You have probably heard horror stories from someone who planted a small patch of decorative bamboo then watched in dismay as it turned their once profitable homestead into a jungle of indestructible, spreading canes. It is true; bamboo is a hardy plant and some of the species are invasive. But not all of them will take over your land. There are over 100 species of bamboo, spanning all sizes, shapes, and colors. With a minimal amount of research and planning, you can find the best bamboo for your budget, time, and growing requirements. Armed with the proper species and a plan for its use, growing bamboo can be an extremely profitable alternative crop for the homestead that is fun and easy to grow.
Although there are many species, bamboo can be grouped into two general categories: running bamboo and clumping bamboo. These categories are self-explanatory: running bamboo sends out far-reaching rhizomes and is capable of colonizing large areas if not strictly controlled. Clumping bamboo stays in tight clumps that grow in diameter, making it a good choice for those who want to restrict the growing area of bamboo.
There are varieties of bamboo that can withstand harsh winters but it is much easier to grow healthy bamboo plants if winter temperatures stay above zero degrees Fahrenheit. In general, bamboo needs good water drainage and it does well in full sun or partial shade. Research the varieties that do best in your area and purchase your starting stock from a reputable wholesale nursery. During the spring of the second year, divide the plants to triple your stock. When you notice new clumps are emerging, divide and replant, keeping the rhizomes moist before and after planting. If growing bamboo in containers, the most important consideration is water drainage. Bamboo needs adequate moisture but it will not do well with soggy feet. You will rarely have pest problems with bamboo.
Bamboo can be a beautiful and useful addition to your property. When shopping for bamboo, know what you are interested in. Your local nursery should be able to help you sort through the different varieties, but here are some suggestions to get you started:
- Pleioblastus, or pygmy bamboo, is a low-growing bamboo that works well as a ground cover and is useful if you have an area that needs some erosion control.
- Bambusa multiplex,or hedge bamboo, is a good choice for containers. It grows up to 20 feet tall and is a clumping type of bamboo.
- Borinda bolinagrows up to 30 feet tall. It is a non-invasive, clumping bamboo and it is good for outdoor screens and windbreaks.
- Phyllostachys nigra,or black bamboo, is a stunning bamboo with jet black canes and green foliage. It grows to 30 feet tall and has a running habit. To keep it contained, use this bamboo in large tubs for a striking accent as well as for use in any bamboo building projects.
- Pleioblastus viridistriatus,or dwarf bamboo, is just right if you are not interested in harvesting huge bamboo canes. It is also good if you live in a colder region, as it does well in Zones 5-10. It reaches just 3-4 feet tall and has lovely variegated foliage. It is best for containers or for a large expanse of land as it is a running type of bamboo.
Not only is bamboo a beautiful and hassle-free alternative crop, but it is also good for the environment. If you are interested in using your land to help combat the rise of atmospheric CO2, create a “carbon sink” with a bamboo grove. Bamboo stores carbon more efficiently than shade trees, and stands of bamboo make beautiful windbreaks and living walls for outdoor sitting areas.
Bamboo can be a profitable backyard nursery plant but it is not a get-rich-quick business venture. You can fit 2000-2400 containers of bamboo, depending on the species, on just a quarter acre of land. The average price for a healthy container-grown bamboo plant is $20-$25, which means it is possible to grow $40,000-$60,000 worth of bamboo on a relatively small amount of land. Of course you don’t have to restrict yourself to live plants. There are hundreds of value-added products you can make with bamboo you grow or forage.
Making products with bamboo is fun and profitable, largely because bamboo is one of the world’s greatest building materials. It is strong, durable, beautiful, and inexpensive. It requires very basic tools—in fact, if you are a woodworking hobbyist you already have the tools you need. Bamboo does not act like wood, so you will need to learn a few basic techniques before creating a lasting product.
First, for any durable craft, the bamboo must be cut and cured. You can harvest bamboo during any time of year but harvesting it during the fall or winter, when water and resin levels are lower, reduces the chance of cracking or splitting the canes. Harvest bamboo with a hand saw or a sharp knife. If using a knife, make one cut at a 45-degree angle to prevent splitting.
Once you have harvested the canes you need, you must season them. The goal of seasoning your bamboo is to remove the moisture, starches, and sugars without cracking the cane. The two most common ways to season bamboo are soaking or air drying.
SOAKING: Soak the bamboo canes in water for 90 days. Remove from water and allow to dry for two weeks in a sunny area.
AIR-DRYING: Harvest the bamboo with the branches and leaves attached. Dry bamboo in a sunny area for two weeks then continue drying in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight. This technique requires careful attention, as it could be susceptible to mold depending on your location.
When you are ready to build your project be sure to make pre-cuts, or scoring, with a sharp blade before any sawing. This will prevent fibers from splintering. Any holes your craft requires should be burned through the bamboo. Drilling holes results in cracks more often than not.
Once you have created your bamboo project, apply a simple finish by lightly warming the bamboo, either in an oven or over a low fire (it should be warm, but at a temperature you can still touch with bare hands), and applying a generous amount of oil or grease to the piece.
There are hundreds of crafts and furniture pieces you can build with bamboo. Once you get a feel for how bamboo works, the only limit to what you can do with it is your imagination. Here is a brief list of bamboo projects with links to get your creative juices flowing:
- Rain/Rhythm Sticks
- Picture Frame
- Bamboo Ladder
- Bamboo Swing
- Bamboo Planter
- Wind Chimes
- Meditation Fountain
One of the best sellers is a large, thick cluster of bamboo planted in a container. Customers can buy one of these to use as an accent piece, or several of them to arrange outdoors as a windbreak or mobile privacy screen. As you can see, the possibilities are endless. But it doesn’t do much good to have the product if you don’t know where to sell it.
Bamboo plants and products move fast at farmer’s markets and craft shows. If you already have a booth at your local market, bring two or three bamboo plants or crafts to test the market in your area.
If craft fairs and farmer’s markets aren’t your cup of tea, approach local landscapers, gardening centers, and commercial gardeners with your bamboo plants. They have to buy them somewhere, and if you can assure them you will have the quantity and quantity they need, they usually prefer buying local.
Another great place to sell bamboo plants or handmade items is online. Etsy is a popular site that is easy to navigate, even for those who have no confidence in their tech skills. Etsy takes a small commission off of each purchase, but in addition to offering an online store they also have the ability to host a blog for your business, which can do wonders for sales. If you are interested, check out www.etsy.com.
If you are looking for an interesting and beautiful plant to add to your homestead, give some serious thought to bamboo. Not only is it beautiful and interesting, but it is easy to grow, easy to sell, and is good for the environment. Remember, as with all new crops, research carefully before you make your initial purchase. If you are interested in filling a vast amount of property, the running-type could be for you. If you fall in love with a running-type of bamboo but do not want to give over your property, give careful consideration to how you will restrict its growth. Your county ag agency can be a great help, as can any local farm and garden centers. The most important thing is to start with a plan. You can start small, test your market, and grow your bamboo side-business if you are happy with the results.