With the growing popularity of bamboo, people everywhere are looking for more and more places where they can grow their own bamboo. We generally associate bamboo with the Far East, and especially the tropical jungle zones like Thailand, Bali and Vietnam. But occasionally, someone wants to try growing bamboo in the desert, or in the mountains, or even in Canada.

Is it possible to grow bamboo in the desert?

Yes, you can certainly grow bamboo in the desert. And if you are anywhere near Tucson, Arizona, you can actually visit an amazing bamboo farm. The Bamboo Ranch has over 75 groves of bamboo, down there in the Sonoran Desert. With years of expertise, they specialize in desert-grown bamboo for all uses.

What about the water supply?

A lot of bamboo growers will tell you not to plant bamboo if you live in the desert. That’s because bamboo requires a lot of water. And by definition, a desert does not have a lot of water. So you will never find bamboo growing wild in the desert.

If you’ve ever driven through Palm Springs, you know that they can grow grass in the desert. The acres and acres of emerald green golf courses seem to stretch out forever. Of course, they irrigate those golf courses with mind boggling quantities of water to keep them looking green. And you could do the same with bamboo. But would you really want to?

How much water does bamboo need?

It’s true that bamboo requires regular water. And that’s why growers will dissuade you from planting it in the desert. But watering regularly is not the same as watering deeply and profusely.

Bamboo is pretty famous for its vigorous rhizome root system. This is what enables bamboo to spread so fast and become difficult to eradicate. But although they can be very aggressive and fast growing, the roots of bamboo are pretty shallow. That means it only takes a relatively modest amount of water to get the roots really wet.

In the desert, your bamboo will probably need water every other day to stay green and healthy. That may sound like a lot, but it’s not a deep soaking every other day. It’s just a light watering to get the topsoil wet. A few minutes of the sprinklers or drip irrigation is usually enough. That said, you probably don’t want to plant an acre of bamboo in the desert. But a few plants in the garden will do fine.

Why does bamboo need less water than other grasses?

Bamboo is a grass, a fairly close cousin to the ground cover you see on golf courses and front yards. But it is far more resilient. Because bamboo grows tall and bushy, it can provide itself with a lot of shade. Unlike the short grass of a well-kept lawn, the sun is not shining directly on the dirt.

Bamboo also drops a lot of leaves, providing itself with a nice layer of mulch. So between the mulch and the shade, the soil under the bamboo is able to retain moisture far better than an ordinary area of grass.

Can bamboo get too much water?

Yes, it sure can. It’s not likely to happen in the desert, but you can definitely overwater a bamboo plant. As with most plants, it’s important to let the soil dry out thoroughly between waterings. Under-watering is the second leading cause of death among houseplants. But over-watering is the number one cause.

Many people want to plant bamboo in their ponds or in swampy marshland. There are a few plants that grow well in saturated soil like this. And bamboo does look very attractive around a koi pond. But it will NOT survive underwater.

There is a species of bamboo, Phyllostachys heteroclada, commonly known as water bamboo, or solid stem bamboo. Specialized air canals allow this variety of bamboo to survive underwater, but only for a day or two. So don’t be fooled, it will not survive in a pond.

What are some good varieties of bamboo to grow in the desert?

If you live in the desert and want to grow bamboo, you can start by heading to a local nursery. If they sell bamboo, it’s probably a good species for that climate. But there’s no guarantee. Not every nursery employee is an expert in bamboo, but some of them are. Otherwise, here’s a list of species that some of our friends in the desert have recommended.

  • Bambusa oldhamii: One of the most popular species of ornamental bamboo. In favorable conditions, this giant clumper can get about 60 feet tall with 4″ diameter culms.
  • Bambusa striata: An unusually attractive species. Yellow with green stripes.
  • Alphonse Karr: Another popular species with very distinctive striping.
  • Phyllostachys mannii ‘Decora’: A variety of running bamboo native to southern China and India.
  • Otatea acuminata: Also known as Mexican weeping bamboo, and native to the warmer climates. This species grows in dense clumps with slender culms and delicate foliage that sways nicely in the breeze.

Conclusions

If you live in the desert and want to grow bamboo, then go for it. Most varieties of bamboo will do fine, so long as they get regular water. Don’t go overboard, but give them a drink every two days. In the peak of summer, they may need water every day. After the sun goes down, you can spray the foliage with a hose to get the leaves wet. Just don’t do this under direct sunlight as it can burn the leaves.

You might also want to plant the bamboo in some partial shade. In a place like Phoenix, Arizona, the full exposure of the sun can be pretty intense. Otherwise, just give them a bit of water, and let the leaves pile up around the stems to help insulate the soil and reduce evaporation.

If you have grand plans to start farming bamboo for commercial purposes, the desert is not the place to do it. A few ornamentals to accent the garden is one thing, but if you want to turn the desert green, you might try planting some Joshua Trees or Saguaro cactus instead. If it’s a full scale bamboo farm you want, head down to Florida or Georgia, where the humidity is high and the precipitation is plentiful.

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PHOTO CREDIT: Bamboo in the sunlight (Unsplash)

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