How to grow bamboo
Bamboos are vigorous and dramatic plants with a touch of the exotic. Their beautiful swaying canes and evergreen foliage add year-round structure and movement.
You can choose from various stem colours, heights and foliage types, and opt for spreading types or clump-formers. There are bamboos for almost every growing condition, and for gardens large or small.
- Easy to grow
- Attractive canes with evergreen foliage
- Vigorous and fast growing, often reaching several metres tall
- Best to plant in spring, in sun and moist but free-draining soil
- Most are hardy and low maintenance
- Make new plants by division or rhizome cuttings
All you need to know
Choosing the right bamboo
Most bamboos thrive in a sheltered, sunny spot. However, there are bamboos for nearly every site.
They prefer moist, fertile and free-draining soil, but will tolerate most soil types. They can cope in moderately poor soils, but not in constantly waterlogged or extremely dry conditions.
Check plant labels before buying to ensure the bamboo you choose will thrive in your conditions.
Microclimates: assessing your garden
Get to know your soil type
Most bamboos are vigorous plants and some can grow large and spread rapidly, so make sure you have enough space. Smaller types are ideal as ground cover or for planting in large containers.
There are two main types of bamboo – clump-formers and runners. It’s safest to choose a clump-former, unless you have a lot of space to fill.
- Produce long rhizomes (underground stems) that grow away from the main plant and will spread rampantly if allowed.
- Can be contained by inserting a vertical barrier into the ground.
- Examples include Arundinaria, Phyllostachys (though it may stay as a clump in poor or dry soil), Pleioblastus, Pseudosasa and Sasa.
Grow in dense clumps that can become quite large.
They are less invasive, but can still form large plants and potentially spread in favourable growing conditions.
How and what to buy
Bamboos are on sale for most of the year, usually in large containers of at least 2L (0.4 gallons). They should ideally be planted in spring.
Where to get ideas and advice
To explore and narrow down your potential planting choices:
- Visit gardens that feature lots of bamboos, such as the RHS Garden Wisley, and see which ones you like best. Tropical, contemporary and Japanese gardens often feature many bamboos.
- Ask at local garden centres, which should offer a range of bamboos that do well in your local conditions.
- Go to RHS Find a Plant – search for ‘bamboo’ to browse the photographs and plant descriptions, and find out where to buy them.
- Visit a specialist nursery, in person or online.
Show off your beautiful canes
Many bamboos have beautiful, colourful canes, but these can easily beome hidden by foliage. So regularly trim away the lower foliage to leave the spectacular canes on full display.
When to plant
It’s best to plant bamboo in spring, so that the energy stored in their rhizomes (underground stems) can be used to produce strong new canes in summer. The rhizomes will then have time to put down roots before the plant becomes dormant from autumn to spring.
Where to plant
Bamboos can cope with most soil types, but prefer moist, fertile and free-draining conditions. They dislike constantly waterlogged or extremely dry soil.
Prepare your soil
Enrich the whole planting area with well-rotted garden compost or manure. This will also improve the soil's ability to hold moisture.
How to plant
- Dig a planting hole that is about twice the width of the rootball.
- The hole should be deep enough so the rootball can sit slightly lower than it was in the container, with 2–3cm (1in) of soil covering the original surface.
- Fill in around the rootball with a mix of soil and garden compost, then firm in.
- Water thoroughly, then mulch the soil surface with more compost to hold in moisture.
For more information, read our guide to planting perennials such as bamboo.
Smaller bamboos grow well in containers:
- Choose a large container, at least 45cm (18in) across and deep.
- Use loam-based potting compost, such as John Innes No 3.
- Add controlled-release fertiliser pellets and water-retaining gel in the compost.
- Plants will need to be potted into a larger container every few years, or divided and replanted into several new containers.
How to prevent spreading
Newly planted bamboos can be contained within a physical barrier, set vertically into the soil, encircling the plant:
- Dig a trench at least 60cm (2ft) deep, but ideally 1.2m (4ft) deep. For large plants such as Phyllostachys to have sufficient room to grow, the barrier should enclose an area at least 2.5m (8¼ft) in diameter.
- Line the sides with a solid, impenetrable barrier, such as paving slabs, corrugated-iron sheets or a purpose-made root-barrier fabric.
- Make sure there are no gaps in the barrier – fabric ends should be overlapped by at least 30cm (1ft) and bonded with appropriate mastic.
- Ensure the barrier protrudes at least 7.5cm (3in) above the soil surface, to prevent the bamboo spreading over the top. The protruding edge can be hidden with mulch or stones.
For more information, read our guide on controlling bamboo.
Once new plants have settled in, bamboos are vigorous enough to cope well with little additional help.
With bamboos that have particularly attractive canes, you can remove some of the lower foliage that often hides them.
If established plants start to spread beyond their bounds, the unwanted sections should be dug out and a physical barrier inserted vertically into the soil to contain the plant.
- Newly planted and established bamboos growing in the ground, need to be watered regularly during dry spells in summer.
- Plants in containers can dry out more quickly, so should be watered regularly and liberally throughout the growing season.
- Lack of water can cause poor growth, leaf drop and die-back.
Bamboos benefit from additional feeding:
- A nitrogen-rich feed in spring (such as a spring lawn feed).
- A balanced fertiliser through the rest of the growing season until late August.
Don’t rake up fallen foliage, as it contains silica, which bamboo can re-use to boost its strength and stability.
When growing in containers, bamboos will require additional feeding. Apply a general liquid feed during the growing season: March to October.
Bamboos flower very rarely, but when they do, they produce tall feathery plumes.
There is a popular myth that bamboos die after flowering. This is not always the case, but the chances of a full recovery are not good. Flowering can weaken a clump and the foliage often turns brown.
Steps to aid recovery:
- If the plant only produces the odd flowering shoot, cut these out straight away to discourage more from forming.
- If the whole clump starts flowering, allow it to do so, even if the plant looks terrible. Feed and water it regularly for the rest of the growing season. Then in spring, cut back the clump to ground level and feed with a high-nitrogen fertiliser, such as a spring lawn feed, to encourage new growth from the base.
Most bamboos are hardy, so need no additional care over winter when growing in the ground.
With bamboos in containers, make sure the compost doesn’t dry out over winter, as the foliage may start to shrivel. If the container is in an exposed site, move it somewhere more sheltered, to protect the leaves from wind scorch. A sheltered site will also protect taller plants from being blown over during winter gales.
In very cold weather, insulate containers with bubblewrap to protect the roots from freezing, or move to a frost-place such as a cold greenhouse.
Caring for older plants
To keep bamboos growing strongly, or prevent clumps from getting too large, you can lift and divide them every few years.
This is relatively easy with smaller bamboos, but with a tall plant it can be a major undertaking, so is not always practical. It is probably a two-person job to dig out a large clump, and you will need to use a saw to cut through the rootball. Replant only the younger rhizomes and canes.
For more information, read our guide to dividing perennials such as bamboos.
- To show off the attractive canes, remove some of the lower foliage, cutting as close to the main cane as possible.
- Remove any weak, dead, damaged or spindly canes in spring, cutting them to ground level with secateurs or loppers.
- If a clump has become too dense and congested, thin out some of the canes in spring, cutting them to the base. This lets air and light into the centre of the clump.
- You can also prune the tops of the canes to contain their height. This also encourages the pruned cane to produce more lush foliage
To make new plants, lift and divide bamboo in mid-spring. Split dense clumps with a mattock or axe, and smaller ones with a saw. Use the younger rhizomes towards the outside to make new plants.
For more information, read our guide to dividing perennials such as bamboo.
By rhizome cuttings
Rhizome cuttings can be taken in early spring:
- Choose a young cane on the outside of the clump.
- Dig away the soil to uncover the rhizome connecting it to the main plant.
- Sever the rhizome and lift the cutting from the ground.
- Reduce the height of the cane to about 30cm (1ft) making a sloping cut
- Ensure the remaining buds on the cane are undamaged
- Place the rhizome in a deep tray of gritty compost, so that the canes remain in a vertical position and cover with more compost.
- Water well, then place the tray in a transparent plastic bag to retain humidity around the cutting
- Place in a warm, bright location indoors.
- Plant out the following spring after the risk of frost has ended
Bamboo can be propagated from seed, but as plants flower so rarely, seeds are not widely available commercially.
However, if your plant flowers, it is definitely worth giving it a try:
- Gather the seeds after flowering and sow fresh, as soon as they are ripe. Viable seeds feel solid like grain – papery seeds will not germinate.
- Use a multi-purpose compost and mix in an equal quantity of perlite to improve drainage. Sow the seeds on the surface.
- cover the seed pan with a clear plastic lid or a clear polythene bag if sown in a pot, to maintain humidity while the seeds are germinating
- Many species germinate within a week or two and do best in a temperature of 18-20°C (65-70°F)
- To reduce the risk of damping off disease, increase air flow around the seedings once they have germinated, by gradually removing the covers until they are acclimatised.
- Keep small seedlings growing through the winter indoors as they will not have developed a sufficiently large rhizome to survive dormancy outdoors
- Keep larger, young plants in cooler, but drier conditions, such as a cold greenhouse ready to be planted outdoors in spring
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