Every serious gardener knows that the compost pile is one of the most important features of their backyard ecosystem. It’s where we discard our kitchen scraps, our lawn trimming, and other organic detritus. Moreover, it’s where the cycle of life comes full circle. The compost pile is an alchemical locus where waste is turned into gold. What once rotted in the fridge or withered on the vine, in a matter months, becomes the richest fertilizer for the garden. And all this leads bamboo growers to ask, can I compost my bamboo?
Bamboo is an organic material, and therefore it is compostable. Bamboo leaves and twigs will break down and decompose relatively quickly. Thick, woody bamboo poles and hard bamboo products like utensils, toothbrushes, and cutting boards are also compostable, but they will require considerably more time. After several months of decomposition, rich and healthy compost is an excellent fertilizer for your bamboo and throughout the garden.
Composting bamboo plants
All organic materials are biodegradable. It’s only a question of time. A wispy leaf off of a birch tree will break down in a matter of days or weeks. And a log cabin will take many decades to decompose. So what does that mean for bamboo?
A bamboo plant consists of many parts, and each part has a somewhat different composition. Leaves and twigs will compost quickly, while thick culms will take much longer. As a general rule, if it’s woody and it’s thicker than your thumb, it’s a little too big to go in the compost with your kitchen scraps. In that case, it’s better to make use of it, as a garden stake for example. Or play fetch with your dog. Otherwise, you can run it through a wood chipper, or simply expect the compost to take longer.
If you have a big garden and a huge compost, filled with all kinds of sticks and branches, some bigger bamboo sticks can go in there too. Because it’s hollow, a bamboo culm will break down faster than a tree branch of equal diameter.
Usually, if you have a bamboo pole that’s more than about a quarter-inch thick, you can find many better uses for it than to toss it in the compost. Stake up your tomatoes, hang a curtain, build a teepee — the possibilities are endless. If you have a lot of high-quality poles, you can even sell them at a garage sale or on Craigslist.
When it comes to composting bamboo roots and rhizomes, you’ll need to be more careful. Otherwise, you could see it coming back to life in your compost heap. Cutting them into tiny pieces, or turning the compost very frequently will help to prevent this from happening.
Composting bamboo products
Most bamboo products are advertised as being biodegradable and/or compostable, unlike plastics that will sit in a landfill or float in the ocean for centuries. While bamboo products will break down far faster than comparable products made from synthetics, it doesn’t mean they will turn into fertilizer in just six months like old carrots and banana peels.
There are thin and flimsy bamboo products, like veneer plates and utensils, and then there are harder bamboo goods like salad bowls and cutting boards. Of course, the former will break down a lot faster than the latter.
When it comes to the harder goods, I usually put them into the “hand-me-down” stream. A cracked salad bowl no longer looks good in the kitchen, but I can find a use for it in the garden. Outdoors, it will gradually succumb to the elements. After a few years, the wood will start to soften and crack. Eventually, it will be suitable for the compost. Otherwise, there’s always the option of sending it straight to the landfill.
Spreading compost on the bamboo
Once your compost has done its thing, which usually takes a total of about 6 to 12 months, depending on what kind of things you’re putting in it, you should have a dark, rich soil amendment. You can spread this nutrient-rich substance throughout the garden, mixing it into the soil, or layering it over the top like mulch.
Compost is especially beneficial for young plants, seedlings, and transplants. Just be sure it has metabolized thoroughly. I like to use a thick screen to filter out any bigger chunks that haven’t broken down. The chunky stuff can go back in the compost, or you can use them as mulch. Bamboo really likes mulch, in the form of wood chips or straw, to help insulate the roots and retain moisture.
Bamboo also likes a good amount of nitrogen, which the compost has a lot of. It will help the plant stay green and produce more vigorous shoots. Ideally, the compost should be added twice a year, at the onset of the growing season and again around the end of summer.
Springtime in the garden
The days are growing longer, the rain is falling — albeit intermittently — and the pollen on my porch is in an uproar. In the land of permanent sunshine and perpetual springtime (California’s Central Coast), this could only mean one of two things: spring is either here or very close at hand!
And if you’re a perpetual gardening enthusiast like myself, then your thumbs must be perking up, as green as the oxalis rioting in your flower beds.
I don’t know about you, but when I get to feeling this way, the first thing I do is walk around the side of the house to inspect my compost pile. For me, there’s nothing like a happy heap of compost to put a smile on the face of an organic gardener.
So in order to ensure that heap is happy, here’s a quick list of Dos and Don’ts to help you maintain a healthy, well-balanced mound of compost.
Composting tips for bamboo growers and general gardeners
1. DON’T let your compost get slimy. This is of paramount importance. If you’re regularly adding buckets of wet “green” kitchen scraps to your backyard heap, you will definitely need to add some dry “brown” waste to the mix.
2. DO add dried leaves, dried lawn trimming, and wood chips to help break down the wet kitchen scraps and fresh green garden waste. Ultimately, you want a mix of about 50-50 wet waste (nitrogen) and dry waste (carbon).
3. DON’T just dump your kitchen waste on top of the pile and leave it there for all the world to see. Mix it in, and try to cover it with some older and/or dryer waste.
4. DO add wood and paper ash from your fireplace. Ashes are a great source of potash, or potassium carbonate, an essential component of a rich soil mix.
5. DON’T add ash from petroleum products like starter logs, or from cigarette butts.
6. DO add eggshells in moderation, but generally, DON’T add animal products like meat or cheese. They will rot rather than compost. They will also attract unwanted, carnivorous pests and scavengers.
7. DON’T put poop in your compost, either from your pets or yourself. Fecal matter can harbor dangerous bacteria and parasites.
8. DO feel free to pee on your pile. A healthy compost pile needs to be kept moist, and readily-available urine actually adds trace minerals that can benefit the mix.
9. DON’T add too many orange peels. Too much of anything can throw your compost out of balance, but the acidity of citrus peels (esp. if clumped together in the pile and not spread around) makes them slow to decompose and attractive to fruit flies.
10. DO add coffee grinds and tea bags. These contain great soil-enriching ingredients. A healthy compost will also break down the paper filters and bags without a problem. The same goes for bathroom tissues and occasional paper towels.
11. DON’T expect wine corks to break down very fast, but they can make a good addition. Natural wine corks are made from oak tree bark, definitely organic matter that will eventually, slowly decompose. In the meantime, their porousness can help with aeration and provide a niche for beneficial microorganisms.
12. DO cut your twigs and branches as small as possible before adding them to the heap. Thick branches can take months or years to break down. (One or two long branches across the middle of the pile can actually be helpful for aeration purposes, but they won’t break down.)
13. DON’T worry too much about flies around the compost. That’s pretty normal, as long it doesn’t start looking like a 1950s science fiction movie. With any luck, your compost will become home to herds of earthworms. We also get legions of pill bugs loitering in our compost; they thrive on the moisture. They also help break things down because they will eat anything that doesn’t move, and yet they’re relatively harmless as far as garden critters go.
14. DON’T expect your compost to do all the work. You’ll need to prod it with a shovel from time to time to make sure it’s not drying out or staying too wet. Periodic shoveling will keep it well blended and aerated. Eventually (after 3-6 months), you’ll want to flip the whole pile (so the fresh top layer ends up on the bottom and the more decomposed bottom layer ends up on top), and then start a new pile. Allow the other pile to marinade for another 3 months, and then it should be ready to use.
I hope these tips on conscientious composting will help you deal with your waste management, and at the same time get your garden revitalized. Closing that loop between the production of household waste and the need for soil enrichment in the garden is a brilliant concept that can reduce your carbon footprint and increase your vegetative bliss.
Bamboo is another great way to make use of your garden space, as it is one of the best plants for converting CO2 into oxygen. It is a remarkably functional and versatile plant. In addition to making a very attractive shrub, bamboo can also be used as a fence or a privacy hedge, and its stalks can be harvested for any number of uses, including making fishing poles and various arts and crafts projects.