Battling Invasive Bamboos

Mar 4, 2018

Lately I’ve been having some plant issues.

Major issues.

The giant bamboo in my backyard (some of which exceeds 50 feet tall) is galloping into the neighboring woods at an astonishing 20 feet per year. Wherever it grows, it creates a monoculture. My neighbor planted it in the 80’s as a novelty way of distinguishing the property line and providing some privacy. Now, about 35 years and two acres later…well, you get the idea.

Bamboo allows little to no light to penetrate the canopy.
Bamboo allows little to no light to penetrate the canopy.

One mistake on researching the right species to plant has cost our neighbors (and us) countless hours chopping, digging, and burning the culms (stems), which sound like fireworks when they burn due to the hollow stems. Every time we burn, there’s at least one neighbor who comes down to inquire what the “gunshots” are from. Since I’m an entirely organic gardener, I’ve never used herbicides as a remedy for the nuisance bamboo. I have, however, been considering using herbicides sparingly if spraying will ultimately cause less damage to the environment than allowing a destructive plant to destroy the ecosystem. I’m still deciding on the best course of action.

Bamboo surrounding a pine in my backyard.
Bamboo surrounding a pine in my backyard.
Bamboo creates a monoculture wherever it grows.
Bamboo creates a monoculture wherever it grows.
A closer look reveals a network of surface roots.
A closer look reveals a network of surface roots.
Here's some perspective: the trees are well over 100 feet tall.
Here’s some perspective: the trees are well over 100 feet tall.

Bamboos where introduced in the late 19th century as a horticultural novelty. People liked the unusual, tropical look they provided and their ability to form large clumps in a relatively brief period of time. Unfortunately, some species spread faster than people thought, and soon, became naturalized throughout the United States.

The offending species are mostly from the genus Phyllostachys and Sasa. Phyllostachys are the bamboos that most people think of, with large culms in a rainbow of colors. The giant timber bamboo that I am currently battling is Phyllostachys bambusoides.

This species can be well behaved if you have thick, clay soils heavy in nutrients and moisture. If your soil is sandy and poor, like mine, they will spread like wildfire in their endless search for the prime growing conditions.

Sasa is a genus of smaller, scrubbier bamboos that are usually less than 10 feet tall. I’ve seen entire woodland floors swamped with Sasa palmata, displacing the native ferns and sedges and eventually killing the trees they surround. Bamboos in the genus Sasa are endless wanderers. No matter what your soil conditions are like, they will always march forward, and are nearly impossible to eradicate.

Here’s the million-dollar question: “If they are as tough as you say, how do I ever eradicate them?”

 

I've made a sizable dent in the bamboo forest (with help from my neighbor's tractor!).
I’ve made a sizable dent in the bamboo forest (with help from my neighbor’s tractor!).

Although I’m by no means an expert on managing invasive species, I have experimented with various methods on my own stand of bamboo and have found only two viable options. The first effective (and organic) way of controlling them is by hard manual labor – cutting the stalks down to ground-level and continually weedeating and removing any new shoots that emerge. This method works if you have the time to do a twice-weekly cut of any emerging shoots. Eventually, the roots will become starved and die off.

This method might be effective if you have the time, patience, and grit to overcome a tough infestation of bamboo, but what if you’re like me and don’t have the time? Well, at that point you’re about out of luck. Using an herbicide might be the only effective solution to permanently eradicate it. Like I’ve said before, if using an herbicide will be the least harmful way (better than leaving it) of removing a stubborn bamboo, it might be worth it to choose the lesser of two evils.

I want to end by saying that not all bamboos are bad. Many are amazing assets to the landscape, providing interesting colors, forms, and textures to the garden. Just make sure and do the research before you plant!

Does anyone else struggle with bamboo issues? I’d love to chat in the comments below about eradicating bamboos, or better-behaved cultivars to grow.

P.S. If getting rid of an invasive bamboo is not an option, you may as well utilize the resources it provides! Bamboo leaf litter decomposes into some of the richest soil around – use it to mulch your garden. The stems make excellent (environmentally friendly) stakes for the garden, not to mention most bamboos have edible young shoots. As you can see, even though some species may be invasive, they could also be turned into an asset!

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  1. Hi Travis!
    So many things I want to comment on… just read about you on Margaret’s post, I now live in the same county as she does and have known her for years, but I’m originally from…Louisiana! In fact my mom still lives in Pineville and has been battling bamboo on her 4-acre hill for decades. One thing we found useful to control it is the plant’s own quality of being quite brittle when it first pushes up the new shoots (around April or May for her)…at that point, when the shoots are between 6 and 12″ tall they can be kicked and will snap off pretty cleanly. My dad used to do this and could knock out a couple hundred shoots in an hour of strolling around. Of course that doesn’t eliminate the underground runners but it’s a quick way to eliminate at least some of the problem. There is the large Timber Bamboo there as well as the much more troublesome Yellow Bamboo, and the clumpers like the Fargesias… unfortunately people have planted the running types often thinking they were getting the clumpers, or in the (mistaken!) belief that they could keep them under control. Anyway I also wanted to tell you how much I admire your goal of doing advanced gardening outside the northeast… I had to leave Louisiana because I had a career in publishing but I too grew up gardening madly at a young age and it’s been a lifetime joy to me. Hope you’ll check out my own website (also under development) and some of my writing on various plant-geek topics! robertclydeanderson.com. Thanks for being an inspiration and hope next time I’m in Louisiana I could see your garden.

    • Travis says:

      Hi, Robert!
      I actually travel down to Pineville quite often, as I have family there too. I’ve found, just like you, that kicking the shoots down does slow the spread down, but in a giant species like what I have, it doesn’t stop it effectively.

      I looked at your website and I love the content you are producing! The first post that I saw (It’s not you, it’s me.) was very interesting – I totally agree about the overused plants!

  2. Pam/Digging says:

    Hi Travis! I read Margaret Roach’s post today — and she was kind enough to email and let me know you follow my blog — and I’m so happy to know about YOUR blog and to “meet” you as a fellow gardener in the hot and humid South. I’m impressed by your deep interest in gardening of all kinds (I don’t grow tomatoes either and realize that disqualifies me from being a gardener to some people — ha!), by your reading habits (English major here), and by your obvious tech skills in putting together a beautiful website. Well done! I hope you’ll drag your family to Austin one day and come say hello. Or even better, join our Garden Bloggers Fling garden tour (with a parent, of course) this May 3-6 in Austin, if you can get out of homeschool for a few days, and see lots of beautifully designed gardens and meet TONS of cool plant and design people, including a fellow Louisiana blogger, Jean at Dig, Grow, Compost, Blog; Jim Peterson, publisher of Garden Design magazine; and about 90 other passionate garden bloggers from all over North America and the U.K. who’d love to meet you. Here’s our link: https://gardenbloggersfling.blogspot.com/ . Cheers, Pam

    • Travis says:

      I’m glad to finally “meet” you as well! I’m actually friends with Jean (we live in the same town!), and have had the privilege of visiting her beautiful garden many times over the past several years.

      I’ve always wanted to attend the Fling but have never been able to, for one reason or another. Maybe this will be the year! I’m wanting to connect with as many gardeners as possible and get advice on all aspects of gardening, so the fling would be a great means to do that.

      Reading your blog has inspired me to experiment with succulents and xeriscape plants – I’m amazed to find that most Agaves actually thrive here! I’ve not tried the Whale’s Tongue Agave yet (Moby the Agave was what inspired me to buy my first succulent), but, judging from how other species perform here, I think it would be successful.

      Thanks for stopping by and “meeting” me! 🙂

  3. Hello Travis,

    I read about you on Margaret’s blog. Good to see a young person taking a keen interest in gardening. You are a good writer too. I enjoyed reading all you have posted about.

    I don’t envy you your bamboo problem. The only thing I know you could do is hire someone with a backhoe to dig it out and then put new soil back. Quite a costly project but the only way I am aware of to get rid of the scourge.

    Reading that you fight bermuda grass makes me shudder. I had never heard of this scourge except for it being on golf greens. Somehow a patch was started in the empty lot right beside our property and in a few short years it has invaded my garden. It makes me crazy trying to keep it out of the flower beds.

    I will look forward to reading what all goes on in your garden and in your head about gardening.

  4. Janet says:

    Hi there Travis,
    I have a strain that grows in 5b NEPA. It’s not Bamboo, but has the sections in the stock of the plant, its named Japanese Knotweed. I battle this every year, chopping it down only for it to come right back. I have pulled it up by the root, and found the root to be a giant mass that attaches so deeply that you never get it all. I have, however, found that depriving it from light does work eventually. I have covered the chopped off base with an old rubber backed rug and also an old pool winter cover, with some success. Its been about 2 seasons now and I think the covered area is ready to be replanted with something more beneficial. This spring will hold the answer.
    I’m not sure if this would work for your situation but it is a pretty simple one.
    Keep up the good work and keep inspiring us!

    • Travis says:

      Thanks, Janet!
      We have Japanese Knotweed in LA too! Fortunately, I don’t battle it in my garden, but I agree, it seems fairly similar to bamboo in its habits. I would try to cover the bamboo, but the area of the infestation (2 acres) makes it a difficult task to accomplish. If it was a small patch I think that would definitely work!

  5. Kennedy says:

    (Hey Trav!)
    I can personally vouch for the massiveness of the growth with my own eyes. It looks cool, but you definitely cannot plant anything very close to it or the bamboo will certainly obliterate anything close enough to reach. (This is all stated with my minor knowledge of gardening.)
    On another note,
    I’m very excited that you finally published your website Travis! It looks even better than when I saw it before! Hussah!

  6. BETHANY LOGAN says:

    Keep up the good work!

  7. JM says:

    Hello Travis,

    I’ve landed on your website via Margaret Roach. I am a professional gardener (not a landscaper) who works in small townhome gardens here in the cities of Alexandria, Va and Washington Dc. I can truly empathize with the challenge of bamboo encroachment as in several of my clients’ gardens the adjoining neighbors have the invasive species growing, most likely from a previous attempt to create privacy in these closely linked gardens. Based on my experience thus far (17 years) I’ve found only two approaches that have been successful. As an organic gardener myself the tractor / backhoe is the best approach for eradication organically. In some rare instances I have had to resort to an herbicide as the backhoe could not access the back garden, however we were not able to re-plant the ground, but instead converted this portion of the space to a concrete slab, overlaid with stone paving. Good Luck with the battle. Nice to “meet” you. JM

    • Travis says:

      Nice to “meet” you as well, JM!

      Thanks for the advice – like you I’m an organic gardener, but I may consider using a herbicide if it causes less damage in the long run – I’ll have to think on that. 🙂

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