Bamboo loves to travel. It moves underground until its presence is noted on the surface by innocent little green shoots called culms. By the time they appear, the ground is already infested with the traveling rhizomes.
It's no wonder some towns are drawing up ordinances prohibiting the planting of bamboo. Penalties on Long Island, N.Y., include a $350 fine and up to 15 days in jail. With the fastest-growing types of bamboo able to grow 3 feet in 24 hours, it's easy to see how rapidly problems arise.
You don't have to plant bamboo to experience this problem. All too often, bamboo invasions begin with a neighbor who is ignorant of an aggressive species that works its way under the fence to your yard. This demonstrates why growing the wrong bamboo is not only a bad idea; it can also become a community problem.
"Infestation" is the perfect word for problem bamboo. Smaller species of running bamboos are among the worst offenders. The yellow-green Phyllostachys aurea was first brought into landscaping out West for midcentury modern homes. Slower-growing black-stem bamboo, Phyllostachys nigra, is still potentially invasive under the right conditions.
Get a better feel for how fast these plants grow with comparative photography at lewisbamboo.com. The website chronicles the Alabama company's most widely grown timber bamboo, Phyllostachys moso, the most important industrial species grown for building materials and manufacturing.
Lewis Bamboo's images show the culm at just 6 inches tall on Day 1. Every few days, they add another photo with a measuring pole to document increasing height, until Day 22, when it has reached 23 feet tall. This species is among the most cold-hardy of all, and makes a great permaculture choice for northern climate zones. But this species, like most others, is risky in a suburban environment.
What's most useful is the company's guide to controlling bamboo-root travel using a variety of techniques. One is to break off all new culms when they first appear and are tender enough inside to stir-fry in your kitchen, just like people do in China.
Lewis Bamboo is also a source for rolled barrier sheeting that is installed when you plant the bamboo so the traveling roots are contained. This material is believed to last longer than concrete barriers, prone to cracking in cold weather. Some think the bamboo causes the cracking, but that is not always true. Often the concrete cracks on its own, then the roots simply use the breach to travel through.
There's a great example on the site that shows how to dig a long trench and line both sides with sheeting to keep the plants in a single, dense row. This technique is ideal for privacy barriers, lush background screens and windbreaks.
Bamboo is among the most amazing plants for sustainability, but rootlets can hitchhike in the soil of potted plants and fill for raised beds and planters.
If by chance sprouts appear unexpectedly, cut them short before they both become expensive pests.