Why You Needn’t Plant Bamboo, Ever Ever Ever

Party at the top, business on the bottom
Party at the top, business on the bottom

People often use bamboo to screen out their neighbor’s yard or an ugly building across the street or those lovely, brightly colored recycled bins of Seattle. This is a mistake. Let me repeat: this is a mistake. It is not a mistake to plant bamboo because you’re a bamboo lover and study different bamboos and can think of no other plant you’d rather wake up and see every day. In that case, I say, “Go for it,” because you well know what you’re getting into. But for the more common homeowner who knows little about gardening and just bought a property in which they’re trying to create privacy, I say bamboo is NOT the way to go.

You may be thinking, “Yes, well, that’s because bamboo runs.” And yes, bamboo does run, like crazy. It’s a grass. It will get into the cracks of your sidewalk, it will grow into your lawn, and most annoying of all, it will jump beneath your fence line into your neighbor’s yard. This will make your neighbor quietly sad and/or loudly frustrated. I have seen it happen many, many times. At clients’ houses and at my own. My neighbor, who is a nice enough person, has bamboo alongside her house and our fence line. Every year, without fail, and despite the bamboo barrier I had installed years ago, it comes across where the barrier ends. Give it a teeny bit of light and water, and boom, those goofy, pointy stalks are shooting into pretty perennials.

Does this look like a gardener's dream come true?
Does this look like a gardener’s dream come true?

Here’s another mild horror story. A client of mine, a fine, upstanding guy, must get out his sawzall every year and cut out the stiff, curling starts of timber bamboo that come through his soil from his neighbor’s yard. With not even ten feet between the two houses, there is a huge stand of timber bamboo. It’s super tall. The trunks look like solid stone. It reminds me of the enormous, forest trees they had sword fights in in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The monstrosity tops both my client and his neighbor’s houses, blocks out all sun, and does little for privacy. And did I mention it sheds like an overheated dog in August?

Which brings me to my main point. Bamboo is not a good plant to use for screens, not because it grows in an out-of-control, eerie, sci-fi movie sort of way, but because of these other reasons:

  1. It’s a monoculture.

    Anytime you put multiple amounts of one plant in one place, it sucks the nutrients out of the soil, creates a huge network of roots, and leaves little biodiversity for wildlife. There are no berries breaking up the bamboo, no shrubs for nesting, etc.

  2. It sheds leaves constantly.

    I mean constantly. During springtime the least, but all-year-round it’s letting go of its older leaves and dropping the skinny, papery things everywhere, in your neighbor’s yard or yours, covering the ground with a light litter that requires constant raking. If you don’t rake, guess what, slugs and other critters, like even rats, will use that litter for joyful cover.

  3. It won’t screen in years to come.

    As it loses those papery leaves, the lower part of the stems turn bare. And here, the whole reason you planted bamboo becomes void. Instead of a thick, fluffy screen of greenery, you have a thousand, twiggy, bare stalks to stare at. And through which, your neighbor can stare at you.

  4. It is ridiculously expensive.

    Enough said.

I know I’ve got a bit of an attitude for this post. But it’s a practice I see a lot and it rarely works out. You may say, “But we planted bamboo years ago and we love it.” As I said, if you know what your getting into, you can ignore this post.

Other folks may say, “Not all bamboo runs, you know. We planted black bamboo and it worked out great.” I know black bamboo and other varieties do not run, I used to have a clump of black bamboo that I inherited in a yard at a house I used to own. The same applies. It was a giant clump of monoculture I couldn’t pair any plants well with (in terms of design), it shed constantly, and it only screened the top of my neighbor’s house, not her windows.

If the side of your house sits close to your fence line in the city, I urge you to substitute another plant that can actually add privacy while offering interest: blooms, peeling bark, nuts for birds, fragrance. Oftentimes, people install Arborvitae trees, those cone-like conifers that are highly boring and yet highly puffy and evergreen. I have in mind even better substitutions that I’ll talk about in a future post. Until then, listen to those you know with regrets and headaches about bamboo and please resist the urge to put any in your garden! Thank you for listening, that is all.

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