Bamboo Plant Basics You Should Know Before You Plant

Bamboo enhances the look of any garden, but some types are aggressive. Here’s how to grow these plants successfully outdoors (as well as indoors).

Perhaps snacking pandas or serene Asian gardens come to mind when you think of bamboo. But there's much more to this charming, sturdy-stemmed plant. There are several types of bamboo that you can grow in your yard or even in an indoor container. Bamboos in general are very easygoing plants that grow quickly. However, running bamboo varieties have aggressive growth habits that can take over your landscape and become very difficult to remove. If you don't want to become a bamboo farmer (or maybe if you do), make sure to choose your type of bamboo carefully. Then, use these tips to care for your plants.

Golden Bamboo
Erica George

What Is Bamboo?

Bamboo is a subfamily of tall, thick treelike grasses, but it's also a generic term that represents over 1,200 different species. Most are woody-stemmed evergreen perennials (meaning they regrow each spring) and are considered among the fastest-growing plants in the world. Wondering exactly how fast bamboo can grow? Some kinds can grow up to one foot per day. This makes it an extremely sustainable resource, and eco-friendly products made of bamboo, including utensils, toothbrushes, and home goods, are rising in popularity.

Bamboos come in sizes from just 4-6 inches to 130 feet. Within that broad range, you can easily find a variety that works in your landscape. But be careful: Some can grow so quickly and densely that they'll crowd out other plants.

Types of Bamboo Plants and How to Care for Them

When it comes to bamboo types, there are two you need to take note of: running and clumping. All bamboos grow rhizomes, or stem-like extensions that sprout roots and run underground. Running bamboos have long rhizomes that spread horizontally, and clumping bamboos have shorter rhizomes that don't stray far from their origin.

Running types need a large area to spread and should be controlled with annual root pruning. Otherwise, they'll rapidly take over your landscape. If you're on #gardentok, you may have seen a video or two showing how growth can quickly get out of hand. Clumping types are more chill. They grow outward from a central plant and form tight clusters of shoots at a much milder pace of 2-12 inches per year.

The amount of sunlight needed to thrive varies according to the type, but all bamboos appreciate regular watering. (However, don't let them stand in water.) New plants need watering once a day until they're established. Add a 2- to 3-inch layer of compost, mulch, or other organic matter for the best results.

To help fuel the speedy growth, bamboo uses a lot of nutrients. Use a slow release, organic fertilizer that is high in nitrogen (the first number on the package should be the highest, such as 10-5-5). Apply the fertilizer, according to package directions, just before new growth starts in the spring and once again in summer.

Bamboo and clover near wooden fence
William Wright

Growing Running Bamboo Plants

When you think of bamboo, an image of golden bamboo (Phyllostachys) probably comes to mind. These are the classic tall, cane bamboo plants that can grow up to 70 feet with stems as large as 6 inches wide. They are strong and fast-growing with varying degrees of hardiness in Zones 5-10.

While best known for their yellow hue, golden bamboos come in all kinds of shades; greens, dark reds, and even striking blacks. They make fast-growing privacy screens with a tropical feel. Because they spread so rapidly, these plants need regular maintenance to keep their rhizomes under control. Consider installing a plastic, metal, or concrete barrier to keep them in bounds, or plant them in a raised bed. This provides a healthy growing zone, while also making it easier to control any rogue rhizomes.

To discourage deep rhizome growth, tightly compact the soil in the bottom of the planting hole. Patrol the perimeter of your bamboo regularly in early summer to check for escapees. Check again when rhizome growth ceases, which will vary, depending on where you live. At this stage, any new growth outside the barriers is relatively soft and hasn't yet rooted to the ground, so you can remove it efficiently.

Golden bamboo flourishes with at least six hours of direct sunlight each day. Otherwise, they need root pruning once or twice a year, and removing any dead or unattractive stems as necessary.

Growing Clumping Bamboo Plants

There are several types of clumping bamboo to choose from: Bambusa (which thrives in hot, southern climates) and Chusquea, Borinda, and Himalayacalamus (which prefer cool, mild climates). Fargesia are the most cold-hardy clumping bamboos, surviving as far north as Zone 5.

Clumping bamboos usually prefer shade or part shade, and come in a wide range of colors and sizes. You can also prune them into any shape without hurting the plant. If the clump grows too wide, simply thin or remove the outer canes by pruning them at ground level. Cut dwarf or groundcover bamboos back to the ground each spring to keep the plants in tip-top shape. The new growth comes in thicker and shorter.

Growing Indoor Bamboo Plants

A clumping bamboo is a little easier to grow as a houseplant. A running type will require you to repot or divide every few years. For either type, choose a container made of a sturdy material that measures at least 12 inches wide and deep. Most bamboos prefer the outdoors to indoors, so you'll need to give your plant a lot of attention. Like other potted plants, indoor bamboos need good drainage, regular watering, fertilizing, and protection from winter weather. Basically, you want to imitate outdoor conditions as closely as possible.

Bamboo loves humidity, which you can increase by misting it with a spray bottle several times a day. Placing a pebble tray with a little bit of water under the container also helps raise moisture levels. Or place a humidifier nearby. Provide your indoor bamboo as much bright, indirect sunlight as possible for the best growth.

Keep a close eye on the soil's moisture to make sure your plant is properly hydrated but not soaking; overwatering can cause root rot. Allow the top 2-3 inches to dry out before watering again, and don't water as frequently during the winter. Just as you would when growing bamboo outdoors, apply an organic, slow release fertilizer twice a year for healthy growth.

And while lucky bamboo (Dracaena sanderiana) is a popular indoor option, you might be surprised to find out it's not actually a bamboo. It's a type of tropical water lily with stems that look a bit like bamboo stems. So if growing true bamboo as a houseplant isn't possible, you could always try growing this easier lookalike plant.

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