Do boxwood, English laurel or cedar trees seem too boring for the new hedge you're hoping to plant this spring? For a touch of the exotic and refined, bamboo has become the choice of hundreds of homeowners in the Rogue Valley.
More than 100 species of bamboo have been planted locally, including sun lovers, shade lovers, and low-growing ground covers — and even species that grow 70 feet tall.
What all bamboo has in common is a thirst for water.
"In the summer, you'll need to water deeply one to two times a week for three hours," says Thielson Lebo, a Medford nursery owner. "Once it dries out, it shuts down for the year."
Lebo manages LeBeau Bamboo Nursery in Medford. This 20-year-old entrepreneur is a business student at Southern Oregon University who has had a passion for bamboo since age 12. He recently lectured on bamboo cultivation to a packed crowd at the Ruch library.
Most of Lebo's customers purchase containerized bamboo plants for transplanting as screens and hedges, but others use it for landscaping. Still others cultivate fast-growing species for timber production to create flooring material.
"April to July is the best time for planting bamboo here in the Rogue Valley," Lebo advises. "Especially the running bamboo."
Bamboos are classified as either running or clumping. Though all bamboo spreads by rhizomes, the rhizomes from clumping species sprout near the base of the original plant. Running bamboo sends out rhizomes horizontally and far away. It's the running types that are invasive and spread rapidly.
"Once it spreads out of control, it is difficult to eradicate," Lebo says. "You have to dig out the rhizomes. I usually use a divide-and-conquer approach: chop it up to stop the growth and dig out the pieces."
The best way to contain it, Lebo says, is to choose planting sites with natural barriers, such as streams and gravel driveways. He often recommends a 60-millimeter-thick plastic liner, buried 1 1/2 feet deep, as a barrier. Spreading rhizomes will attempt to go over, rather than under this barrier, so an annual visual inspection will make containment easier.
It may come as a surprise to learn that bamboo is neither a tree nor a shrub. It's a grass, so cultivating it can resemble cultivating a lawn. In addition to frequent watering, bamboo responds to NPK fertilizers made for grass. Lebo recommends slow-release Osmocote. When bamboo is young — especially if it's a species grown for ground cover — it can be contained with a lawn mower.
To maintain an aesthetically pleasing hedge, bamboo can be pruned.
"You can cut it to any height, as long as there's a branch below that point," Lebo says. "Otherwise, it won't leaf out, and you'll see the cut from a distance."
Once you've settled on a purpose and location for the bamboo, there are many options. Bamboo can be green, golden, black, red or variegated. Leaves can be a couple of inches or a couple of feet long. Lebo's best-selling species is Spectabilis (Phyllostachys aureosulcata), a golden bamboo that can grow to a height of 25 to 30 feet and is hardy to 10 degrees below zero.
If you do choose bamboo, be prepared to watch it closely. In its native Asia, growth rates of 1 foot per day during the growing season are common. But it's the horizontally spreading rhizomes that can be truly amazing.
"I knew a guy who planted Vivax — the most aggressive but great for timber production," Lebo recalls. "It pushed up and flipped his concrete sidewalk."
For general information on bamboo, see www.bamboo.org.