Alligator Alley / Amazing Gardens
4636 NW 10th Street
Oklahoma City, OK

Bamboo--Why and How

Interestingly enough, the two most common comments we hear about bamboo in Oklahoma are exact opposites.
1.  "It gets too cold for bamboo to grow here".
2.  "You should never plant bamboo, because it will take over your entire yard".

Neither statement is completely true.

Too cold?

Although many species of bamboo are tropical and will not survive Oklahoma's harsh winters, dozens of species are completely hardy and will thrive through both our frigid winters and blazing summers.  All the species we sell are winter-hardy in at least zone 7 (and some even much colder).  Some will get some leaf damage when temperatures are below 10 degrees with a strong, dry wind (Golden Bamboo, for one), while others (like Green-Groove Bamboo) rarely even get leaf damage.

Uncontrollable?

There are two major groups of bamboo, running and clumping. Running bamboos spread by underground stems called rhizomes (much like Bermuda grass spreads, but for a much shorter season).  Clumping bamboos grow in a tight group, with new culms (stalks) growing very close to the older ones (similar to Pampas Grass).    Clumping bamboos are generally tropical in origin, and will not survive temperatures below 10-20 degrees.  There are some very cold-hardy mountain clupers, but they are adapted to cool climates and will damage badly in temperatures above 90.

Most of the bamboos we sell belong to the genus Phyllostachys.  And, if left uncontrolled, they will spread out dramatically after a few years.  The key is to prepare in advance to limit their spread to only those places where you want more bamboo.

The simplest way to control bamboo is to mow it.  Temperate bamboos only grow actively above ground for a few weeks each year, generally in early spring.  If your bamboo is planted in a very open area, you can simply keep the area around it mowed, and no new culms will be able to establish themselves.  In general, a bamboo won't send out a rhizome much longer than its tallest existing culm.  (You can also control bamboo by eating it!  Most species have tasty shoots, frequently used in Asian cooking).

If you plan to use bamboo as a screen or hedge between your property and the neighbor's, you should check to see if the neighbor wants it growing on his property too.  If not, you will need to install a barrier to deflect the rhizomes.  A rhizome barrier is usually plastic--High Density Polyethelene (sometimes concrete, fiberglass, or metal) buried at least 24'', with the top protruding slightly above the soil (so errant rhizomes can be caught if they try to "crawl over").  It should be angled slightly outward, so the rhizomes will tend to go up , rather than down, when they hit it.

If you have time and energy, you can take a day in late winter to dig a trench around your bamboo and pull up any rhizomes that are headed for where you don't want them.  You can throw them away :-( , plant them somewhere else that you want bamboo, or give them to friends (the world needs more bamboo!).
You can also "root prune" in the fall by taking a sharp shovel and making deep, overlapping cuts to sever the rhizomes from the main plant.  There may still be some shooting in the spring, but if the new shoots are broken off or mowed down, the orphaned rhizome will quickly run out of stored energy and die.  In our climate, root pruning should be done around the end of October, and it doesn't hurt to make a second effort in late November, to catch any late runners.

A very simple way to force a running bamboo to behave like a clumping species is to plant it in an underground container.  A large, solid tree pot, plastic barrel, or cattle trough can be used.  Be sure to drill plenty of small  holes in the bottom to prevent it from filling up with water.  Holes about 1/8" in diameter will allow feeder roots out, but not rhizomes.   Be sure to leave the top edge above the soil level, so rhizomes can be caught if they try to escape.

So, you're not scared...

There are any number of reasons why people want to grow bamboo.  It is probably the single most useful plant on earth, being the source of everything from food to housing, not to mention being beautiful to see.  In Oklahoma, it provides great winter interest with its light green leaves, in contrast to the dark green of most other evergreen plants.

Size=Time=Money

Bamboos rarely flower and produce seeds.  Some species may go many decades between flowering.  So the plants we sell are produced in one of two ways.  Smaller plants are produced by cutting a piece of rhizome and potting it in a 1, 2 or 3 gallon pot in the greenhouse until it produces top growth. Larger plants are made by dividing a few existing culms and their attached rhizomes and potting them.  Smaller rhizome cuttings are less expensive, but take longer to establish a grove.  Larger field divisions cost more, but establish a grove quickly.  There is an old Japanese saying that a division that one man can lift will take ten years to make a full grove, while one that takes ten men to lift will make a grove in one year. (Of course this is referring to Moso, the largest of the temperate bamboos, so your mileage may vary:-) ).
In other words, if you want to have a bamboo hedge across 100 feet of your back fence, you will either need lots of patience or a good bit of money.

Planting and Care

Most bamboos are remarkably easy to grow.  The larger the plant, the more quickly it will establish, but even small plants are usually successful with a minimum of care.  Select a site that gets sun for at least half the day and has good drainage (bamboos don't like "wet feet")  Start by digging a hole 2-3 times the diameter of the pot.  Gently remove the plant and soil and place it in the center of the hole.  Backfield with soil (or even better, amend with good compost) and leave a shallow depression to hold water.  Small plants do best if given some protection  from the hot sun and wind the first season.  Bamboos can be planted in spring, summer or fall, but if planted in the hottest months, it is best to provide some shade and plenty of water for the first few weeks.
It is best to water new plantings regularly the first year (daily when temperatures are in the high 90s and 100s) , but most species are quite drought tolerant after the first season.  Although regularly watered plants grow larger, faster and frequently look better.
You will see very little top growth during the first year or two.  The plant will grow, but primarily underground, storing food for future above-ground growth.

The first year it sleeps,
The second year it creeps,
The third year it leaps!


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Alligator Alley
4636 NW 10th Street
Oklahoma City, OK 73127
Tel: 1-405-949-2553
Fax: 1-405-949-2137

Email:Bryan@AlligatorAlley.com