Lots of gardeners don’t trust bamboo - they worry about rampant growth, indestructible roots and invasion of gardens – but there are ways of growing bamboo safely.
Some people call them ‘demon spreaders’, others just don’t trust them but thankfully bamboos are starting to get a much better profile.
Bamboos are woody grasses and there are about a thousand species found across the world either in moist tropical areas, or in warm temperate countries.
In all there roughly a thousand species subdivided and naturally tropical bamboos do not thrive in British gardens, but there’s still a lot of choice of ones that will grow well.
The first bamboos introduced into Britain in the late 19th century were rampant species from lowland China. These formed large groves in many Victorian gardens, particularly in the south-west. Growth habit often varies according to location so a bamboo that’s rampant in the climate of Cornwall will behave quite differently elsewhere, despite being the same plant. It’s this mixture of fear and uncertainty, regarding size and spread, that often puts gardeners off or leads them to put them in a pot. Most bamboos sulk in a pot.
Thankfully bamboos have changed. In the last 30 years much-better behaved ones have been introduced from the cold, mountainous regions of Chile and the Himalayas. These high-altitude varieties are clump formers, not aggressive spreaders, and some are suitable for smaller gardens, although all bamboos need space to shine.
Taller bamboos that provide effective screens - those that eventually form much looser clumps but are not regarded as insanely invasive - are to be found in the genus Phyllostachys. Planted in the ground, if at least one-third of their oldest stems is pruned out at ground level every year, they remain relatively static. This is because they have less need to send out running shoots in search of water.
Phyllostachys can be grown in containers but even with regular grooming and feeding it will eventually – in five years or so – run out of steam and is best replaced. There is a Phyllostachys (P. nigra) with stems that turn jet-black with age and an equally fetching golden-stemmed one (P. aurea).
Used properly they add another dimension to a garden, especially in autumn and winter when their canes and evergreen foliage provide colour and interest. Low winter sun makes the canes look much shinier, almost making them appear lacquered, and new canes can be almost-black, green or gold. More vigorous bamboos can be used as hedging, or as ground cover. The secret is choosing the correct one for your position.
Bamboos divide themselves into two groups. Some are tight clump-formers and, although these clumps get larger, they do stay in the same place. Others roam and run and these are not for the small garden, or the faint-hearted.
Bamboos for smaller gardens
Fargesias come from upland areas of China and have thin, colourful canes topped by a fountain of fine foliage. These clump-forming arching bamboos can be grown in containers as well as in the garden.
Fargesia rufa (Chinese fountain bamboo)
The foliage has an unusual blue-green glow and each slender green cane is banded with colourful sheaths that vary from orange-red to shrimp-pink, depending on the soil. The more alkaline, the more colourful the sheaths apparently. Give it some shade and it will resemble a Japanese acer from a distance. In the garden Fargesia rufa will grow to a maximum height of 2.5m (8ft), in a clump up to 1.2m (4ft) wide after 10 years so it makes a good screen or hedge.
A much more upright bamboo with thicker dark-green canes banded with paper-white sheaths in summer. The contrast of white and green makes this bamboo look very handsome. It will form a tight clump measuring five feet wide and tall after ten years.
These bamboos come from the higher reaches of the Himalayas and therefore appreciate a cool position sheltered from sun and wind. They often take time to become established.
Chusquea culeou (Foxtail Bamboo)
An elegant, arching bamboo with yellow canes that turn deep-green. The leafy growth is very bushy, hence the foxtail name, and the foliage cascades down over the canes. After ten years, it should reach 13 feet high.