Bamboo is a plant like no other. A robust grass that grows faster than any plant on earth, bamboo is unmatched for versatility and renewability. Once those tenacious rhizome roots get a foothold, the plant is all but indestructible. Indeed, they can sometimes become sustainable in the worst sort of way. And should you find that your beautiful bamboo plant is taking over the yard and you want it out, you could be up against a serious challenge. It’s a one-on-one, head-to-head battle: You vs. Mother Nature. So what’s the trick? How do you actually get rid of a bamboo plant that’s worn out its welcome?

It’s true that some varieties of bamboo can spread very aggressively, to the point of becoming invasive. Depending on how well-established the plant is, the job of removing it could vary from difficult to nearly impossible. Pick axes, hand saws and shovels will probably become necessary. You might even need power tools, like a Sawzall, or reciprocating saw. In the worst case scenario, you may even need to hire a backhoe in order to completely excavate the entire root system. The most important thing is to be thorough. But the best way to minimize the ordeal is to plan ahead and plant your bamboo more carefully in the first place, selecting less aggressive species and using root barriers.

Bamboo invasion and desperation

The worst bamboo clean-up stories I’ve heard have almost always involved innocent bystanders who bought a piece of land or moved onto a piece of property where the neighbor or previous owner allowed a rogue bamboo plant to run amok. The unknowing new residents were stuck with a beastly chore and a hefty clean-up bill. If you can relate to these unfortunate circumstances, then this article will tell you what you need to know.

Also, if you’re considering planting bamboo but worry about the catastrophe that might ensue, we’ll also discuss a few ways to avoid getting into such a mess in the first place.

Finally, if you’d rather just poison your bamboo and make the problem go away without having to get your hands dirty, I’ve got some bad news for you. Bamboo is resilient, and saturating your back yard with bleach, salt and Round-up is not the solution. In the end, that will just create more problems. So skip those desperate measures, and get ready to dig.

If it’s a short cut your looking for, try picking up the phone and calling a local landscaper or bamboo specialist to do the job for you. Otherwise, here’s what you need to do.

Removing bamboo: Come prepared

As with any big project in the home or garden, it’s essential to have the right tools for the job. And when it comes to removing bamboo, you can save yourself a lot of time and toil be showing up over-prepared. Keep in mind that the bamboo plant you see growing is something like the tip of the iceberg. The roots generally aren’t very deep compared to the stature of a good-sized bamboo, but their stubborn will to live makes them practically invincible.

Getting started

You’re going to want to come well-equipped, with the following tools:

  • small handsaw
  • sturdy pair of gardening clippers
  • short handled spade or shovel with a sharper tip for digging
  • long handled spade or shovel with a sharper tip for digging
  • pickax
  • reciprocating saw
  • if all else fails, hire a bulldozer or a backhoe

Clearing the way for removal

Whether you’re removing a section of bamboo, or an entire plant, you want to begin by clearing the growth above ground. The bamboo poles, known as culms or canes, are relative easy to remove. Despite being a grass, bamboo produces a remarkably hard wood. Yet, because the canes are hollow, you can saw through them with little difficulty. Using an appropriately sized hand saw, depending on the density and diameter of the culms you are removing, cut them all down, as close to the ground as possible.

Chances are, you’ll want to save the poles for some kind of craft or light construction projects. With little or no carpentry know-how, you can make some curtain rods, fishing poles, a light fence, or some storage racks for the garage. Bamboo is incredibly strong, versatile and easy to work with. Even if you’re not going to use them, you can surely find someone who will. You can probably even sell them, for anywhere from $1-$10 per pole, depending on the size and species of bamboo.

Store the harvested poles in a dry place out of direct sunlight for a few weeks to let them dry out. The longer and thicker they are, the more time they will need to dry out. In most cases, you’ll notice them change color, like green to yellow, as they dry. If they are too large to store indoors, just try to cover them with a tarp.

To the root of the problem

Once the culms growing above the ground have been cleared, the interesting work begins. The knobby rhizome roots are not as thick as the poles, but they can be terribly difficult to cut and remove. That’s because they grow so thick and close together, they are encased in soil, and they are usually solid rather than hollow.

Running bamboo roots on the run

Some of the bamboo roots will grow above the ground, as seen in the photo above, and you can probably cut these out with a good pair of pruners. But don’t get too over-confident; your work has only just begun.

As you try to dig into the soil to expose more roots, you soon realize that the dirt is crammed with obstacles. In all likelihood, the rhizome network has created a dense and nearly impenetrable mesh of roots. So you’ll want to start digging further away from the center of the plant, where the roots are going to be thinner and more spread out. The type of soil, clay or sand, will determine how much time and sweat this will take.

In any case, you’re going to need to loosen the soil quite a bit just to see what you’re up against. Best to soak the soil the night before, so that the earth is moist, but not soggy. You can start by poking around with a long handled spade, but I prefer to go in swinging, with a pickax overhead. Everybody step back and mind your distance, because the mud’s gonna fly.

Unlike a lot of roots, bamboo rhizomes tend to grow woody and rigid. So you can’t simply lift the roots and tug on them to make your way back to the main rootball. This is where the reciprocating saw, or Sawzall, comes in very handy, especially if you have very hard soil. Some of the roots you might be able to cut out with pruners and remove by hand. But others will be too hard and thick. And it’s almost impossible to cut them out with an ordinary hand saw when they’re impacted in soil. A reciprocating saw is ideal for getting into those tight places and doing serious demolition.

All hands on deck

As you being to remove the topsoil and expose the rhizome network, you can really start to see what you’re up against. At this point, you need to employ whatever resources are at your disposal, from brute strength to power tools. I find a combination of pickax and reciprocating saw to be the most effective. Loosen some dirt, cut out some rhizome sections, and repeat as necessary. Once in a while, you need to dig some dirt out with a shovel.

It’s hard to say how far down you will need to dig. Bamboo roots generally don’t grow very deep. Running bamboo rhizomes grow horizontally. But over time, and as they encounter obstacles, they will gradually make their way downward. They could get about 2 or 3 feet deep. But when every inch is a struggle, 3 feet may feel like an eternity.

Now if this is all too tedious, or if your bamboo covers more than say 100 square feet, you may prefer to bring in the big guns. If there’s room for it, and you’re not on a small suburban parcel, this might be time for a backhoe. Some heavy-duty machinery could save you several hours of back-breaking labor.

But before you go hog-wild with a backhoe or a bulldozer, be sure to contact your utility companies and make sure there’s nothing critical running under your bamboo. Blasting through a gas line could seriously escalate your bamboo removal project into something more life-threatening.

Plant with prudence: Avoid the bamboo imbroglio

An ounce of prevention, as they say, is worth a pound of cure. Nowhere is this expression more apt than in a neighborly bamboo garden. With proper planning, that is, you can put together a lovely arrangement of bamboo that will add an air of Asian elegance to your garden without springing up all around your neighbors’ lawns and flower beds.

Running or clumping bamboo

To begin with, it’s important to understand that the 1,500 or so species of bamboo can be divided into two basic groups: runners and clumpers. Running bamboo, as described above, has rhizomes that tend to grow horizontally outward, away from the main rootball. Botanists refer to those rhizomes as monopodial (with one apex) and leptomorph (long and thin).

As the famous adage about running bamboo says, the first year it sleeps, the second year it creeps, and the third year it leaps. In other words, you might not have any problems with the bamboo in the first year or two. In fact, it looks quite tame and docile at first. But underground, the rhizomes are building a hidden empire. And around the third year, the new shoots could be sprouting up everywhere.

Bamboo rhizomes running vs clumping

Clumping bamboos, on the other hand, have a far more compact growth habit. Their u-shaped rhizomes are technically called sympodial (with more than one apex) and pachymorph (thick). As the roots and culms grow in a tight bunch, the plants will be easy to remove. But those roots can still be a powerful force of nature, even if they don’t spread invasively.

Ultimately, with a clumping bamboo, you are much less likely to run into the problem of it taking over your yard. And if you decide you want it out, it’s a lot easier to remove than a vigorous running variety.

Root barriers

If you do plant a running bamboo, because you want a fast growing privacy hedge, or you’re partial to a certain species like Black bamboo, you’ll definitely want to contain it somehow. For this reason, some people like to keep their bamboo in pots. But pots can be problematic too. Bamboo has a tendency to get root bound and dry out in a pot. And sometimes the roots manage to escape through the bottom of the pot and get into the earth after all.

The most effective method of containment is a high quality root barrier. Although it’s not 100 percent, nothing is, it has proven to be the most reliable way to keep a bamboo safely contained. With a root barrier, you can plant the bamboo directly into the earth, where the roots can stretch out, drain properly, and get the best insulation in the winter.

Bamboo Shield makes an excellent root barrier product. The barrier, available from Amazon, comes in three sizes, for cold warm and tropical climates. The warmer the climate, the thicker the barrier.

Creating an obstacle against expansion, the root barrier might cause the roots to run a little deeper than they normally would. So always get a deeper root barrier if you’re not sure which size to use. And keep an eye on the top of the barrier as well, because bamboo roots are perfectly capable of hopping over a low barrier, especially if they’re lying under a layer of leaf mulch.

Bamboo maintenance

Finally, that brings us to our last method of containment, which is good old-fashioned supervision. Inspect the roots of your bamboo regularly. And that goes for all bamboos. Even clumping bamboo needs cutting back once in while, when it starts to get a little too demanding for space. You should move your potted bamboo around every now and then, to make sure it’s not sending down an anchor root into the soil.

And by all means, if you have a running bamboo, you’ll need to get your hands dirty. At least once a year, but maybe two or three times, depending on your climate and growing conditions, you’ll have to poke around in the dirt to see what those roots are up to. And if they’re making a run for the root barrier, or any other natural or manmade obstacle, you’d better nip them in the bud immediately.

Further reading

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PHOTO CREDIT: A plant with a dark side, bamboo lurks in the shadow (Unsplash)

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