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LANDSCAPING : The Taboo on Bamboo Lifts Easily : The giant grasses are valued for their colored foliage, versatility--and fast growth, as long as it is controlled.

November 12, 1994|KAREN DARDICK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Bamboo has a reputation--undeserved, its fans say--for running wild. Don't plant it in the home landscape, the admonition goes, because it will grow and spread and swallow not only your garden but also those of your neighbors. The myth is embellished with the warning that the marauding plant will also tear up sidewalks, driveways, even house foundations.

"Hog twaddle," said Hermine Stover, an ardent bamboo supporter and co-owner with her husband of Endangered Species Nursery in Tustin.

"Only running bamboo spreads vigorously, and there are ways of controlling it," she said. "But there are bamboos for every landscape use, and many species can be grown in home landscapes and mixed with other plants, like roses."

"There's a lot of misinformation about bamboo," said Ken Brennecke, president of the Southern California Chapter of the American Bamboo Society and owner of Tsing Ya Bamboo Gardens in Encinitas. "More than 350 different bamboo species will grow in the U.S., and the average home landscape in Southern California can easily contain three or four."

Bamboos are giant grasses with woody stems that spread by underground rhizomes. The way in which they grow defines bamboo as either running or clump. Running bamboo vigorously sends out underground stems that grow rapidly from the parent plant before producing vertical stems. Clump bamboo produces stems that grow underground only short distances from the parent plant. They form clumps that slowly expand around their edges.

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Because of the dense system of roots and rhizomes, bamboo is used in most of the world to control soil erosion or flooding. Commercial uses include medicine, food, building and artistic materials. Bamboo is native to all parts of the world except Antarctica and Lapland.

In the United States until fairly recently, only scientists, collectors and artists and artisans were interested in growing bamboo. According to Brennecke, that's rapidly changing as homeowners learn its merits and growers improve their methods of propagating or growing it from seed.

"Bamboo is going to replace trees in many landscapes," he said. "You can plant bamboo like giant timber (Bambusa oldhamii) and see the results in just five to seven years when the culms (canes) reach 30 or 40 feet. But you can't witness the maturity of most trees in a lifetime."

Stover agrees.

"Bamboo goes from container size to a full landscape specimen faster than any other plant," she said.

Bamboo fanciers grow the plant for both artistic and practical reasons.

"You can achieve a loud and complete color palette in a landscape with only bamboo because these plants have a wide range of colored foliage," Stover said. "Many species also have fascinating striations or variegations on the culms."

Bamboos are being used as ground covers, moderate-sized hedges and gigantic screens soaring upward of 60 feet. But some species also adapt to treatment as bonsai or can be grown successfully in containers.

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The key to growing bamboo successfully is selecting plants with strongly developed rhizomes for cane production and plant longevity.

Stover said that some bamboo offered for sale is nothing more than "culm cuttings," canes that have been propagated from mother plants but haven't had the time to develop extensive root systems, and the plants usually die. Another reason for failure is that if bamboo has been greenhouse grown or shipped from tropical climates, the plants haven't made the adjustment to the semiarid climate here.

In addition to looking for plants acclimated to this environment, choose ones that are pot-bound. This is one of the few exceptions to the recommendation to avoid buying pot-bound plants.

"Bamboo does best if it is pot-bound," Brennecke said. "They've got to have a lot of rhizomes to produce canes."

Brennecke and Stover offer these tips for success with bamboo:

* Know your landscape and what height you need. Don't select running varieties unless you have a very large property or you're willing to place the physical barriers needed to contain them.

* Be patient. Even the giant varieties need at least three or four years to reach close to mature size.

* Be prepared to prune or shape annually.

* Water regularly but not excessively. Most varieties are fairly drought tolerant.

* Fertilize sparingly--half the recommended amount--after you first plant them. The following year, feed monthly with a lawn fertilizer or acid-based fertilizer. Allow the plant to rest from November through March.

A BAMBOO PRIMER Types

Here are some recommended bamboo varieties for home gardens in Orange County:

Arundinaria akebono. Running variety that grows only to 18 feet. Can be used as ground cover or grown in containers.

Bambusa chusquea coronalis. This evergreen variety produces stems that are claret-colored when young. Can be grown in tub or ground. Soars up to 20 feet, then arches.

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