Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Does my bamboo look big in this?

The Constant Gardener, who works as a professional gardener, wrote a post on her blog last month launching the Bamboo Uprooting Movement, or BUM for short. I have a lot of bamboo in my garden, mainly Phyllostachys nigra, and I have to say I am pretty much in sympathy with her. Even P. nigra, which is supposed to be fairly well-behaved, will lift paving when it sends up new shoots in late spring, and it has absolutely no respect for boundaries, gleefully sprouting in my neighbour's garden as well as mine.
We inherited our bamboo from the previous owner, and the most spectacular is the one in the front garden, which I think is Phyllostachys vivax f. aureocaulis. Or possibly P. vivax 'Aureocaulis'. Or even P. vivax aureocaulis. It's difficult to know for sure, because there are so many variations on the name that I can never work out whether these are different cultivars or just people being sloppy in their cataloguing. Anyway, it has spectacular golden stems, or culms, with the odd green stripe along some of the sections. It's about 30ft high.
Each year, it sends up new shoots which always remind me of Samurai warriors, or something from a film by Akira Kurosawa. The tips of the shoots have strange, kinked heads that look like some sort of intricately carved spear or helmet spike. The first hint that this Oriental army is on the move is when we see chunks of paving or concrete in the front garden being pushed aside as if they were polystyrene rock from the special effects department of a sci-fi movie. It's a bit scary. As I commented to Constant Gardener, any day now I expect to see one come punching up through the living room floor, like the hand in the final scene of Carrie.
I groom the golden-stemmed bamboo, taking off the shoots up to about head height, so you can see the stems. If you do this when they first sprout, they're still very soft and you can nip them off by hand. You get a much cleaner finish this way. I had to try not to laugh when, over dinner at a neighbour's house, a friend of theirs confided that she'd looked everywhere for a bamboo that had bare stems like mine, but all the local garden centres had never heard of such a species...
I do the same to P. nigra, but not quite to the same extent, because it's planted in front of a dark brown fence (duhrr!), so the dark stems would disappear completely. On the other hand, if it was left au naturel, it would take up far more space, so I leave just enough green to allow the framework of the plant to be seen.
There are lots of remedies for containing bamboo. You can grow it in a large pot, like mint, or line the planting hole with paving slabs. The trouble is, these steps need to be taken before the bamboo is planted, so if you inherit yours, as I did, you just have to try to restrain it as best you can. My advice, if you have limited space, is to think very carefully before you plant the taller bamboos, even those that are allegedly "non-invasive". They are naturally big plants, and trying to restrict them is a bit like expecting a Great Dane to live in a Chihuahua-sized kennel.
There are advantages, however. Our golden-stemmed bamboo is well-known in the neighbourhood and people often stop to admire it, or take photographs. If we're giving people directions, we just tell them to look for the house with the big bamboo. At moments like these, you feel proud to have a show-stopper in the front garden. I just wish there was a foolproof way to bring down the curtain before the bamboo brings down the house.