October 18, 2010

Bamboos are not all alike- Part 1- The Giants

I have the advantage of having the space to grow a great diversity of plants, as well as experiment with new species. One of the plant groups I inherited with this property is giant bamboos. We have 6 distinct species here, some of which have grown to over 70 feet in protected areas. Unquestionably these are impressive and imposing plants for large properties. In certain locations, they are the perfect accent for a large structure, or to screen large stretches of property from view of another property. Many people mistakenly choose a giant bamboo for a small cottage or bungalow, with an odd disparity between the home and the towering canes. Homeowners often say the leaves rain down on the yard , carpeting everything in sight. Giant bamboos epitomize the tropics, and need everything in abundance: water, fertilizer, heat, humidity, and space. For the right place, giant bamboo can be the perfect plant. But.............. Choose the right plant for the right place !

Bambusa oldhamii

Bambusa arundinacea- a running, thorny bamboo

Dendrocalamus giganteus - the largest bamboo to 100 feet

There are so many choices for bamboos in our climate that you can absolutely choose the right plant for the right spot, and avoid the headaches of having bamboo erupt through a driveway or house foundation. Recently introduced varieties are very well behaved and require rather little specialized care. There are types which run vigorously over large areas ( not good), and types which clump tightly together, and stay put ( better). There are bamboo types with black or ebony or striped or mottled or yellow canes. Plan on a giant bamboo species to grow over 40 feet tall, with canes at least 3 inches thick. When a species is well placed, the plant will usually stay in an area about the diameter of  its crown. While I would never suggest that bamboo be placed right next to a building, it can be done with certain species provided there are some root barriers in place. Many of the very large-leafed varieties need some protection from dry winter winds, or they will look haggard and rough.

Many people have chosen a cheaper, invasive species to "use up some space" on their property. The owners usually get what they ask for ! The wrong species can bring on years of trouble, where the right species can be years of pleasure. In our environment in Miami, one of the more popular bamboos is Timor Black, a tall ( to 50 feet) type with elegant ebony-mahogany canes, emerald green leaves, and a nearly vertical growth habit. Its slow and controlled growth habit also means a higher price than many faster-growing green species, but the end result is a bamboo with great aesthetic value to a large garden. Some species in the genus  Dendrocalamus and Guadua are giants, suited to a large garden especially those with tropical or Asian garden themes.

Even if you start with small plants, caring for bamboos requires forward thinking ( what space will the plant grow into in 5 years ?). In South Florida it is recommended that you dig a hole 3 or 4 times the size of the rootball and backfill the hole with organic compost and organic fertilizer. Plant the new bamboo from April to August to take advantage of maximum daylength and heat. Water the new plant heavily every day for the first 60 days. After the initial grow-in period, monitor the plant for signs of drought, and water immediately if the plant wilts. The first year is the most important to establish the plant and make sure it is solidly rooted.

Bamboos are very responsive to watering especially deep soaking, so using a drip or soaker hose is  recommended. Heavy mulching ( over 8 inches deep) over the entire root zone is also recommended. Such measures ensure a stout and well-rooted bamboo. Consider also that repeated mulching with leaves, bark chips, coffee grounds, and the bamboo's own leaves will make the plant even healthier. Cut out old and leafless canes in the center of the clump whenever possible. The next installation will cover mid-sized bamboos, followed by a blog on small-statured bamboos for small gardens and containers.

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens         

Dendrocalamus 'Timor Black' ( below)
Guadua angustifolia-a New World bamboo


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