There are bamboos to fit just about every job description in the garden and landscape – whether it is working as a border plant, screen, hedge, groundcover, woodlander, solitary specimen or container plant.
Using bamboos with other plants
Bamboos are so distinctively elegant that they rarely compete with other plants. We think that their delicate-looking leaves and culms make a pleasing contrast to most types of plants including shrubs, trees, grasses, flowering perennials and annuals.
In the classic perennial border or the mixed border of shrubs and perennials, bamboos can be used to add evergreen structure to the composition. We often use them behind other plants to form a quiet green backdrop, or we repeat them throughout the border to make vertical accents, in the same way that conifers are sometimes used. Phyllostachys and Fargesia varieties are especially suited to this – and are far more interesting than static conifers. We also like to position really beautiful bamboos – like Phyllostachys vivax ‘Aureocaulis’ – right at the front of a bed where the canes and leaves can be admired.
Tall and medium-sized bamboos make excellent woodland dwellers, either in clearings in existing woods, or planted in combination with certain semi-mature trees. We love to mix bamboos with aristocratic medium-sized deciduous trees like snake-bark maple, robinia, paulownia and catalpa or with evergreens like hoheria, eucryphia, pine and the lovely Chinese fir, Cunninghamia lanceolata. In a small garden just a couple of trees and bamboos can create a miniature exotic woodland, whereas in a larger space, the horizon can be the limit.
Ferns and bamboos go very well together. When hostas are added to the mix it creates a sculptural elegance to the shadiest corner of a garden or courtyard. And while not many people think of bamboos in conjunction with climbers, we’d like to point out that the golden hop (Humulus lupulus ‘Aureus’) and clematis are just two plants that look stunning when scrambling through a clump of bamboo.
A frequent characteristic of the modern garden is that there is almost always something that needs to be hidden away: an unsightly shed, a utility area or some neighbouring eyesore that impinges on the view. Of course, we don’t see these as problems, but rather as opportunities to make use of a living screen of swaying bamboo. Upright varieties like Semiarundinaria fastuosa and Yushania anceps are ideal where a tall, slim fence-effect is required, as in a small garden where space is limited or along the side passage of a house. The latter bamboo may run a little, so it is best if the rhizomes are controlled (see Controlling Running Rhizomes). Fargesia bamboos are also invaluable for screens where there is enough room for the canes to arch over gracefully.
Dwarf bamboos, like many of the Pleioblastus group, can be clipped into hedges, or even cubes. We think they endow a uniquely aesthetic air to a piece of sculpture or a simple garden feature. Again, as various of the smaller bamboos are rather enthusiastic colonisers, we recommend using some method of rhizome control. Bamboo hedges should be trimmed to shape when the shooting period is over.
Many of the dwarf and small bamboos (those that grow up to about 2 metres) are superb for groundcover, and soon make a dense, weed-suppressing covering of shapely, evergreen leaves. We like to use Pleioblastus varieties for a shorter, carpeting effect under shrubs and in woodland, or even to replace a lawn – we clip it once a year in the latter case. Indocalamus tessellatus and Sasa types are ideal where taller cover is required. Bamboos are one of the very best plants for stabilising soil on steep slopes and river banks, especially if they are watered regularly while establishing. After just a couple of years the network of rhizomes is so well-knitted that the soil is held in place during the most torrential rain.
If you have the space, a dramatic and romantic way of growing bamboo is in a grove. Include a narrow path leading into it or curving around it, and visitors are irresistibly drawn to explore its jungle-like atmosphere and to grasp the exotic canes as they pass. The taller, upright species like Semiarundinaria fastuosa and some of the Phyllostachys are perfect for the job. The Green Sulphur Bamboo (Phyllostachys viridis) can grow extremely tall in mild climates and makes the most mysteriously intriguing grove of all.
A special bamboo planted as a lone individual is a breathtaking sight – a simple yet sophisticated picture of great beauty. The solitary specimen should have a space of its own where it is not competing for attention. Give it room to show off its delicate leaves, unique canes and elegant form. We love to see lone bamboos erupting from a gravelled area, or adding an important balancing note to a sweep of lawn, or brightening up the corner of a shadowy courtyard. There are many bamboos whose shining qualities single them out for planting in a position of noble solitude. Our favourites include the choicer Phyllostachys varieties with coloured stems and interesting leaves, the versatile Semiarundinaria fastuosa, the distinctive, bottle-brush-shaped Chusquea culeou and Thamnocalamus spathiflorus ‘Aristatus’ – an excellent candidate for shadier situations. We’d like to stress that a tall bamboo looks particularly stately in a really small garden, leading the eye upward and making the confined area seem more spacious. A strategically placed lofty specimen may also screen an unwanted view without excluding light.
Bamboos look so elegant in pots and tubs that we can’t resist growing them this way, even though it means feeding them regularly and ensuring that they never dry out. Containerised bamboos are tailor-made for the smaller garden, including urban balconies and courtyards. And modern, minimal decking needs little else to enhance it other than a group of thoughtfully placed containerised bamboos. Not all bamboos are suited to pot-culture as the roots and rhizomes of some species quickly grow to fill the container. But both Phyllostachys aurea and P. nigra are amenable varieties, as are some of the Pleioblastus, Drepanostachyum and Sasa types. A mulch of gravel or rounded pebbles on top of the pots helps retain moisture while adding an agreeably oriental air.
Finally, we’d like to appeal to landscape architects involved in planting public places to consider the myriad possibilities offered by bamboos. Their graceful, simple lines are remarkably complementary to modern buildings while their evergreen leaves brighten up the blandest concrete structures and roadsides, even in the depths of winter. As we mentioned earlier, some species are invaluable for stabilising slopes. Bamboos are also resistant to air pollution, making them a natural choice for use in built-up areas and cities.
The drawings featured on this page are by Bill Mullins, and are based on Bamboo Society members’ gardens. All drawings are reproduced here by kind permission of the Bamboo Society.