Bamboo barriers for home landscapes

A gibbon munches on bamboo.

I went searching for bamboo and found gibbons.

The International Primate Protection League is in Summerville and home to 37 displaced gibbon apes. This privately funded organization helps monkeys and apes all over the world. Most of the gibbons come from experimental research while some are from the illegal pet trade and zoo surplus.

Entering the 36-acre property is like walking into the jungle. There are numerous areas of bamboo, but I was particularly enamored by the giant Japanese timber bamboo (Phyllostachys bambusoides).

Giant Japanese timber bamboo is the perfect choice for IPPL. It’s a fast-growing barrier plant that buffers views and singing gibbons. The large culms provide great primate playthings and the spring growth is often used as snack food.

Giant Japanese timber bamboo, however, is not the perfect choice for homeowners. Bamboo, technically speaking, is an enormous grass plant. The canes, referred to as culms, grow straight and solid.

The culm relies on silica for rigidity and can actively grow for about five years before turning tan, then finally gray. Depending on the variety, specimens may get several feet tall but larger varieties reach an imposing 50 feet and the canes as thick as three inches with tensile strength comparable to steel.

There are two types of bamboo: running and clumping. Giant Japanese timber bamboo is the running type. It will spread by rhizomes like bermudagrass on performance-enhancers. Rhizomes are white with pointed tips that bore through the soil. Running bamboo can spread as much as 15 feet per year.

This will colonize areas fast. In some cases, too fast. Lawnmowers will cut emerging culms at the ground but the rhizomes will continue spreading. A culm can eventually emerge 20 or 30 feet away. In other words, if your neighbors have it, then you will, too.

Like giant Japanese timber, black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra) is a popular running bamboo because of the black canes while the lesser known white bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra ‘Henon’) has whitish canes. Growing running bamboo in containers is one approach to limiting the spread. Containers can even be planted in the ground. Another approach is to surround the plant with heavy duty plastic at least 30 mils thick and 30 inches deep. I’d still be wary of this approach since plastic containers can fail over time. Be vigilant of emergent culms outside of containment.

Clumping bamboo, on the other hand, is a much safer option for the homeowner. It doesn’t spread but grows in a bunch like ornamental grass. It only spreads several inches a year.

Hedge bamboo (Bambusa multiplex) is one of the most common clumping bamboos used in the landscape.

The Alphonse Karr variety is one of my favorites. It has yellow/green striped canes that grow 20 feet tall. I’ve had Alphonse Karr for several years and have used the canes to build structures, stake fences and decorate arrangements. It’s been very functional, visually appealing and maintenance-free.

Both types of bamboo grow in a wide range of soils except heavy waterlogged types. It prefers full sun but will grow in partial shade. Some consider bamboo a better carbon sink than trees because of its faster growth. Young culms are edible and the mature canes have been used to build everything from houses, floors and bridges to fountains and bikes.

In the landscape, bamboo makes a great visual screen. In some cases, a reasonable screen can be obtained only a few months after planting.

Bamboo makes for great textural garden interest, typically around water features, especially those with a Japanese theme. The foliage sways nicely in a gentle breeze and the large canes provide striking vertical appeal.

I drove away from the IPPL’s tropical environment and quickly returned to life in Summerville.

However, I took some Japanese timber bamboo with me and built a deer chaser fountain. There’s not much it can’t do.

If you’d like more information on IPPL, visit

Tony Bertauski is a horticulture instructor at Trident Technical College. To give feedback, email him at