Hardy Bamboos: Taming the Dragon


Bamboos are extraordinary in their ability to transform a garden, adapt to inhospitable surroundings, survive with little care and, most of all, surprise and delight the people who view them. Too long the exclusive pleasure of those with tropical and subtropical gardens, this hand-picked selection allows gardeners in cooler climes to experience the wonder and infinite variety of these magical plants. Besieged by winter wet, summer drought and bitter, drying winds, Paul Whittaker's garden has been a rigorous ...
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Bamboos are extraordinary in their ability to transform a garden, adapt to inhospitable surroundings, survive with little care and, most of all, surprise and delight the people who view them. Too long the exclusive pleasure of those with tropical and subtropical gardens, this hand-picked selection allows gardeners in cooler climes to experience the wonder and infinite variety of these magical plants. Besieged by winter wet, summer drought and bitter, drying winds, Paul Whittaker's garden has been a rigorous testing ground. In the first part of the book his compelling anecdotes, experiences and case histories illuminate how bamboos perform in different places, draw attention to their idiosyncratic nature, and highlight their geographical origins. A further section describes the bamboo's unique physical structure and growing habits. These fascinating insights give you the knowledge you need to choose the right bamboo for your site and grow it successfully. At the heart of the book are detailed plant descriptions that join with striking photographs and evocative illustrations to highlight each plant's characteristics. Using bamboos to best effect in the garden, propagation, aftercare and their resilience to pests and diseases complete the guidance for gardeners. The distillation of years of hands-on growing experience, this is the ultimate bamboo reference book for cool-climate gardeners. Enthusiasts will delight in the variety of new possibilities for their collection and gardeners everywhere will be captivated by the charm bamboos bring to countless different garden situations.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780881926859
  • Publisher: Timber Press, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 3/18/2005
  • Pages: 300
  • Product dimensions: 7.46 (w) x 10.50 (h) x 0.99 (d)

Meet the Author

Hailing from Lancashire, Paul Whittaker has worked in horticulture for almost thirty years as a nurseryman, landscaper and consultant. A regular exhibitor at Royal Horticultural Society shows, he has won many gold medals for his legendary foliage displays. Dedicated to the promotion and understanding of these special plants, Paul Whittaker contributes articles to gardening magazines, lectures widely and holds workshops and events at his nursery and garden. As a member of the RHS woody plant committee, he works tirelessly to increase general horticultural knowledge and also judges exhibits at the major horticultural shows in the U.K. Paul lives in Norfolk, England with his wife, Diana, three teenage offspring and two labradors.

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Purchasing a Bamboo

When you buy a bamboo you are paying for what is inside the pot, rather than what is on show above it. The root and rhizome are by far the most important parts of the young plant. Before you buy a plant look at it closely and take note of the following points.

I would always try to persuade you to buy a young bamboo. Young plants develop at their own pace and in balance, often overtaking larger specimens in the speed of their maturity. If you do insist on buying a large specimen, check with the supplier whether the plant is container grown or containerized. A container-grown plant is one that has been potted on from a young plant throughout its life and has matured equally in rhizome structure and culm formation. A containerized bamboo may have been lifted from the ground or split from a large stock plant. It may look impressive but the roots and rhizome will have been severed, resulting in thin weak growth. Always choose a container-grown plant, and if your supplier cannot confirm this method of culture, do not make the purchase.

Ensure the plant is not pale or yellowing in colour; if it is, it may be starved. A fresh green plant is likely to be recently potted and is unlikely to be starved or suffering from a check to its growth. Check for a high percentage of dead or dying culms, which signify the bamboo may be congested, old or woody and unable to produce new juvenile growth. If possible check the roots and rhizomes in the pot. Look for fresh white roots and rhizome, or buds near the edge of the pot or emerging from the surface. If there is an absence of all three, the bamboo may have been very recently potted and therefore not suitable for transplanting. Look closely for visible pests and disease. Ask whether your supplier uses chemical control; sometimes plants overdosed on chemicals will be weaker in the garden and have no immune system. If the grower uses organic methods, the plants may stronger and the occasional aphid, although off-putting, will usually disappear once the bamboo is planted in your garden.

Buy according to your budget. Three young plants may be a better option than one large specimen, offering greater value in the long term. Bamboos grow quickly and large "instant plants", although impressive, are sometimes slow to establish and unbalanced, often having great top growth emerging from a small pot. It is always better to buy a balanced plant, which has sufficient root and rhizome to support the top growth.

Make sure you get "free" information when you buy a bamboo (or any plant for that matter). If the person you are buying the plant from cannot tell you a little about it, find someone who can, or go elsewhere. However, do not expect a guarantee. You are purchasing a living thing and as soon as you take it home it is your responsibility, so get some advice on how to look after it. After all, if you bought a hamster from a pet shop and it died two years later, would you take it back and demand another one?

In summary I recommend that you buy a young plant after checking the root system and getting good advice. Start by choosing a bamboo with a reliable reputation and that is not too rare, so that you can get used to its needs without incurring too much expense.

Planting, Feeding, Mulches and Aftercare

One of the questions I am most often asked is how to plant bamboos. This is easy to answer but the follow up query about how a plant develops vigour and strength after planting is perhaps more difficult to explain. Many plants always look their best in nature — the gorgeous maples and groves of fresh dark green Sasa in the mountains of Japan, the North American woodlands with rich autumn colouring, the bright and textured evergreens of the South American low countries — all look their best without help from gardeners. Although management of some forested areas and, in particular, national parks is commonplace, this is usually limited to regeneration through thinning, cropping and replanting. You never see someone traipsing up a wild hillside with a long yellow hosepipe or bag of granular fertilizer to water and feed plants in the wild. Wild plants are survivors, they grow in the right place and at their own pace, developing the best habit and colouring.

When we bring plants into our gardens we introduce them to a habitat that they possibly have to adapt to or is unnatural to them. There is, however, a fault inbred in us to pamper things that are either close to our hearts, or we have spent money on, particularly if we have gone out of our way to obtain something we desire. I usually equate the life of a young plant to that of a child growing into the teenage years. If you mother and over cosset a child from birth into adulthood, not allowing some independence and space, the child will probably grow up less capable of standing on his or her own two feet, relying on your support for a greater length of time. Likewise a plant that has been overfed, given structural support and watered too frequently will look healthy to start with but may not have the strength to support itself later, when you devote your time a new acquisition.

Treat a new bamboo like a baby for the first two years and by all means give it your undivided attention. As the plant develops, just like a child going to school, give it some freedom, allow it to find its own way in life; occasional times of stress will help to make the plant grow stronger. Allow the roots to search for water, let the culms blow in the wind and, when you feel the need to intervene, it will react positively to your care and attention. As a plant reaches maturity it should be more capable of looking after itself with minimal attention from you. This stage in life could possibly be equated to the late teenage years; you sometimes have to step in to keep your offspring in check but normally you have other things to devote to your time to.

The bamboos in my garden have always been given the bare minimum of care. Although the soil is reasonably fertile, it is quite gluey with an underlying pan of chalky clay. It can flood in winter and bake hard in summer, forming the occasional crevasse in the process. Planting has always been quick, with the minimum of ground disturbance, as I do not like to over cultivate the soil; it loosens the structure providing less stability for young plants and releases valuable water through evaporation. I prefer to plant in the autumn as I find watering young plants after spring planting a chore. Anything planted during the springtime will, however, get an initial watering. If I am feeling generous the young plant will be lightly mulched and, although this is something I recommend, I must admit that I do not often do it myself.

Supplementary watering and feeding have never been provided in my garden. Over the years, the natural organic content of the soil has improved with the decaying leaves of the surrounding broadleaved trees and shrubs, and also from the dropping leaves and sheaths of the bamboos. The organic matter from living plants is the only food my bamboos rely on. I admit that a new garden created from a building site will often be lacking in both organic and nutrient content, and in this situation it would be wise to enrich the soil with rotted manure, garden compost or similar bulky organic material before and after planting for a few years. The only way to persuade you that bamboos really do cope under stress, with low annual rainfall, no additional feeding and very little mothering is to trust my words, or come and see for yourself.

I know of some enthusiasts who annually mulch their beloved specimens with rich manure, and use drip watering throughout the summer months. The plants in their gardens look spectacular but, with respect, no better than the ones here. It is possible to speed up the maturity of a bamboo with feeding and watering but do not do this too soon on a juvenile plant. A plant that is just about to reach maturity has a greater demand for sustenance than one newly planted.

Summary of planting and early care

To give your bamboos a good start in life, please take heed of the following advice. You will notice that the planting and aftercare recommended for bamboos is not dissimilar to that of many other plants.

  1. Prepare a hole in the soil a little bigger than the size of the pot or rootball of the plant. Fork the base and sides of the hole in case the soil is hard and panned; this will help the roots and rhizome grow into the surrounding area.
  2. Moisten the hole before planting and allow it to drain.
  3. Lightly tease or loosen some of the fibrous roots from the edge of the rootball, particularly if it has been confined in a pot. This can be done easily with your fingernails or a small stick, but take care not to damage rhizome or new buds and shoots. If the rhizome has circled the pot do not worry; a bamboo rhizome rarely strangles itself or the growing plant, and branches quickly outwards from any curving growth. This is an advantage over a tree, which sometimes relies on a few long woody roots that must grow outwards into the surrounding soil for stability; root circling on a tree can lead to its eventual death.
  4. Plant the bamboo so the soil is level with the top of the rootball, or a little deeper if roots and rhizomes are visibly protruding from the top of the pot. Tread the soil firmly to give stability to the bamboo, but carefully so as not to damage any unseen shoots within the rootball.
  5. Water immediately after planting.
  6. Mulch with well-rotted leafmould or composted bark to a depth of no more than 5 cm. (2 in.) around the base of the bamboo and lightly moisten the mulch if it is dry. If your soil is infertile, mix the mulch with some well-rotted manure or a smattering of balanced granular fertilizer. Never use pure peat for it has little nutrient value and dries out very quickly, often blowing away in the wind.
  7. In the weeks following planting, give water when you think the plant requires it, not every day. Soak the soil occasionally with a slow running stream from a hosepipe so that the water penetrates the soil down to the roots. Do not use a sprinkler to top up soil moisture on a daily basis; this usually results in moistening the top few centimetres of soil and encouraging the roots to grow to the surface, making them more vulnerable in times of drought. Allow the soil and the roots to drain freely between irrigations; the root system must be allowed to breath and young plants do not like waterlogged soils.
  8. Further mulching — in late winter to conserve moisture and prevent weeds germinating — and watering may be necessary in the first two years after planting, but should be gradually decreased in frequency. After this, try leaving the plant alone, only attending to its needs when under severe stress.
  9. Thin out old and weak culms as the bamboo matures and prune some of the lower branches of the species with good culm colour to enhance their appearance.

Using Bamboos in Gardens and Landscapes

Whether you want to play at Capability Brown, envelop your house closely with a jungle-like screen to hide your neighbour's new building extension, reduce the wind or escape from the noise and urban pollution of the twenty-first century there is a place for bamboos. Regardless of how small your garden, there is a suitable bamboo. If you do not have soil you can grow them in pots. Do you live in a second-storey apartment? You have no excuse for not growing bamboos in pots on a balcony. Bamboos on roof gardens are popular and possible; short bamboos in window boxes and raised beds can be appreciated at close quarters, while on a larger scale bamboo mazes and secret areas in bamboo groves are enchanting examples of many other possibilities.

For plant associations you also have unlimited choice. Gardening should be personal, not dictated by fashion or other people's preferences. Plant as you like. Evergreens with larger leaves, including Mahonia, Viburnum and Rhododendron will complement your bamboos with their flowers. Boldly variegated plants look dramatic against the dark foliage or structural culms of many bamboos. You are spoiled for choice among the many deciduous shrubs, perennials and grasses that offer interest for the various seasons of the year as foils to the continuity that your bamboos provide.

We all have preferences and I prefer to use bamboos with other plants. The vertical structure of some bamboos is enhanced by association with ornamental grasses. The delicate greenery and branching systems can be made more obvious against a background of larger broadleaved plants. Low prostrate shrubs, conifers or perennials around the base of bamboos make strong contrast between the vertical and horizontal.

I do not intend to tell you what you should use for plant association and, although suggestions have been made in the individual plant descriptions, I would rather you make your choices after you have learned how versatile and complementary bamboos can be. If you still find you want help and tips, there are no shortages of gardening programmes, magazines, gardens to visit and general advice on the Internet or from specialists.

Use with materials and features

The simple use of hard landscape materials, such as stone, timber, small garden structures and ponds to create a different landscape setting within your garden can be very rewarding. The use of local materials or natural features is usually cheaper and more in keeping with the environment than introducing anything foreign, and failing that there are many concrete products that are very effective if used thoughtfully.

Small areas can he created within a garden in the style of a Japanese courtyard. Giant culms emerging alongside a gravel path, some discretely placed rocks and oriental ornaments, a plum tree, pine, some peonies and ferns will provide the imagery of a place thousands of miles away

A bold Phyllostachys with bright golden culms or the large reflective leaves of Indocalamus and Sasa placed at the end of long path will create focus. Edging a narrow path with tall overhanging bamboos will create perspective. The willowy habits of Fargesia and Yushania by the side of a pond will be reflected and give depth to the landscape. Add to this simple horizontal fencing occasionally softened by broad mounds of the shorter Pleioblastus for an intermediate level for the eyes to view. A large tumble of sea-washed pebbles in the shade of a large bamboo creates brightness lower down, offering balance and a surface where the shadows and flickering light created by the foliage overhead can play. Sharp brick edging is a stark contrast to the smoothness of the huge rounded culms on some bamboos. If you prefer, the edging can be softened with small-leaved creeping ivy or blocks of ferns.

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Table of Contents

Foreword 8
Ch. 1 First contact and beyond : the author's first meeting with bamboos 15
Ch. 2 A new acquaintance : definition, history and culture, harvesting and curing 20
Ch. 3 Going native : distribution and habitat 27
Ch. 4 In at the deep end : botanical classification and nomenclature 34
Ch. 5 Going underground : rhizomes and roots 44
Ch. 6 From root to roof : plant structure above ground 50
Ch. 7 The hostile environment : hardiness, climate and soil 79
Ch. 8 The chosen few : descriptions of temperate bamboos 88
Ch. 9 Close to the edge : some less hardy bamboos 228
Ch. 10 Specific qualities : lists of bamboos for special purposes 238
Ch. 11 Creative culture : purchasing, planting and aftercare, and using bamboos in gardens and landscape 254
Ch. 12 Increasing the fold : propagation techniques 269
Ch. 13 Beware of the enemy : pests and diseases 272
Ch. 14 Myths, legends and the four seasons 275
App. 1 Bamboos with an award of garden merit 277
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