Call the pandas: Bamboo taking over

Randy Bothwell, a police detective in Chester, Pa., considered and rejected a number of ways to rid his yard of bamboo: salt, an exorcism, shooting it with his service revolver. When he asked for advice at a local garden center, he says, they ”laughed hysterically.”

So Mr. Bothwell whacked the stand with a machete. It grew back. He bought a pickax and tried digging up the roots, a process that traced a 30-foot arc across his once-pristine lawn. One month and two broken shovels later, he rented a Bobcat minibulldozer and a big metal trash bin, acquired 14 gallons of poison and bought 24 cubic yards of dirt to fill the resulting hole. Total approximate cost: $1,500.

One year later, a single shoot appeared. ”It gave me … the final salute.” Mr. Bothwell says. ”I was like, ‘Mother of God.”’

Bamboo is environmentally friendly, grows fast and forms a nifty screen that walls off the neighbors. It’s also eating suburban America.

Bamboo spreads relentlessly, like kudzu and Japanese honeysuckle, two other species that drive gardeners to distraction. Its roots are like steel cable, and neighbors sometimes battle over the consequences. A 2002 lawsuit, which complained that the plants were threatening a pool and a retaining wall, summarized one part of the problem: ”Bamboo is not indigenous to Long Island, New York.”

”The client thought it was evil,” says lawyer Steve Lester of Garden City, N.Y., who represented the plaintiff.

Brent Langdon, a software engineer in Sterling, Va., spent two years trying to clear 200 square feet of bamboo lodged in the hard Virginia clay at a home he had bought. He used a pickax to soften the roots and applied potent Roundup herbicide.

After one exhausting weekend, Mr. Langdon decided to cut it all down and rented a large commercial chipper to dispose of the remains. The bamboo jammed the machine. It ”wrapped itself around the coils,” he recalls. He had to rent a trailer to haul the debris to the dump instead.

There are two popular types of bamboo that grow in the U.S., known as running bamboo and clumping bamboo. Running bamboo, not surprisingly, is the problem. Depending on the species, it can grow up to 80 feet high and 7 to 8 inches in diameter. Bamboo roots tunnel far from the plant and spawn new shoots, often dozens of feet from the original stand.

Not only does bamboo grow fast, it’s virtually indestructible. Bamboo growers claim the plant was the first to re-emerge after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. William Aley, an import specialist at the Agriculture Department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, says he can’t say whether the story is true, but confirms that ”depending on how deep the heat flash was at a bomb blast, the shoots are formidable enough to survive having the above-surface portions destroyed.”

Bamboo, which is most commonly found in East and Southeast Asia, became popular in the U.S. in the 1970s when homeowners began planting it. More recently, scenes of gracefully wafting bamboo in the 2000 movie ”Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” did wonders for that particular species, says Brad Salmon, president of the American Bamboo Society. Besides being beautiful, say bamboo advocates, the plant, as a source of material for flooring and some other building materials, is an environmentally appealing alternative to cutting hardwood forests.

So even as some people struggle to get rid of bamboo, others are out there planting more of it. Mr. Salmon, for instance, runs a business called Needmore Bamboo Co. in Nashville, Ind.

In Seattle, James Clever, owner of Bamboo Gardener, both spreads bamboo and experiments with ways to keep it from spreading too far. He recommends encasing the planting area with high-density polyethylene sheeting, sunk 2 1/2 feet into the ground.

He started offering polyethylene with a thickness of 40 mil, a unit of measurement equal to 1/1000th of an inch. But the bamboo ”pierces it like a spear,” Mr. Clever says. He found a plastics manufacturer that would go to 60 mil, but even that was ”compromised by black bamboo.” Now, he recommends using only polyethylene of 80 mil, about 1/12 of an inch thick.

Mr. Clever loves bamboo. If it spreads too much, ”the problem is not bamboo, the problem is a human error” in installing and siting a stand of it, he says. ”That’s how I keep busy: lots of people out there screwing it up and getting it wrong.”

There’s little agreement on the best way to eradicate bamboo when it gets out of hand. Natural remedies such as pouring on salt or undiluted vinegar are generally scoffed at. Many experts suggest cutting bamboo to the ground, adding weed killer and then mowing regularly to keep new shoots under control.

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