Keeping bamboo in check - without a panda

At this time of year I start looking nervously at the bamboo plants in my part of the garden, checking for signs of imminent invasion

Golden bamboo after its tidy upTwo of the yellow bamboos (Phyllostachys aureosulcata f. spectabilis) are particularly popular with visitors as they are tall and statuesque - and have golden coloured stems which are highlighted as we trim the side shoots up to about 1.5 metres (5ft) to show off this aspect of the plant.

They can't help but catch the eye, especially in winter when they stand out as many other plants have died down, and when the low sun catches them in the morning and afternoon it makes the stems shine out like neon lights.

The reason for my nervousness is thinking about the work required to keep them in check. Some bamboos can be very invasive; especially those that spread by rhizomes (underground stems).

It is important to keep them under control or they will take over, and the best way of doing that is by cutting back the rhizome, which we do annually. Left to themselves they will spread far and wide, and barriers aren’t usually too much of a hindrance to them as they have incredible growing strength and seem to locate the weakest points of a barrier with ease.

Chopping off a bamboo rhizomeThe good news is that the rhizomes tend not to be too deep, but I am always surprised by how far they have actually reached in a year. A couple of metres long is not at all unusual. We use a heavy fork to dig round the clump to locate the rhizomes which are usually ivory in colour and noticeably thicker and straighter than the other roots. Once located, we trace along the rhizome to its growing tip and cut it off as close to the clump as possible.

Controlling bambooEven better news for me was that I didn’t have to tackle the task alone this year, as I had the tremendous benefit of three strong hard-working young horticultural students to help. We joked at the time that digging up bamboo rhizomes is best left to young men, but that doing the job turns young men into old men!

Most of the bamboos I look after are fortunate to have clear ground around them which makes the annual control task reasonably straightforward. However, one of the Phyllostachys aureosulcata in the Town Garden is more of a problem as it was planted next to some wooden decking and now spreads under a wooden fence as well, which makes control rather trickier.

Clump-forming bamboos tend to be slower growing, more bush-like and normally don’t spread as much as the running bamboos, but this doesn’t mean they can’t get out of control too.

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