It doesn't matter whether you grow bamboo in a pot in your office, a suburban backyard, or in a clearing in the bush: you need to provide it with what it needs if you want it to do well.
Bamboos are hungry, thirsty plants. To be the fastest growing plants in the world they have to be. So unless you live in the perfect place with fertile, friable soil and plenty of timely and reliable rain you will need to both fertilise and irrigate regularly for maximise growth. (Or, you can grow the hardier varieties in pretty ordinary conditions and wait longer for smaller plants.) But, too much water can be a problem. Almost all plants need oxygen to help energise their root systems (though of course oxygen is a waste product given off by their leaves), and bamboo is no exception. And so, the third major requirement is well drained soil. Bamboo does not like 'wet feet'. For pot culture premium quality potting mix balances the requirements of moisture retention and air-filled porosity, and reliable slow release fertilisers are widely available. Last but not least, most plants need sunlight. Most of our bamboo prefers to grow in full sun. They grow faster, bushier and produce more shoots in the sun than in the shade. Commercial bamboo plantations are established in clearings, not in forests. There are some species that do not like full sun and perform better in the shade. Some others do not like wind or frost, and can benefit from the shelter of trees and shrubs (if there is no sheltered, sunny, frost-free site for them). Having said this, we'd also say that many of the sun lovers are actually quite shade tolerant and will certainly grow well in shady sites, but slower, leaner and taller as they reach for the light. Here, of course, drainage is more important, especially in the colder months.
Water, nutrients, drainage and sunlight are basically what you need. It's simple really, and these are the basic requirements for most plants in cultivation. But, every site is different and will require a different approach. Ground preparation is extremely important, and failure to appreciate this may create problems that are not easily rectified later. We grow our bamboo in shallow clay soil overlying shale; pretty ordinary conditions really, and yet very common along the whole east coast of Australia. Most of it is thriving. There is a little patchy red in the clay and the pH is not as low (acid) as in some other areas, but unimproved it is much better suited to Tallowood and Ironbark forest than to bamboo: a grass-like plant. Typically, these soils are deficient in some nutrients required by bamboo (nitrogen, phosphorus, etc.) and yet others (silicon, iron etc.) may be plentiful. So you need to redress this, by supplying those nutrients which are lacking to your plants. But it's not just that simple. Clay molecules have the ability to bond with large amounts of phosphorus and hold it in a way that makes it unavailable to plants, and so until it gets enough you have to feed your clay as well as your plants. Clay can also absorb large amounts of calcium, which greatly improves it's structure. This allows waterborne nutrients, oxygen, microbes, roots, worms etc. to penetrate the clay and start organic soil building processes. In the form of limestone (calcium carbonate) it also sweetens acid soils. If the pH (acid : alkaline balance) is not within an acceptable range then plants cannot use available nutrients even if they are plentiful. When your local agronomist recommends amounts of lime and super to get pasture going in your area, there is good reason for it. You can then add a complete fertiliser (and a legume like clover or maku) and get good results. Remember that bamboo is a grass-like plant and that the requirements for successful bamboo plantations are similar to those of improved pasture (or lawn) establishment.
Growing in sandy soil, or limestone country, or volcanic soils will of course be a different set of circumstances and need different strategies, but the aims and end results are the same. Build your soil, and your plants will do well.
The questions of water, fertiliser, soil, light, etc. are all interdependent. If you change one factor, then the others will vary. (Over-water and you will need to fertilise more, for example.) That is why proven soil building methods always give the best results. It takes a lot of organic matter to make a little humus, but the addition of organic matter is the greatest soil builder. Humus in soil helps overcome all sorts of problems. For large areas the best approach is to grow it on site and to plough it into the soil.
For a couple of plants in a suburban backyard a trailer load of well rotted organic matter (compost) will get you started. Ask your local landscape supplier. There is untold information on building garden soil available. Soak up as much as you can, and apply it to your bamboo.
When it's time to plant out your bamboo you need to organise a few simple things. For best results prepare the ground in advance. Dig in compost and manure a few weeks before you buy your bamboo. I like those 'Long-Life' products that contain composted poultry manure, blood and bone, fish meal, seaweed and zeolite (N:P:K around 4:2:2.5). Don't use too much fresh manure or chemical fertiliser or you can damage or even kill your plants. Those who really know how to handle these fertilisers can achieve good results with them. If you don't, then stick with the composted organics. A piece of poly pipe with micro-jets or a garden hose with a sprinkler, and a basic timer makes a great irrigation system. It's important to water your plants in well, and to keep both the plant and the surrounding area well watered until it is established. Remember that quality nursery grown stock has strong, well developed root systems that are confined to a container, and you need to pay particular attention to keeping that area well watered. You may need to water the centre of the plant every day for a while until the roots can start to spread out into the surrounding soil. You also need some mulch. Mulch not only adds life to your soil, and protects it from drying and damage caused by the direct impact of water drops, but most importantly it protects against extremes of temperature. Even when your soil is moist, high temperatures can damage the roots of small plants. Newly planted bamboos often need staking temporarily to prevent wind blowing them over and damaging the new roots. This is especially true for taller, advanced plants. Place the stakes back from the plant a bit and use some rope to tie them to it. Two or three stakes is best for single plants. For rows use two well-stayed end stakes and some rope between them, maybe with some extra stakes in between, depending on length. The plants can be tied to this with strong twine or lighter rope.
If you don't want to stake them, and they are not in a sheltered location, it may be better to shorten them. As long as you don't remove too much leaf, it doesn't slow them too much as most of bamboo's vigour comes from the lower part of the plant.
Once established, the easy to grow varieties need little attention. Cut the old culms out, and feed and water them as needed.
When bamboo is water stressed the leaves curl up; try to water them before they reach this point, but remember that most clumping bamboos are from places that have distinct wet and dry seasons and do not like to be too wet in the dry, cool season (winter and early spring). If you want to grow them in a place with cold wet winters, pay particular attention to drainage. (And start with hardy varieties like Gracilis, that are more tolerant of these conditions.)
Pot culture is the science and the art of the nurseryman, and can be a little more demanding than in-ground horticulture. To grow bamboo plants in a soil-less media such as a potting mix, you provide the water and nutrients in smaller more regular amounts, you avoid over-watering to help maintain oxygen to the root system, and you guard against low pH levels associated with bark or peat based mixes. Untold reams have been written on growing plants in containers, and there are plenty of good texts available. There is considerable variation in the techniques used by nurserymen, and yet there are some things distinguish the best and most successful from the amateurs.
- ...use only premium potting mix. Cheap and nasty substitutes are a waste of time and money, and can leave you with pH and porosity problems.
- ...use complete controlled release fertilisers as their main source of nutrient. A wide variety of supplements (including our favorite organics) are also used.
- ...use cleared open ground, with buildings if shade is required. Shade cloth gives even reliable shade. So-called 'bush nurseries' are usually neither bush nor nursery, but the refuge of amateurs. There's nothing wrong with being an amateur (one who does something for the love of it), but it's not professional.
- ...produce healthy, good-looking plants, which is what consumers want and expect. People do not want to buy 'a stick and a leaf' in a bucket of mud.
For the person who just wants a few plants in pots for the house, the verandah or suburban backyard, the first two points will be most helpful. Remember also that small pots and plants whose roots have filled their containers need more frequent watering and feeding, and that potting up during the growing season helps invigorate your plants. Also, with clumping bamboos in pots be careful not to over-water in winter, especially if they're not in full sun.
It is with some hesitation that I publish my views on bamboo culture. Often people have fixed ideas, and care not for new perspectives. I guess I can't help those people. Gardening is a very subjective art; and so it should be. For twenty years I have lived and worked with plants. Nurseries, orchards, broad-acre farms and vegetable crops all have shown me a professional approach to growing bamboo. I love organic fertilisers, but have no objections to the responsible use of chemical fertilisers. I have seen severe erosion and siltation caused by badly done earthworks, and seen overgrazed, over-burnt and over-logged country come back to life thanks to careful ploughing and fertilising. I love the bush, but prefer not to live or garden right in the bush. Small clearings in tall forest are amongst the best and most productive landscapes on earth, and that is where we live and work. There were some trees left in our clearing with the aim of stabilising spillways and other erosion prone areas, but they have proven to be more of a liability than an asset and ultimately an impediment to good design and quality earthworks. It has been observed that the best way to start an organic garden in our part of Australia is with a bag of super-phosphate, and the best way to start a no-dig garden is by ploughing it in. As professionals we have to be practical. The only philosophical constraint we work under is from a strong aversion to the use of pesticides, and these we avoid wherever possible. Because we can: the best bamboos do not require their use.
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