Growing Bamboo in the UK and other temperate climes

By Amanda Rofe

There are many regions of the world where bamboo can be grown with many different species to grow. I have provided information here for temperate regions such as we see in the UK. For those gardening in other climates I would suggest you seek out bamboo societies or groups for that specific country or area. Of course, some areas of the world have natural resources of bamboo and one company in Hawaii receives more enquiries from people about how to get rid of bamboo than how to grow it!

Monopodial bamboo

For those of us living in the southern half of the UK bamboo will do as well as expected for a temperate garden. Further north bamboo is likely to take longer to establish and some may never reach the sizes seen in warmer areas. Phyllostachys, the most important commercial crop worldwide, is also one for the UK. However, don’t expect it to reach the size of the gargantuan plants we see in places like China.

The following short list offers some examples of species that can be grown and could be useful but there are plenty more to choose from.

Fargesia rufa This is food for pandas if you have any roaming around. It is a short and bushy plant with narrow pale green leaves producing a large number of culms (stems) each year. The culms are very thin orange/red/pink in colour (max 1cm in diameter) and can quickly regenerate from heavy thinning. My Fargesia that has been flourishing in my front garden for several years now and always attracts the interest of passers-by … and pandas of course.

Phyllostachys arcana This plant has narrow green leaves and green to grey/green culms (max 4cm in diameter). In China they are split and used for weaving mats. In warmer gardens it has the capacity to grow tall with well-spaced culms. The culms are strong and good to cut for garden canes.

Phyllostachys nigra This is a popular plant due to the lovely black colour of the culms (max 5cm in diameter). It has small leaves and a rather clumping tidy habit. The new shoots are edible. The wood is hard enough for cabinet work such as decorative panels and inlays as well as for interior finish. Culms darken in direct sunlight and retain their colour well. It is good for hedging.

Pleioblastus simonii The leaves on this plant are long, narrow and green. The culms are green (max 3cm diameter). It is always stout and vertical in habit. It is one of the best bamboos for screens and windbreaks and regular thinning generates a steady supply of strong, straight culms for cutting. It is used in China and Japan as an ornamental and for craft work.

Sasa kurilensis This plant has pale green culms (max 2cm diameter) with medium to large glossy green leaves in palmate formation. The most important Sasa economically is S. kurilensis that grows farther north than any other bamboo. Paul Whittaker says “This is a vigorous species and needs much effort to keep it both looking good and under control. If you insist on planting it, put it next to a fence or wall but bear in mind it will most likely grow through to the neighbouring garden.” Fibre dimension makes Sasa pulp better for thick paper and fiberboard than for thin papers. Sasa leaf has been studied in the field of cancer research. New shoots are eaten pickled in Japan.

Buying plants

I unashamedly recommend the book Hardy Bamboos: Taming the Dragon by Paul Whittaker. It deals with growing hardy bamboos for temperate climates. He imparts a lot of useful information (and beautiful photographs) much of which can be utilised by the vegan organic grower. He recommends organic plants that usually have a “stronger immune system” and says that the occasional aphid is likely to disappear once the plant is in the ground. Organic mulches and composts are to be generally recommended from several quarters and all in all bamboo seems ideally suited to vegan organic growing.

Planting out

Fargesia Ruf

Young bamboo plants grow very quickly but the large plants you often see at garden centres may take much longer to establish. When buying plants look for fresh white roots and rhizomes. Avoid dying culms or culms which are pale or yellowing. What is in the pot is far more important than what is above it.

Plant in a hole slightly larger than the plant pot and add plenty of organic matter. You can mulch around the top as well to conserve moisture. Water well especially during really dry spells. However, later allow the roots to search for water. Don’t over-cultivate the soil as this loosens the earth and makes the plants unstable.

Planting advice from the USA

At this point I must mention the American Bamboo Society (ABS) as they have a really useful website with a lot of information. Suzanne Lucas of ABS recommends (for USA and UK growers) planting bamboo just before their active shooting period as they transplant more enthusiastically. She says that the depth at which to plant the new plant is not as critical as it is with other plants. Deeper planting helps stimulate dormant buds on basal nodes and anchors the plant so it doesn’t rock in the wind. However, if soils are not free-draining, new plants should be set higher, on a mound and if soils are quick draining, plants should be set in a shallow depression with a saucer shape around the root hole to hold the water.

Bamboo that has rolled its leaves indicates drought stress or strong sun. Newly planted bamboo sometimes requires staking, particularly if they are of the taller growing types, like Phyllostachys or Semi-Arundinaria. Plants need to establish a good network of rhizomes to support their height. She suggests using three or more posts connected with strong rope between the culms at chest height with some ‘give’ to allow gentle swaying.

Care and attention

Bamboos in Mr Whittaker’s garden have been given the bare minimum of care. Supplementary watering and feeding has never been provided. This I like. Over the years, the natural organic content of the soil has improved with the decaying leaves of the surrounding trees and shrubs, and also from the dropping leaves and sheaths of the bamboo. It is possible to speed up the maturity of a plant with feed and water but he doesn’t recommend this with young plants. He warns that bamboo should not be planted too close to a pond as the culms can penetrate liners, rigid or otherwise.

Propagation

There are various ways of propagating bamboo but I have been told that in Europe we mostly propagate by division of clumps. To propagate, split a plant in two cleanly with a cutting action rather than with a fork and prising it apart as this disturbs roots and rhizomes and loosens the culms. I don’t know how difficult it is to grow from seed. Some recommend it and some don’t. I mention it anyway. Sow immediately on free-draining compost and lightly cover with a fine grit or sharp sand. Place in a cool position, out of direct sunlight either in a greenhouse or outdoors with protection. Keep weed free and water only when the tray or pot feels light. Some species germinate immediately and others take more than a year. When seedlings emerge, they grow quickly, prick them out and look after them in the same way as for any other plant. Seeds are not always easy to come by. However, I notice that Chiltern Seeds are selling Phyllostachys pubescens and a few other bamboo varieties. I have also seen quite a selection of seeds listed on Ebay.

Pests and diseases

In the UK there are few pests and diseases that affect the bamboo plant although the bamboo mite is occasionally seen. Some animals may cause physical damage to the plants. I read one article that mentioned Kew had problems with squirrels that had learnt to eat certain tasty shoots. Good for them. On the whole, however, it seems bamboo are easily cultivated and need little looking after once established.

Harvesting and curing

In China and other Asian countries bamboo has long been harvested over a three-year cycle and this method of production continues today. The older woodier culms are cut leaving the one and two year old ones to grow on. In this way a dense grove will be selectively thinned of older culms, channelling the energy into ripening younger culms for future cropping. After harvesting the culms are cured using different processes according to the final use. Curved or bent culms can be straightened using steam or heat from a direct flame, or the same end can be achieved by using weight or pressure from binding the culms to flat surfaces. Bamboo poles that warp when dried can also be soaked and re-shaped. These methods are mostly carried out on thick culms that are used for structural work. The slender bamboo poles or canes used in gardens have their branches removed and are then stored in open-sided curing sheds which protect the drying culms from the rain but are open to the breeze. The canes can take up to a year to cure and then they are ready for use.

Further information

The Book of Bamboo: A Comprehensive Guide to this Remarkable Plant, Its Uses, and Its History by David Farrelly. Published by Sierra Club Books. ISBN 9780871568250.

Hardy Bamboos: Taming the Dragon by Paul Whittaker. Published by Timber Press. ISBN 9780881926859

– International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR), No. 8, Fu Tong Dong Da Jie, Wang Jing, Chaoyang District, Beijing 100102, P.R. China. inbar.int

– UK Bamboo Supplies, Unit 18, Donkin Rd, Armstrong Industrial Est, Washington, Tyne & Wear NE37 1PF. Tel 0191 417 2915. www.ukbamboosupplies.com (construction grade bamboo canes up to 150mm diameter)

– American Bamboo Society, 315 S Coast Highway 101 Ste U, PMB 212, Encinitas, CA 92024-3555, USA. www.americanbamboo.org (good website with lots of info)

– Chiltern Seeds, Bortree Stile, Ulverston, Cumbria LA12 7PB. Tel 01229 2581137. www.chilternseeds.co.uk (bamboo seeds)

www.ebay.co.uk (bamboo plants and seeds)

– Whitelea Nursery, Whitelea Lane, Tansley, Matlock, Derbyshire DE4 5FL. www.uk-bamboos.co.uk (bamboo plants)

This article appeared in Growing Green International magazine Num 23 (Summer 2009), p38.