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Quick on the grow

March 20, 2016

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Natural hedge of golden bamboo.
Natural hedge of golden bamboo.

Confidently being able to enjoy the privacy of your own, personally created garden is a major privilege in our increasingly densely populated cities and other urban areas. Increasing the height of existing boundary walls is — if the expense isn’t prohibitive — always an option but walled gardens, unless they are very large spaces, have a tendency to hold in heat which, particularly at the height of summer, could raise temperatures to unbearable levels as even if there is the luxury of a breeze, it may not be able to enter.

Planting trees to screen the world out is, of course, an excellent move if, that is, their extensive root systems do not undermine the safety of the boundary wall or interfere with water / sewerage pipes and other below / above ground services and trees, but don’t forget, they take time to grow.

‘Regular’ hedges — such as Murraya exotica (Kamni) and Bougainvillea — can be trained to do the job very well but both need quite a bit of maintenance and, without adequate support, they can topple over beneath their own weight.


Once considered an exotic plant, gardeners are discovering that bamboo is a versatile and robust addition to the home garden


The fastest — and extremely natural looking — solution, is to grow attractive arrangements of ornamental bamboo which, when it reaches the point of overcrowding itself, can be thinned out to provide lots of versatile bamboo lengths to be utilised elsewhere in the garden. If you put your imagination and your hands to work, it is perfect material for both household and garden furniture.

Most varieties of bamboo are not very tough customers: they adore sunshine, don’t mind a breeze to sway too, are happy in most soil types as long as it is well-drained and, whilst loving water on a regular basis, will tolerate brackish water to a reasonable degree, enjoy recycled grey water and, once firmly established, will weather a drought as long as it is not of a long duration.

There are approximately 1,400 species of bamboo — or Bambuseae to give it its botanical title —and, in optimum soil / climatic conditions, they are recognised as the fastest growing plants in existence. Some species can grow as much as one metre in a 24-hour period but, as these can also reach heights of ‘Jack and the beanstalk’ proportions, these are not recommended for urban hedging use!

Bamboo ‘culms’.
Bamboo ‘culms’.

The typical species of bamboo — it is a grass by the way, not a tree — to be found for sale in our nurseries here, are those reaching a height of between four and six metres at maturity and they have an average maximum growth rate, during the height of summer, of about three to 12 cm in 24 hours which, all things considered, is still fast.

Bamboo ‘culms’, as they are called, emerge from the ground with the same diameter they will have at maturity which, quick developers as they are, they reach in a matter of just three to four months when temperatures / soil / water is ideal, taking a little longer otherwise.

Bamboo grows from spreading, potentially invasive, rhizomes and, after purchasing your selected plants, these rhizomes should be planted in pre-prepared planting holes that are wide and deep enough to take the entire, slightly opened out if possible, root ball (meaning the rhizome and attached soil as extracted, gently, from the plant pot) with ease.

Distance between plants is dependent on individual bamboo species and the height / width, they are expected to achieve at maturity. On making your selection, ask the nursery man for whatever details he can provide and, if he comes up blank — and he may — then plant two to three metres apart.

The two most commonly found types of bamboo fall into either the ‘clumping’ or ‘running’ categories — these respectively being known as ‘Sympodial bamboo’ and ‘Monopodial bamboo’. ‘Sympodial’ (clumping bamboo) grows in fairly well mannered clumps and is slow to spread, whilst ‘Monopodial’ (running bamboo) has a nasty habit of breaking all known boundaries in the least possible time and thus, sensibly, requires the provision of — preferably solid concrete — barriers to a depth of 60-80cm, to prevent them escaping the planting area allocated.

Magnificent clumping bamboo
Magnificent clumping bamboo

Ornamental bamboo, be it a stolid plodder or an Olympic runner, has an average lifespan of five to seven or eight years after which the oldest plants will die but, during the interval, plenty of new ‘culms’ will have formed and there will be new rhizomes in plenty.

Harvesting of bamboo for general garden or other use should not be done until the third year of growth: the first and second year growth is, surprisingly, too soft to be durable for any length of time.

When the time does come to ‘cut and use’, thin out the canes as evenly as possible rather than, for example, cutting all on one side of the plant. In this way the aesthetics will be maintained.

There are so many different bamboo species — in various colours — available these days that it is not possible to list them all here. The best is to go out there discover for yourselves!

Please continue sending your gardening queries to zahrahnasir@hotmail.com. Remember to include your location. The writer does not respond directly by email. Emails with attachments will not be opened.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, March 20th, 2016