I love bamboo: growing, eating, crafting, building, and listening to the sounds of creaking culms and rustling leaves in the wind. It provides me with microclimates, windbreaks, privacy screens, animal fodder, wildlife habitat, an endless supply of mulch, delicious tender eating shoots, lots of materials for the garden and building small structures. My patch also sequesters the amount of CO2 generated by two overseas work flights to Asia each year, or one flight to Europe or the Americas, to teach permaculture.
When I acquired Djanbung Gardens near Nimbin, northern NSW, in the early 1990s, bamboo was going to be an important part of the overall design. I gleaned information and practical tips on the most useful varieties from several bamboo enthusiasts and growers, including Hans Erken of Earthcare Enterprises, and Victor Cusak, author of Bamboo world: the growing and use of clumping bamboos (Victor Cusack 2010), and took care where I placed the varieties in the design. We held our first bamboo workshop at Djanbung Gardens, with Hans and Victor, in 1994 and started planting. Ten years later we held another bamboo workshop, with Julianne Hartmann and Rob Swain, where I learned more of the art and tricks of building with bamboo. Since then we have conducted annual bamboo workshops during the harvest season.
Everything has its pros and cons, and growing bamboo is no exception. In this article I’ll identify some important precautions as well as the great potential for integrating these versatile, multifunctional plants into permaculture systems. I’m happy with where and how most of my bamboo is growing. However, I regret some things, and I’m also dealing with the legacy of unplanned plantings of unsuitable bamboo by others on the property.
What is bamboo?
Bamboo is the world’s largest grass and fastest growing plant, and responses to it range from severe animosity to zealous passion. The animosity has been driven largely by the invasive and rampant nature of running bamboo species, which don’t respect property boundaries and have thwarted many creative strategies for containment. Running bamboos tend to be more temperate to sub-tropical species, and usually shoot in spring.
There are many excellent clumping species of bamboo that won’t take over your – or your neighbours’ – yard. I generally recommend planting only clumping bamboos, which range in size from the smaller hedge species, through to giants of up to forty metres high with culm diameters of twenty centimetres. Clumping bamboos tend to be tropical and subtropical species. Some species can handle frosts down to –8 ÅãC, whereas others are frost sensitive. Clumping bamboos usually shoot with the onset of the wet season in summer.
The downsides of bamboo
Bamboo is greedy: it has an insatiable appetite for water and nutrients. And it’s allelopathic, excreting compounds from its roots which inhibit the growth of many other plants. Don’t plant bamboo close to your vegie garden or fruit trees.
Bamboo burns exceptionally well, and the culms can explode in fire, so be mindful of bushfire risk. Don’t plant it too close to your home or where it could be a liability during a bushfire.
Bamboo is very difficult to remove. Running bamboos are almost impossible to get rid of once established. Clumping bamboos are very hard work to dig out and usually need to be removed with the help of an excavator; but even with machines it’s not a cheap or easy process.
Turning problems to solutions
I’ve turned bamboo’s greed to advantage with a hedged Bambusa multiplex ‘Golden Goddess’ windbreak along the southern fence of my chicken forage yard. In our high rainfall wet season the bamboo keeps the ground from becoming a quagmire – important for chicken health. The chooks make their dust baths under the bamboo where the silica in the broken down leaves reduces problems with external parasites. The hedge provides protection from cold southerly winds. The canopy provides cooling shade in summer, and makes it hard for birds of prey to attack the chooks. In winter it’s a suntrap and favourite sunning spot for our flock. It has also grown into an impenetrable chookproof living fence, with a bonus, endless source of materials for garden stakes. The dense network of bamboo’s fibrous root system makes it an excellent soil stabiliser on steep slopes prone to erosion. You won’t need to do much maintenance around bamboo as it suppresses weeds, but do take care where you plant it.
Selecting and siting suitable bamboos
Design is the art of relative placement, and bamboo can be placed advantageously or detrimentally to surrounding systems. The first question to address is: what do you want it for in terms of yield? If you want a ready supply of garden stakes and trellising material, then a hedge bamboo will do just fine. If you’re after materials for building and crafting, there are many species to choose from, depending on what space you have for growing, your climate and the type of construction or crafting materials you require.
Do your research. Check both the height and potential diameter of the clump at ground level, and also look at the overall growth habit and shape of the clump: is it upright or does it fan out at the canopy? what aerial space will it occupy?
Don’t underestimate how big a clump of bamboo can get. I visited a farm where an avenue of hedge bamboo had been planted along the driveway, less than two metres from the car tracks. Within a few years vehicle access was blocked: the clumps had grown to over a metre wide at the base and the canopy was splaying out another two metres.
Varieties such as Bambusa textilis ‘Gracilis’ and B. oldhamii tend to be more upright, whereas B. vulgaris ‘Wamin’ and B. tulda culms tend to arch out and have a wider canopy, as do the hedge bamboos.
Design with harvest in mind
Plant bamboo plants where you can access them for harvest, especially large construction species. Ensure you have space to fell the culms and drag them away without damaging other plants or nearby structures. Once the bamboo is felled, you need space to clean off the branches, and somewhere to treat or cure and store it. You also need space for piles of unusable bamboo branches, tops and damaged culms, where they won’t be a fire hazard. Bamboo makes great firewood, but split them first as closed culms will explode in fire. Bamboo waste also makes exceptionally good biochar.
At Djanbung Gardens I’ve planted all my larger construction bamboos strategically where I have pathways, access tracks, car park or other open space for dropping and carrying out harvested culms. Our multifunctional marsupial meadow provides space for treating, trimming and preparing the culms for curing and storage.
Harvesting and managing bamboo
Culms are best harvested at three or more years of age. I mark the individual culms of my most valued structural bamboos each year so that I know their age for harvesting. The most effective way to manage bamboo clumps is by harvesting: young shoots for eating; and mature culms for building and crafting. Most large clumping bamboos are susceptible to the powder borer beetle and require treatment for durability. You’ll find an in-depth article about harvesting and treatment at www.permaculture.com. au/treating-bamboo-using-transpiration
Not all bamboo shoots are edible, and some species contain significant amounts of taxiphyllin, a toxic cyanogenic glycoside. Even most ‘edible’ species of bamboo shoots need boiling to leach out the bitter-tasting toxins. My favourite homegrown eating shoots come from the giant Dendrocalamus asper, and a single shoot can yield more than a kilogram. B. oldhamii shoots are also edible, but usually require several rounds of boiling to leach out the bitter toxins. The shoots emerge annually over a period of about a month, so we like to enjoy some fresh and preserve some for eating throughout the year.
Getting creative with bamboo
There’s no end of creative things you can do with bamboo. What’s important is selecting the right kind of bamboo for the job. There are some very inspiring books with detailed instructions for building bamboo fences, screens, furniture, simple musical instruments and basic structures. Our annual bamboo workshop at Djanbung Gardens introduces basic tools and techniques for working with bamboo – cutting, splitting, tying, joinery and construction – as well as clump management, harvesting and treatment.
There are some very talented bamboo architects creating inspiring structures such as at the Green School in Bali (www. greenschool.org), and festival installations by Jaye Irving, permaculture architect. Most of us aspire to more modest functional creations where the inherent beauty of bamboo as a material creates its unique magic and charm.
What I appreciate most about my bamboos is that they serve so many useful functions in my permaculture landscape, as well as providing an endless supply of diverse yields and products. Here are some of my favourite clumping varieties.
Bambusa multiplex spp (hedge bamboo) has many varieties which usually grow three to five metres high. Most tolerate light to medium frosts. These varieties are generally not as susceptible to insect or borer damage after harvest. I use them extensively for stakes and trellises. These varieties can be grown in larger urban gardens, and make great hedges or low windbreaks on rural properties. They can be clipped into a formal hedge and are also suited to growing in large pots.
Bambusa textilis var. ‘Gracilis’ (weavers bamboo) a smaller bamboo, grows to eight metres high and has slender culms of two to three centimetres in diameter. The grove is two to three metres wide at the base. The straight culms have thin walls, ideal for splitting as fine slats for weaving and other crafting.
Bambusa vulgaris var. ‘Wamin’ (giant Buddha’s belly bamboo) grows up to fifteen metres high with culms of eight to ten centimetres in diameter. It forms a somewhat sprawling clump of straight and beautifully curvaceous culms with swollen internodes. I love the natural curves for creating arches. This is also my favourite for making useful containers for the kitchen. This clump definitely needs space, but is suitable for pot culture in small gardens.
Bambusa oldhamii (giant timber bamboo) grows fifteen to twenty metres high with culms up to ten centimetres in diameter; not suitable for small yards. Frost tolerant down to –8 .C. I have found this to be the most useful all-rounder for building structures as posts, beams and rafters, and making furniture. The clump grows upright and yields long straight culms. The branching usually starts more than half way up the culm, which reduces the amount of time-consuming work de-branching.
Dendrocalamus asper (giant rough bamboo) is only suitable for a larger property as it grows twenty to thirty metres high, with culms fifteen to twenty centimetres in diameter. It copes with frosts to –4 .C. It is grown commercially for shoots throughout South-East Asia. The culms are used as heavy construction poles and in bridge building, as well as for furniture and musical instruments.
Robyn Francis, well-known permaculture pioneer and educator, is passionate about bamboo, and has worked with many bamboo specialists and enthusiasts, and gleaned ideas from her work in the bamboo cultures of Asia. She conducts an annual bamboo workshop and offers an extended bamboo internship each spring at Djanbung Gardens – see www.permaculture.com.au
Bamboo shoot pickle
A simple pickle can be made by packing boiled (leached) and sliced bamboo shoots in a sterilised wide-mouthed jar, and pouring boiling brine over it. Make sure the bamboo is completely covered by the brine. The brine is made from 140 grams of coarse sea salt in 2.5 litres of water; you can substitute some of the brine with soy sauce. Seal the jar and store it in a dark cupboard with an even temperature, where it will keep for up to two years.