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Bamboo for smaller gardens: clumping v running

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Avoid invasive running bamboos at all costs

In one of my other jobs, I’m a gardening expert for Primrose, the online retailer, answering customer’s horticultural queries.

The one plant that people have the most questions about, outnumbering all others by 2:1, is bamboo.

The fashion for this Far Eastern giant seems to have beaten the Leylandii madness of the 1970s, where novice gardeners were sold ‘dwarf rockery conifers’ – in reality very young and eventually very big trees.

Most bamboo varieties that you see for sale, especially in DIY centres, end up massive – Phyllostachys aurea and P. nigra (golden/fishpole and black bamboo) being the two most common offenders. Of course, it’s easy to see why people want them – the golden and black culms (canes) are very lovely and fit well in low maintenance, contemporary gardens.

Spreading or running bamboos – avoid!

Don’t be swayed by running bamboos and buy a plant just because there are no others in stock. Most running varieties range from 4-8 metres tall or more and don’t stay put – they spread by long, invasive rhizomes.

Even if you use expensive bamboo barrier fabrics, they have been known to pop up through patios and conservatories. The RHS has a useful page on containing spreading bamboos – https://www.rhs.org.uk/advice/profile?pid=210.

Unless you have a huge garden that can cope with the height and a proper Chinese-style grove, avoid at all costs. Even if you contain the plants in solid pots, they can – and will – burst through (they are also likely to be short of water in containers and look very ragged).

Other running bamboos: Arundinaria, Bashania, Chimonobambusa, Clavinodum, Hibanobambusa, Indocalamus, Phyllostachys, Pleioblastus, Pseudosasa, Sasa, Sasaella, Sasamorpha, Semiarundinaria, Sinobambusa, and Yushania.

Clumping varieties – safe

fargesia Jiuzhaigou 1
Fargesia Jiuzhaigou 1

Still want bamboo? Luckily, there are alternatives that are not so tall or invasive – clumping bamboos – although the classic cane effect isn’t so pronounced. They still have rhizomes but they are short and stay close to the main plant.

I grow Fargesia varieties, which are graceful, delicate and move beautifully in the breeze.

Fargesias are naturally clump-forming, meaning they are generally well behaved but to be on the safe side, mine are growing in half barrel-size pots.

Top 3 Fargesia varieties

Fargesia Jiuzhaigou 1 (also called the red bamboo, Jiu, Red Panda and often with numbers 1-4 after it denoting slightly different strains): discovered in a park in Sichuan Province. The young green culms turn red/purple, then orange-brown, giving a multicoloured effect. Grows up to 3m high with a 2m spread, less in pots.

It will stand some shade but needs regular watering, so bear this in mind if you’re planting it in a pot – mine is next to a water barrel so I don’t forget. It can be pruned but this ruins the fountain-like shape. Avoid cold, drying winds, especially at the coast, as it is susceptible to wind burn. Hardy to -25ºC. Mine seems happy under the partial shade of a whitebeam tree but gets almost full sun in winter.

Fargesia robusta Pingwu: If you’re after a slightly taller bamboo, reaches 4-5m when fully grown (about five years) but due to its erect growth, only has a spread of 1.5-2m, both less when planted in a large container.

New shoots break early in spring and culms start off yellow and red, sheaths fade to almost white which creates a checkerboard look. It keeps its foliage very well even during harsh winters – it is hardy to -17ºC.

Pingwu is best shielded from the afternoon sun. My plant faces east which seems to suit it well. Unlike Jiuzhaigou, it doesn’t suffer badly from wind burn.

Fargesia spathacea Purple Dragon, also known as Purple Mountains: I don’t have this one but it comes highly recommended. Found in Hubei Province China, it grows to approx. 3m high, width 1.5m. It has larger leaves than most on reddish-green shoots, later turning red-purple. It is frost hardy and grows best in a semi-shady to sunny location.

Other clump-forming bamboos: Bambusa, Chusquea, Dendrocalamus, Drepanostachyum, Himalayacalamus, Schizostachyum, Shibataea, and Thamnocalamus.

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Mandy Watson is a freelance journalist and an incurable plantaholic. MandyCanUDigIt grew from the tiny seed of a Twitter account into the rainforest of information you see before you. Gardening columnist for the Sunderland Echo, Shields Gazette and Hartlepool Mail and editor of the Teesdale Mercury Magazine. Attracted by anything rebellious, exotic and nerdy, even after all these years. Passionate about northern England and gardens everywhere. Falls over a lot.

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