June 2010 Issue
Forget what you think you know about garden “bad boy” bamboo — with a little TLC the renewable plant can add color and privacy to your yard.
Everyone these “green” days is singing the praises of bamboo, that “renewable” plant used for everything from floors to socks, sheets and musical instruments … everyone, that is, except green thumbs who are afraid to plug the prolific grower into the ground for fear of overrunning precious perennials and annuals.
But they’d be wrong, according to bamboo buff Jerry Burton, owner of Burton’s Bamboo Garden
, tucked away down a long gravel road on 22 shady acres in Morrow.
Also among the mistaken would be those who think bamboo is restricted to tropical Asian climes; those who think it grows like a tree, flower, shrub or ornamental grass; and those who think that “lucky bamboo,” prevalent in offices and dorm rooms, is authentic (it’s actually a draecena plant).
“[Bamboo] is just not the garden bad boy it’s made out to be,” says Burton, an ex-Marine who worked in the insurance industry before he became a bamboo farmer. He tends the gardens with his son Zach, 26.
Bamboo, Burton says, is just misunderstood.
“It’s not invasive,” Burton insists, preaching to a group seated in the poplar haiku house he and Zach built, where almost-daily formal tours begin next to a peaceful lake dotted with Asian art and statuary.
“It’s like a kid. If you take care of it, it will behave fine. If you neglect it, it will misbehave. It’s definitely in a class by itself … not a tree, or a shrub, or flower, or even an ornamental grass.”
He leads dozens of tour groups through the sun-dappled grounds of the farm he’s called home since 1974, showcasing 60 kinds of bamboo, a collection of Asian artifacts that includes Chinese foo dog statuary and temple bells and his exotic menagerie of squawking peacocks, rheas, emus, double-wattled cassowary and gloriously long-tailed Phoenix chickens. But don’t expect Mr. Greenjeans; this farmer bears more of a resemblance to Ernest Hemingway and favors Hawaiian shirts, reading glasses and no-nonsense gardening. His word is final when it comes to bamboo. And he’s quick to defend the prolific plant as he explains its growth pattern.
Bamboo grows from rhizomes (tendrils creeping from its center) planted 6 to 10 inches underground. The plant lies dormant in winter and then springs to life when temperatures rise, spreading horizontally. To keep the plant from showing its pushy personality and rooting in unwanted areas, you can mow it if it’s in an area regularly maintained. The alternative is installing a polyethylene strip, called DeepRoot, around the perimeter of the growing area. The pliable underground fence is inserted before planting and stops the rhizomes in their tracks.
Bamboo varieties, which grow from a height of 18 to 24 inches to a towering 25 feet high, are as surprisingly varied as their origins. Though thought of as an Asian plant, there are actually more bamboo species grown now in South America, according to Burton. And there are plenty of cold-hardy varieties. Even cold, gray Ohio has a native species, called River Cane or Arundinaria gigantea, which grows 10 to 12 feet high here. River Cane is one of the most cold-hardy bamboos, and was used by Native Americans in mattresses, baskets, teepee poles, flutes, bows and arrows.
The dwarf varieties come in slender-to-thick leaf designs in pale greens with thin white stripes to dark emerald palm-like leaves, while the medium and tall growers vary from skinny cane-like varieties with ribbon-like leaf screens to thickly forested types that look like corn stalks gone wild.
Bamboo can be planted any time the ground is not frozen, and it needs a good four to six hours of sun a day to thrive. There’s no need for fertilizers. The plants will stand their ground through our winters. And their only enemy is a harsh wind, so Burton suggests planting on the leeward side of a building.
Burton started investigating bamboo after a Cincinnati couple gave him a starter plant when he gave them a pair of mute swans shortly after he moved to the quiet of Morrow from Cincinnati. In 1998, he set out to learn all he could about the sustainable plant, even visiting the Bamboo Farm & Coastal Gardens in Savannah, Georgia — a premier location for education, public outreach and applied research in horticultural and environmental sciences. In 1982, he joined the American Bamboo Society and began the Mid-States Chapter in 2001. Along the way he developed an interest in Asian statuary and structures, and he displays his collection at the farm.
Today, Burton reels off tongue-twisting names and spellings with ease and is the go-to guy for advice for parks, gardeners and universities, even growing bamboo for red pandas at several northern and western zoos. “Ninety-five percent of people want bamboo for a privacy screen to block out the neighbors, or a shopping center, using it as an alternative to fencing,” he says.
But it can also be used as groundcover. Planted properly, a stand of bamboo will fill in thickly within two to three years. The secret is planting the right type for your needs and keeping it contained. “It just has to be done correctly,” Burton says. “Growing it is tricky if you don’t know what you are doing.”
Burton’s Bamboo Garden
, 7352 Gheils Carroll Rd., Morrow 45152, 513/899-3446, 877/899-3446. burtonsbamboogarden.com
. By appointment only. Tours $5 per person; seminar and tour, $10 per person. No pets.