Bamboo is a woody plant that can grow to more than 100 feet in height, and it is actually a type of grass belonging to the poaceae family. There are many kinds of bamboo, from dwarf varieties suitable for house plants to vigorous, cold-hardy species that make excellent privacy screens or wind breaks in the garden. Bamboo is often associated with Asia, but there are at least three species native to North America.
Bamboo plants are classified as being either runners or clumpers, depending on the type of root system they have. Clumping varieties spread slowly and are easily controlled. Runners send out rhizomes and can quickly take over large areas if not kept in check. Bamboo stems are hollow and become very woody with age. The strength of older stems is remarkable, and is used widely in Asia as construction scaffolding and for furniture.
Bamboo thrives in slightly acidic soil with high organic content. The best amendment for poor soil is applying a thick layer of mulch either before planting or around existing bamboo plants. This also simulates the naturally humus-rich forest floor environment that is bamboo's natural habitat. The plants can tolerate a lot of water, but only if the soil drains well. As an understory plant in the forest, bamboo prefers filtered sunlight but will usually grow just as well in full sun.
Newly planted bamboo dehydrates quickly and therefore needs plenty of water, especially in the hotter months of the year. Once established, the plants become fairly drought tolerant, and watering is only required during extended dry spells. Many species of bamboo can grow more than a foot a day under good conditions. Fertilizer is usually only needed if the soil is organically depleted. New plants should not be fertilized for the first year to avoid root damage.
Controlling runner-type bamboos can be a real challenge. One method is to dig a trench around the bamboo so that rhizomes can be easily spotted and cut off when they break through the soil. Maintaining the trench can be a lot of work, so many bamboo growers prefer to install a rhizome barrier. A barrier made of metal or plastic is buried at an angle away from the plant so that the rhizomes are forced to the surface when their path is blocked.
Many dwarf varieties of bamboo have become popular as house plants. Indoor plants should be watered well, but do not allow the soil to become saturated. Keep the bamboo in a brightly lit room out of direct sunlight. Never apply dry fertilizer to the plant. Use a soluble plant food added to the regular water every few months. Snip off any rhizomes that appear around the plant to keep it from spreading.