Bamboo Goes Berserk

Bamboo Goes Berserk Copyright Jill Henderson showmeoz.wordpress.comJill Henderson ~ Show Me Oz ~

No matter how many years you’ve gardened, one day, you will wake up and say to yourself “Why on earth did I do that?!”  I know this is true because it’s happened to me and many gardeners I know.  Take, for example, the lovely, modest, tiny clump of what I believed to be switch cane (Arundinaria tecta), a small North American species of bamboo, that Dean and I found growing in the front yard (soon to be the vegetable garden) when we first moved here.   It looked to me like the native, well-behaved switch cane we had growing over yonder behind the shed, which has stayed pretty well put for going on 8 years or more.  So, we dug up the little clump, divided it and spaced it just so in a more appropriate spot.  Or so I thought…

For nearly 6 years those little clumps of bamboo behaved themselves just like the other clump of switch cane we have growing.  The clumps were relatively small and every year produced a few harvest-size canes for plant stakes and what not.  Those little canes were just as pretty as could be, adding color and texture to a bland shady area in a shallow draw next to the garden. Because of the big trees down there, nothing else would grow.  So when these seemed to like it there, we patted ourselves on the back and enjoyed the view.

What we thought were switch cane transplants - year one. Copyright Jill Henderson

Over the years, the big trees began shading the vegetable garden more and more, so we had a few removed.  Then, on the first really warm day in late spring, we noticed the shoots.  Lots and lots of new shoots poking up all over the place.  At first we were excited, but that quickly turned into that “Why on earth did I do that?” moment.  We literally stood and watched that cane grow 3 feet in one day.  The next day it was 5 feet and up and up it went.  Those canes grew so fast you could hear them groan!

Unbeknownst to us, those diminutive clumps had been sending their creeping root stock in all directions for years, perhaps searching for the bright sunlight they craved.   And as soon as we cut those trees, the bamboo had exactly what it had been looking for.  A few exploratory digs in the iris bed on the edge of the garden, revealed multiple and extensive bamboo roots and many large shoots that had popped up out of the ground and were diving back under for another run at the garden we have worked so hard on.

This small chunk of root took an hour and a half to dig out. Copyright Jill Henderson

I still don’t know exactly what type of bamboo this is (perhaps you do?), but I definitely know that it’s not switch cane.  A close comparison of the leaves told me that right away.  But why, oh why, had I not done that before?  More importantly, what am I going to do now?  Since I don’t do herbicides of any kind – and honestly, the only kind of herbicide that will kill these suckers will surely be really toxic stuff – I guess we’ll just have to dig them out one big gnarly root at time.

If I had known that the pretty little diminutive sprout we dug up so long ago was running bamboo, I would have burned it immediately.  But seeing as how I didn’t, I’ll just have to chalk it up to a doozy of a “Why on earth did I do that?!” moment and enjoy the big fat bamboo canes I’ll harvest while digging out the clumps – all winter long!

Bamboo gone Berzerk Image Copyright Jill Henderson










The moral of the story is:  Be leery of plants that you think you know, but that you really do not know.  If you are unsure, plant them in pots or in some way out of the way place that you can mow, till, or in my case, bulldoze, if things go wrong.

Until then, happy gardening!

© 2016 Jill Henderson  Feel free to share with a link back to the original article.

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Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore.  Jill is a contributing author for Acres USA and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac and her work has appeared in The Permaculture Activist and The Essential Herbal.

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23 responses to “Bamboo Goes Berserk

  1. Oh dear……….trailing bamboo can unearth an asphalt parking lot. The two types (clumping & trailing) are very different. Clumping still spreads but not nearly as fast. Trailing types are never for around gardens, buildings or near anything actually. It’s great for a cash crop if you have a lot of land and just cut & sell it. Think (fr/memory) there are at least 200 varieties of bamboo. Always research to find out what type . I’m so sorry you’ve had this problem, Jill. I have a list of “why did I do that?” too & have made so many mistakes. Gardening isn’t for sissy’s eh? SO much work to undo is all. Love.

    • Aw, thanks for the uplift, Jerre. I think the thing that makes this the mother of all of my Why Did I Do That? moments is that I know full-well about bamboo and how it spreads. My mistake was not 100% confirming its identity. It’ll be funny in a couple of years… 🙂

  2. The thing to do if you want to halt the spread of bamboo is to place a metal “barrier” around any clump of it you want to control. This can be in the form of aluminum sheeting cut to 12-inch strips and embedded around the bamboo clump. This way, the roots can’t spread.

    • George Orwell, you are spot on. That, indeed, is the correct way to corral bamboo. Too bad I didn’t take the time to properly identify this wee little clump before dividing and replanting. It looked so much like the nice little switch cane… But just to make myself feel better, I will tell you that this bamboo would also need a 12″ barrier above ground as well as below because its shoots do this serpent thing where they come up out of the ground and then dive back down, like they are swimming in the earth. They’d go right over the side of any short barrier and if the first dug up root is any indication, they can dive a lot deeper than 12″, too. Yikes! The only thing to do with this one is get it gone – and fast! lol

  3. ONE STRAW REVOLUTION .. the book … try covering the whole area with FRESH pig manure… the acidity kills everything but 6 months or so later is neutralized …. then is food for worms.

  4. ONE STRAW REVOLUTION ….. the book … Cover the whole area with FRESH pig manure .. the acidity kills everything, 6 months later it is neutralised and becomes worm food.

    • Is that for real, Bruce? Wow. I read that book many, many years ago. It’s an awesome book by an inspiring man, but I don’t remember that part… Perhaps I should read it again…and get some pig manure!!! Thanks for the tip!

  5. I was operating a Case 750 track loader to do grading. There was quite a bit of bamboo. It comes out easily with an 8 ton loader. I had to go quite a bit deeper for the grading job. At about 5 feet deep, I found what looked like a giant jicama. It was about 3 ft. X 1 ft. I guessed that it was the resevoir for the above-ground part of the bamboo.

    • Whoa, Dan. That’s really nuts. I thought about getting a small backhoe in here to take this bamboo out and will do so if it gets to be too big of a job to do by hand. But that giant jicama-like root you found way down there is just crazy – like the mother ship from a sci-fi movie! Y’all are making me feel so much better! 🙂

  6. Never saw this, I filed it away since I like bamboo too. Watch out for umbrella trees and a few like that which can destroy houses not to mention patios and pergolas etc once their monstrous serpentine roots gain access to the foundations which they seem to make a beeline for after a few years of civilised cutesy behaviour. I was in a rental place a few years back that was at terminal stages of giant umbrella tree house demolition cycle. The place was simply being ripped up the middle like a ship being broken in two by the Kraken and nothing was even possible anymore to save the house since killing the tree wouldn’t stop those roots and they’d already reached the point of finding the houses breaking point. Every year the living room had an extra few mm gap opening up where the roof joists were being separated. Another time I (and other tenants of an apartment block) planted one of them deliberately to take vengeance on a ratbag landlord in due course. Umbrella trees are always up for some wickedness if you’re so inclined.

    • Wow, Rabbit – that makes me feel awesome in a weird sort of way. At least I won’t have to tear down a house to rectify my situation. And of course, now I know what an umbrella tree can do. It’s amazing that a plant can do such a thing…wow.

  7. Certain plants really thrive on fallout from Japan. Our bamboo is also thriving. I know, I know. Who’d a thunk that? l.o.l.

  8. I am a bamboo lover, but have seen what it can do when unrestrained. A friend’s backyard in OK was so lovely with the tall bamboo screening it for a year or so when she first bought it, but then like your experience, hard knobs began showing up every few inches and unfortunately she wasn’t a gardener (or bamboo fighter like the previous owners evidently were) so just let them go and was soon confronted with a solid backyard of bamboo!
    On the plus side, I love cutting bamboo stalks and making all kinds of structures out of them, including shade structures for porches, plants, trellises, even made a hanging shade “carport” to shade my car from the hot OK sun a few years ago. They probably reroot if used where they touch the ground, though! Good luck with yours, and at least it’s pretty and green and not thorny!

    • Oh, my, Randi! That makes me feel good for me but bad for your friend! What a nightmare that must be!! I’ve known about invasive bamboo for years and it’s my fault for not getting a 100% positive identification before propagating! It is very pretty and I do enjoy using the canes – but if we leave it much longer, it will be in the garden and all around my house! Yikes! Wish us luck digging! lol

  9. Thanks Jill, I’ve followed your other blogs on bamboo and learned alot. I must have the clumping variety, as it doesn’t spread so fast. Been experimenting with using the plant to “slow down” water runoff in drainages. Much like a beaver dam, it backs up sediment. Because I live and garden in an area with less than five inches of moisture per year, I was amazed that it would grow at all in this arid sunny climate. Seems well behaved here and I found some uses for the canes around the garden and chicken pen. A back hoe would be a good cultivating tool for this plant as excavating a chunk of root with hand tools requires axe, shovel and pry bar.

    • Thanks, Bob. Bamboo is great for all those things and more, but not if it’s running bamboo!! I’m kicking myself, because as a self-described amateur botanist, I should have double checked the identification. It just looked so much like the switch cane we have – such a nice, well-mannered native cane. But we’ll be digging all winter to rid ourselves of this nightmare!

  10. Sorry for the double post but thought you might like this link to “bamboozled”.

  11. Your bamboo behaved just like mine did. It sat there for about 6 years then it took off. It has been my experience that no herbicide stops bamboo. I tried what some sources recommend, and they didn’t work. I was told the only way to really get rid of it is to dig it out with a bulldozer or by hand. Good luck!

    Our bamboo turned out to be golden bamboo. It is actually banned in some places, it is so invasive. Beautiful, and comes in handy when you need poles in the garden, but too invasive.

    Great column!

    • Thanks for sharing your bamboo story, Joe. It helps to know we aren’t alone in this folly and in a weird way, also glad to know that even if we wanted to use them, herbicides don’t work on this stuff. And while I don’t believe that our bamboo is the golden or heavenly type, it certainly is a ‘running’ bamboo. So, I will spend the winter digging out every plant and runner I can find with shovel and pick in the hopes that I don’t have to hire a backhoe to do the job come spring!

  12. Jill, I don’t know if you’ve been to shaws garden in st louis or not, but they have a spiecies of bamboo that gets massive, up to 30 ft tall and 6″ diameter, i’d like to replace all my trellising with bamboo but most spiecies around here are too small. any ideas.?

    • Hi Gary. Native river cane can get pretty tall, but it’s not very big in diameter. Though all bamboo is strong, the thicker it is the stronger it is. If native cane won’t work for your project, I would ask a few bamboo nurseries for their recommendations. Be sure to go for clumping bamboo and not running bamboo. That is unless you have a big space in the middle of a field where you can plant the running type and plan to mow around it for the rest of your life. 🙂

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