Bamboo is one of those plants that strikes fear in the hearts of gardeners. It looks great, and many people would love to make this exotic plant a part of their garden, but everyone has heard at least one scare story about taking over entire gardens, running to neighbors’ yards and beyond, destroying everything in its path. So, what exactly is the truth about bamboo? Is it a plant eater, destined to make your garden its own, or can bamboo plants reside peacefully beside all of your other plants?
The answer is a little bit of both. There are some kinds of bamboo plants that have a mind of their own and will take over your entire yard (and then some) at will. There are other kinds of bamboo plants, however, that can look great in your gardening scheme, and better yet, can grow there safely. These two different kinds of bamboo fall into two main categories – runners and clumpers.
As you might guess from the name, runners, also known as running bamboo, is the kind of bamboo that takes off running as soon as you plant it. What happens with this kind of bamboo is that is spreads rhizomes underground if there is a crack in the branch when it is plants (and there will almost always be a crack a in the plant, no matter how careful you are). These rhizomes can travel remarkable distances through the soil, well beyond your yard, and the bamboo will begin to grow wherever the rhizomes travel. Because the rhizomes create one big plant, despite the fact that the above ground growth may be spotty, it is nearly impossible to stop once the spread has begun.
If you live in a temperate area and want bamboo, however, runners are you only choice. The good news is that with the right planting techniques, you can manage runners. When you plant your bamboo, surround the plant with a plastic edge of at least 2 feet under ground – this will keep the rhizomes contained.
The other kinds of bamboo plants – clumping bamboos, or clumpers - do not have the runaway root structure of runners. This kind of bamboo plant spreads a little bit each year, but it overgrows only by a few inches, which is comparable to other perennial plants. The downside of clumpers is that they primarily thrive in tropical zones. There are some hybrid versions that can live in colder weather, but these can be extremely expensive.
If you want to give bamboo a try in your garden, make sure you know what you are getting. Many gardening centers, either through ignorance or design, attempt to sell running bamboo as clumping bamboo. A good rule of thumb to know is that unless you are purchasing bamboo in a tropical area, the bamboo on sale at your local gardening center will always be running bamboo. If you are unsure, plant your bamboo with a plastic underground enclosure anyway, which will not harm clumping bamboo and will stop running bamboo before it starts.
The best way to purchase bamboo may not be in a gardening center at all. Unless your local shop specializes in this relatively exotic plant, your best bet may be to purchase online. That way, you can buy your plants from a reputable dealer who is qualified to tell you exactly what you are getting. For the sake of the rest of the plants in your garden, dealing with a professional can be the best way to make sure you are handling your bamboo properly.
If your bamboo begins to run in your garden, call out a professional gardener immediately. The roots will spread into your neighbor’s yard and can cause costly damage, and you will not be able to stop it on your own. A professional gardener can help save the day.
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