Bamboo in Permaculture Design
PIJ # 55, 1995 page 24 – 26
Author’s Note: I am a firmly rooted (if transplanted) north-westerner (USA) and this article reflects my years of experience with mostly hardy running bamboos and a few genera of hardy clumping bamboos. My experience with bamboos in other climates is limited, but I feel this information is still useful to readers form different regions.
People tell me bamboo “takes over” and can pierce and destroy pavement, foundations, and ultimately, Western civilization. We call these people bambusaphobes.
Nonetheless, despite its reputation, bamboo is not conquering the world. At the other extreme are people who plant any bamboo they can get anywhere.
Looking carefully at the nature of the plant helps us find a middle ground. Bamboo does like to occupy unused space – edges and clearings. Bamboo is a monocot, and monocots (grasses, lilies, palms, etc) do not have cambium, that is, unlike trees, they do not increase in girth. When a runner finds its way through a crack, unlike a tree root, it will not spread the crack wider over time. Similarly, pipe clogging is not much problem; I have seen cases where a bamboo benefited from a septic tank for years and caused no problem.
On my first major planting, my friend was putting P. Nigra Henon along the edge of his yard for privacy, next to his neighbour’s garden. He went to his neighbour to reassure him that he would keep the bamboo contained. The neighbour (Korean) misunderstood my friend’s purpose, and repeatedly said “Do not worry, we will not eat your bamboo!” Who would plant a rose bush without realizing that pruning is in store?
Culture and placement is very important. Bambuseros, those, who are working with bamboo for people, don’t introduce bamboo if there won’t be a receptive human culture to use it.
Almost any soil will do, though many varieties do not enjoy salty irrigation water, such as is the case in southern California.
The most difficult site is the one that is exposed, windy, and dry. Bamboos are water-loving plants and may require some help in an exposed site or an area of low summer rainfall. Bamboos do well on floodplain, on streambanks and next to ponds. Floods will not kill bamboo and bamboo can slow erosion and cause deposition of rich silt.
But remember, it’s all relative to local climate and conditions.
Bamboo generally prefers dirt, though I have seen it do well in bark or on black plastic or asphalt.
To prepare the soil, put mulch in the surface and let the worms do the digging, unless you’ve got an extreme case of abuse or disturbance. You only need to loosen the soil in the immediate vicinity of the plant to ensure that you’ve got the complete root mass in contact with soil, with no gaps or voids.
Plant the potted bamboo just slightly deeper in the ground than it is in its pot. As the bamboo spreads it will find its own best level. Tall bamboos should be staked or tied until established. A new plant will also appreciate a bit of shade and shelter from the wind. You might use some pruned tree branches to do this.
Water is critical the first year, and 1”/week (25mm) is a good rough minimum. Bamboo will follow water in a dry area, and will tend to grow into an area watered by a soaker hose or drip system.
In considering building containment for running bamboos, it’s important to remember the example of the Maginot Line. Ultimately no method may be really foolproof. Bamboo runners are very pointed, and actually moisten the ground ahead of themselves for better penetration. Runners can slim through narrow cracks or pierce through plastic pots and weed barriers. Concrete slab-patio, sidewalk or what have you, is just a convenient covered highway to spots where the shoots can pop up unannounced. There are some situations where bamboo will not be a problem. It won’t cross permanent or semi-permanent water, nor will it manage to invade a pasture where animals are kept. A well-used, compacted road will also stop bamboo. Allow the bamboo a reasonable space, and don’t try to grow a zillion different kinds!
I consider barriers a last resort but will give some clues to their use. The first rule is to slope the barrier away from the bamboo so that the runners will not be deflected downward and under, but up where you can see them. These barriers must be inspected regularly. The necessary barrier depth is a tricky question, depending on soil type and whether or not the soil has been disturbed. In a heavy clay soil, 18 inches (45cm) may be adequate while in a deep, soft, river bottom loam, 3-4 feet (90-120 cm) may be necessary. Barrier materials include concrete, conveyor belt rubber, aluminium and plastics (heavy gauge is very good).
I recommend consulting with a local bamboo lover before you decide on whether you can use bamboo on your land and which species are best.
Rick’s Rules of Bamboo order
The Endless Uses of Bamboo
Many bamboo enthusiasts groan when you ask about the uses of bamboo. The reason being the list is so long. Far preferable, they say to ask “What cannot you do with bamboo?”
It is difficult though to resist mentioning some of its uses, as many people, especially in the West, are ignorant of its great role in many civilizations present and past. So, to say it can be used as food, material for buildings, musical instruments and fences, as a hedge, erosion controller, to make household utensils, or as a creator of soothing white noise, is a small beginning.
The following quote gives further life to the question of bamboo uses:
“Tao Chich (plum blossom bamboo) is useful, as well as beautiful. It adorns the landscape, offers shade on a warm day; supplies materials for mats; so that we may sleep in comfort; and provides a staff of support for old age.” – Kuo Fu
Tips on Selecting Bamboos