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What to know about growing bamboo — without irritating your neighbors

There are about 1,000 species of bamboo growing around the world.
There are about 1,000 species of bamboo growing around the world. TNS photo

Last week, I had the wonderful opportunity to visit with a former colleague, Dr. Bob Nuss, and his lovely wife Sue at their home in State College, where Bob was about to attack an invasion of bamboo on the side of his property.

I saw plenty of bamboo during my two years of being stationed at the Naval Air Station in Atsugi, Japan, in the late '60s and saw the wide varieties of uses, both practical and in Japanese art and landscaping. Bamboo has many qualities, which include the rate at which it grows. Although it’s actually a grass, bamboo is the fastest growing plant on earth, sort of like your lawn this spring! Some species can grow as much as four feet in a mere 24 hours.

The stalks or “culms” are fully grown in just a few months. There are about 1,000 species growing around the world, the smallest reaching a mature height of only about an inch while others top out at around 120 feet.

The fast growth is great for developing a privacy fence, but when the bamboo encroaches onto your neighbor’s property, then it is another story. This is where the potential problem comes into play. Many of the most common species of bamboo are aggressive horizontal spreaders as well.

Bamboo is referred to as one of two types: running or clumping. Knowing the difference can signal success or failure of your relationship with your neighbor.

Running bamboo (momopodial or leptomorph) should be taken at face value. They are difficult but not impossible to contain, even though their underground "runners," (technically rhizomes) race below the surface anywhere from 2 inches to 18 inches deep. Containment methods include cement, metal and high-density polyethylene plastic rhizome barriers. However, once they have reached the barrier they are a challenge to reel in.

Non-invasive, clumping bamboo (sympodial or packymorph) have short roots, 18 inches or less, generally forming discreet clumps requiring only a 3 inch to 10 inch circle of space to expand even at maturity, although their dense root structure can impose significant pressure on foundations, walls and fences. They make attractive specimens and will form very dense screens but more slowly than their aggressive cousins.

If you’d like to grow bamboo yourself, culturally its prefers rich, moist, well-drained, neutral to slightly acid soils. It is also partial to deep watering in soils with good drainage but can succumb to root problems in waterlogged conditions.

In cold weather climates such as ours, plant bamboo after danger of frost has passed. Do not fear bamboo, but make sure you know what you are planting before you start. If containment is an issue, take appropriate precautions and proceed accordingly. If you want to see how bamboo is contained, stop by The Arboretum at Penn State and ask Shari Edelson, director of horticulture/curator how she does it.

For Bob and Sue, I hope your bamboo problem was solved and thanks for the great idea for an article.

Bill Lamont is a professor emeritus in the department of plant science at Penn State and can be reached by email at wlamont@psu.edu.
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