Companion planting is one of the most important concepts in permaculture and organic gardening. And bamboo is a towering figure in the field of sustainable agriculture. So people often wonder what role this miraculous grass can play in their ecological landscaping. What are the best companion planting practices with bamboo?

Companion planting is a gardening technique in which different plants are grown together for the mutual benefit of each plant. By adding bamboo to your mix, you can build up the topsoil and cast some shade over your garden. The upright culms and delicate leaves also add a valuable aesthetic quality. But watch out for bamboo’s rhizomatous roots, which can spread vigorously.

Properties of bamboo for companion planting

As an organic gardening strategy, companion planting typically brings together plants that complement each other by restoring the soil, repelling pests, or attracting beneficial insects. Corn, squash, and beans, for example, are commonly planted together, as bean plants are effective at fixing nitrogen and enriching the soil to the benefit of the other plants. Marigolds and tomatoes also grow famously well together, because the marigolds are able to repel pests that typically afflict tomatoes.

Bamboo for healthy topsoil

As far as we know, bamboo doesn’t repel any specific bugs or pests. But bamboo itself really doesn’t attract pests either. And it doesn’t fix nitrogen, but its active roots and falling leaves do have a way of building up the topsoil and bolstering the humus.

If you have a healthy garden with rich soil, there’s no need to plant bamboo in the middle of it. But if you’re working with poor, degraded soil and just getting started, bamboo makes an excellent pioneer plant. Bamboo’s tenacious roots can break up hard soil, adding beneficial micro-organisms as the plant grows and spreads.

Meanwhile, the leaves that fall steadily from the bamboo provide a useful layer of mulch. This mulch helps the soil to retain life-giving moisture. At the same time, the leaves decay relatively quickly, adding more nutrients to the soil and humus.

Bamboo roots: shallow but vigorous

As a grass, bamboo has very shallow roots that ordinarily only grow a few inches deep. For this reason, small plants, flowers, and vegetables will have a hard time competing to gain a foothold. Bamboo makes a better companion with larger bushes and trees with deeper taproots that have already established themselves. In this case, bamboo can help by crowding out other weeds without disturbing the tree.

Many species of running bamboo have especially expansive and intrusive roots that can actually be very disruptive to other areas of the garden. If you’re planting this sort of bamboo, be sure to have a containment strategy. My favorite technique is to dig a trench around the bamboo. This makes it easy to monitor the roots and prevent them from spreading out of control. Otherwise, the bamboo can become more of a bully than a companion.

Bamboo for shade

Most species of bamboo grow fairly tall fairly fast. This enables them to cast some shade over your garden. If you’re growing tomatoes and peppers, this is bad news. But if you have shade-loving plants, including orchids, bromeliads, ornamental grasses, or certain culinary herbs, this is great.

Generally speaking, you’ll probably want to keep those other plants in pots, so that the roots aren’t competing with the bamboo. Conversely, you could keep your bamboo in a pot or container, and let the other plants grow directly in the earth. But with its robust root system, bamboo can sometimes be a challenge to manage in a pot.

Companion plants with ornamental bamboo

Most people decide to plant bamboo just because they love the way it looks. There’s something delightful and beautiful about those tall, elegant poles and the gracefully draping foliage. It’s an ideal plant to include if you’re designing a Japanese garden or a secluded space for yoga and meditation.

Bamboo for Japanese Gardens

If it’s an Asian aesthetic you have in mind, you might also want to include some Japanese maple, Mugu pine, and azaleas. A well-manicured bonsai tree will take your garden to the next level. In that case, you can even make a bamboo bonsai.

One of the most beautiful and complementary pairings I’ve seen is with bamboo and oleander. If you’re gardening in a mild Mediterranean climate like California, oleander and bamboo are perfect together. The slender, lanceolate leaves are very similar in appearance, but the flowering oleander adds a whole other dimension of color. (See featured image at the top of the page.)

Bamboo with bamboo

If there’s anything that looks great with bamboo, it’s more bamboo! Because there are so many varieties of bamboo, coming in all different sizes, shapes, and colors, you can have a great time combining different bamboo species.

To get the best out of your bamboo companionship, look for contrasting characteristics. For example, a giant timber bamboo like Phyllostachys ‘Henon’, with dark green culms, will look great alongside a medium-sized bamboo with yellow culms or green and yellow stripes, such as Bambusa multiplex. Or place an upright Phyllostachys alongside a shorter bamboo with arching culms, like Mexican weeping bamboo or some kind of Himalayacalamus.

As a finishing touch, you can plant some dwarf bamboo as a ground cover around any larger bamboo or flowering shrubs. Many of these miniature bamboos also have variegated leaves, which can go a long way in adding color and interest to your garden.

So have fun, get creative, and remember to have a containment strategy so your bamboo doesn’t overrun your garden.

Complementary reading

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FEATURE PHOTO: Phyllostachys aurea growing alongside Nerium oleander in Arles, France. Photo by Pacha Hornaday.