Over the last few years, bamboo started to become popular as a centerpiece for Asian-style gardens. It was also used as a way to create a privacy screen between properties, since it can grow very tall in a short amount of time.
“The major use was in large properties where people wanted to create an instant screening,” said Laura Weill, president of the Long Island Horticultural Society. “To make a hedge, you buy a plant that’s three or four feet tall, and then you wait for it to grow. Bamboo, you buy and it’s almost an instant hedge.” The plant grows so quickly that it can actually be measured with the naked eye: A fresh sprout can grow to eight feet in a few months.
The root system is unique too, growing laterally like a creeping grass. Each spring, a stalk may produce three to four offspring that grow taller than the parent. Over a few years, that could become a garden up to 30 feet tall and spread over a large area, often into neighbors’ yards—and that’s where the trouble starts. The plant is an aggressive grower, sometimes even shooting up through garage floors and damaging pipes and patios.
The initial stalks are a far-cry from the slender green poles that most people think of. They’re actually rather ugly: Brownish and cone-shaped. The young bamboo is protected with a thick outer husk that sheds as the stalk grows. In a few months, there will be a lush, green shoot, sometimes with small leaves toward the top. Most are evergreen and will keep their color throughout winter, although they may shed their leaves. For those who wish to protect the growth, it’s important to put a thick layer of mulch around the plant to help protect the roots in colder weather.
Prices vary depending on the type and size. Because of bans around the Island, some nurseries have stopped carrying it altogether. But many towns still allow it as long as homeowners install barriers made of thick plastic and planted 30 inches below grade to prevent the spread of the roots and limit the height. Another method is annual root pruning, but that requires digging into the ground and chopping the roots with a spade. It’s also possible to specifically plant a clumping bamboo, which only grows in clumps instead of spreading out over large areas.
Many municipalities, reacting to the complaints of residents, have taken steps to ban the plant. The towns of Hempstead and Babylon, villages of Malvern and Huntington, as well as the City of Long Beach, all prohibit planting. And in some places, like the Town of Hempstead, growers had to remove their plants.
“The idea behind [the bans] was that bamboo was considered invasive and it was unwanted,” Weill said. But it hasn’t been banned everywhere. And for those who are willing to take on the challenge of proper maintenance, it can be a beautiful addition to a garden. “Bamboo comes in many different species,” Weill said. “If you plant it properly with a barrier, you can keep it in check and in control.”