grown as a container plant or even a houseplant, but these plants will need extra care. Plant bamboo in a large container and expect to transplant it every five years. The roots are strong and have been known to break through plastic containers.
Bamboo plants grown in containers tend to dry out more quickly than those grown in ground. They need watering almost every day during warm weather. Nutrients also leach out more quickly. Fertilize bamboo in containers every three to five weeks. In cold weather, the plants might need extra protection, such as burlap.
Bamboo plants grown indoors need a bright, sunny location and mild, slightly humid conditions. Avoid placing them near heating vents, which will dry them out.
Tall bamboo varieties often need staking, especially if you live in an area with strong winds. Plant them in a protected area to prevent breaking.
Want to learn more about growing bamboo?
Clumping Bamboo for landscaping on YouTube.
Bamboo plants for privacy screening on YouTube.
Bamboo Growing 101 on YouTube.
Julie Christensen learned about gardening on her grandfather’s farm and mother’s vegetable garden in southern Idaho. Today, she lives and gardens on the high plains of Colorado. When she’s not digging in the dirt, Julie writes about food, education, parenting and gardening.