by Terry Kramer

In Rolph Hellberg's Eureka garden the tall timber bamboo hisses from a stiff south wind while a lone chickadeesqueaks atop a barren plum tree. Three years ago Hellberg developed a passion for bamboo and today, 70 species later, his woodland garden is peppered with all sizes, shapes and colors of bamboo, from dwarf ground cover bamboo to tall timber varieties.

"I like bamboo because of its adaptability to so many different kinds of situations. I'm trying to integrate with what is native," he said while walking along winding garden paths of crushed gravel.

The bones of Hellberg's landscape consist of numerous ferns, rhododendrons, Japanese maples and pieris along with conifers and deciduous flowering trees. Hellberg uses bamboo to compliment these plants. He employs tall thick varieties to replace deteriorating pine trees that border the property.

"I find that bamboo is very adaptable to naturalizing. It can be used as a single specimen or it can fill in empty spaces. It's attractive and has so many different looks," he said.

Bamboo is a woody, hollow-stemmed grass native to the foothills of the Himalayas, Mexico, Japan and South Africa. It has been given a bad rap over the years, mainly because of the neglect and misuse of the ubiquitous golden bamboo, or Phyllostachys aurea. As a result, many consider bamboo the Tasmanian devil of plants, with roots that will spread imperialistically throughout the yard, sprouting new shoots in unwanted places.

Not so, says bamboo guru Richard Simpson of Arcata, whose passion, and profession is cultivating this unique grass.

"There are different kinds of bamboos -- clumping and running. Clumping bamboo will not spread more than eight inches a season." Simpson said.

"It can be aggressive, but it is totally controllable with gardening."

Over the years Simpson has heard numerous tales and myths about the horrors of bamboo.

"Bamboo will not grow in water, it won't grow into sewers and it won't grow into your house. Bamboo will not penetrate concrete, unless there is a crack already, and bamboo will not come up through toilets," he said with a laugh.

Hellberg has no problem with bamboo running rampant in his yard.

"You've got clumpers, runners and vigorous runners and jumpers. If you know a bamboo is a runner and you suspect that it might be wanting to go in any direction, just on a regular basis run a spade down into the area you don't want it to go. Once you cut a particular runner it won't regrow from that point."

As a landscape plant, bamboo is a versatile ornamental that offers solutions to many dilemmas. There are 1,400 species with as many textures, shapes and colors, which Simpson finds appealing.

"There are big-leaf bamboos with leaves up to 24 inches, and wider than long. There are ground covers, bamboos with variegated leaves, bamboos with striped canes. There are varying heights, and the actual cane colors can vary from dark green to black to shiny green to yellow," he said.

Bamboo is not too particular about the soil it grows in, doing well in everything from heavy clay to pure sand. And, Simpson says, it is an excellent plant for erosion control.

Since bamboo tolerates confinement, it makes a choice plant for bright indoor rooms, decks and patios.

"As a container plant they are great," said Simpson. "They are good for three or four seasons in a wine barrel before they need to be repotted. Containerized bamboo needs regular watering and fertilizing during the summer and fall in order to maintain its vigor."

Bamboo needs little care, which is another reason Hellberg prefers gardening with the plant.

"There is not really much to do with bamboo in maintaining it," he said. "You fertilize it more or less like you would a lawn. It's a grass, and after a while it's sort of self-mulching. You don't try to clean up the leaf drop around it. It takes care of itself, and pretty soon it will hold back weeds in its own area."

Bamboo is also a cash crop, according to Simpson, who has installed several groves on the North Coast.

"Timber bamboos are very valuable. Black bamboo is valuable for the plants it can produce. If a cane isn't valuable for wood you can eat the shoots. Right now people producing bamboo shoots have the market to themselves. There is such demand for fresh bamboo shoots," he said.

Bamboo canes are also used in making musical instruments, fishing poles, scaffolding and buildings because of its strength.

Compared to traditional landscape ornamentals, bamboo may seem a bit pricey. A serious collector can pay $200 to $300 for a choice, rare specimen, according to Simpson. And it can take up to five years to grow a bamboo plant to saleable size when planted from seed or rhizome.

Hellberg, who has planted numerous bamboos from one-gallon cans in his yard, offers this advice: "The more root bound the plant is the better deal you are getting. So don't worry about getting one that doesn't look too good on top. It's a good deal if the can is full of roots and rhizomes," he said.

When the afternoon sunlight filters through a silent grove of Japanese Moso bamboo the rigid, segmented canes glow a luminous green.

"It becomes addictive. I have a lot of customers that started off with one and now have more than 50 species in their gardens. They like to collect them. A lot of people almost look at bamboo as a spiritual plant. In the Orient it is."

For more information, give Simpson a call at his nursery, Bamboo and Maples. Phone 825-8730.


Terry Kramer is a Bayside free-lance writer and owner of Jacoby Creek Nursery.

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