Ornamental Bamboo: A non-invasive species for the yard

January 10, 2008

Edited by Charla Borchers Leon

Bamboo is really just a type of grass that varies in height from dwarf to gigantic; from 1 foot to more than 100 feet tall. It will grow in different climates, from heat and humidity to cold and high on the mountainside. It is classified by the type of roots, either clumping that grows out from the original root slowly, or running, which does just that –and may need to be contained. Generally tropical bamboo tends to be clumping and temperate bamboo tends to be running.
This giant clumping bamboo in a landscape in Old Victoria has a 5-inch range diameter and reaches upwards of 30 to 40 feet in height. It is said by local nurserymen to be one of the more fantastic examples of giant bamboo in South Texas.
History or lore?

In some countries bamboo is said to represent long life. In another it is said man and woman came from a split cane of bamboo. In yet another, it is said to be lucky. Bamboo rarely blooms and when it does, it is said to be a sign of impending famine. When it does bloom, the plant completes its life cycle and dies.

Uses for bamboo

Bamboo is a very useful plant. Besides being used in landscaping, it is used to make flooring, build fences, kitchen tools, paper, dinnerware and musical instruments. We are all familiar with the beautiful wind chimes made from bamboo. In some countries a farmer may live in a hut, prepare and store food, sit in a chair, wear sandals – all made using bamboo. He may have bamboo mats for the floor, beds and covers and have bamboo for part of his meal. A fisherman may have a boat with sails and ropes also made using bamboo. I think we are all familiar with cane fishing poles. Guess what these canes are? That’s right, river cane bamboo.

I find it fascinating that bamboo is such a useful plant besides being beautiful as well. I do find all the uses interesting but I am only interested in the decorative purposes in my landscape. If you have ever been around bamboo on a windy day, you will know why I am on this quest to learn more about it. As the wind blows, the bamboo moves and has this soft swishing sound like it is whispering secrets. It is beautiful and peaceful.

Clumping bamboo is more commonly used in landscapes since it will grow in a more predictable pattern. It can form small, dense stands that can be used for privacy, screening or accent plants. Several are very unique in their cane stalk color from yellow to green to striped, or even red or black. Ranging in height from 1 –100 feet and in cane thickness from less than an inch up to 12 inches, most of the giant ones are in the 5-inch diameter range.

A substitute for bamboo that is quite ornamental and is in the Master Gardeners’ Victoria Educational Gardens is Muhly grass bamboo.


Bamboo is a perennial evergreen with more than 1000 species noted in the world. One kind that has really peaked my interest is the giant bamboo. It intrigues me that this huge beautiful plant can appear to be so fragile, but I have watched it bend almost to the ground in a high wind. It will then spring right back up to its majestic height. With all the rain last year, it has literally exploded with new growth. I am not good at judging heights, but it is pretty darn tall. The canes have gotten so big I can’t reach around some of them with one hand. I will definitely use a soaker hose around it now to see that it has adequate moisture.

Choosing bamboo

Bamboo needs to be recommended for zone 9 in order to perform its best here. Buy from a reliable source. There are many online – and I probably will order something that way even though I do like to buy from our local nurseries whenever possible.


Dig a hole that’s about 2 inches larger than the size of the pot. Remove the plant and if the roots are tightly wrapped in the shape of the pot, just use a sharp knife to score through them to prevent the plant from growing in the circular pattern in the ground. Don’t be timid. Bamboo is very hardy; however, if new sprouts are forming, do not cut through them.

Set the plant in the hole so the soil in the pot is slightly below the soil level.

Water well and often but do not allow the bamboo to stand in water. Good drainage is a must.

Add about a 3- inch layer of good mulch around the bamboo and always maintain a good layer. This helps hold moisture around the plant.

If choosing a running type of bamboo, I’d recommend that precautions be made to contain the bamboo within the desired growing area otherwise it will invade not only your yard but your neighbor’s as well. Put a heavy plastic, metal or concrete barrier around the desired growing area. Bury it 2 – 3 feet deep slanting outward from the site and sticking out of the ground about 3 inches. This will contain the rhizomes within the desired area and if they grow out and above the 3-inch barrier, they can be cut off.


Bamboo can be propagated, but requires patience. Cut down one of the culms and using a sharp knife cut into sections. Put root hormone on each cutting and plant them into a pot with fresh potting mixture. Keep damp, not wet and just wait patiently. It is not always a success and I don’t find it worth the trouble, but may attempt it in the spring.

Successful bamboo

There are four conditions that optimize the success of getting bamboo started. These include irrigation, good drainage, location and fertilization. Without using these, you will have beautiful bamboo, but it won’t achieve its optimum beauty. Whether giant or short, bamboo is one of the most intriguing landscape plants that I have encountered.

Thoughts to ponder before getting started with bamboo

*Know the growth pattern you want.  Clumping bamboo is more commonly used in landscapes.  It has more predictable growth.  Check with your bamboo grower to be sure that you get what you need.

*If planting a running type bamboo, install a containment barrier or plant it within a contained area to avoid rampant spreading.

*Bamboo must have full sunlight.

*Good drainage is also a must.  The most important part of growing bamboo is underground.  The rhizome and roots will not survive boggy conditions.

*Fertilize and mulch.  Fertilize about three times a year with a balanced lawn fertilizer.  If you have alkaline soil, there are many sulphur-iron mixes that work well with bamboo.

*Do not ever use weed-n-feed fertilizer.
This bamboo Muhly grass which can be seen out at Victoria Educational Gardens can be substituted for Bamboo to add softness and texture to an area.  It spreads by underground rhizomes and will form a clump 4-5 foot tall and wide.