Bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants in the world. The physical and chemical properties of its roots and stems means that it is able to transform nutrients into growth-enabling energy sources incredibly effectively. Some species have been known to grow over 30 inches in a single 24-hour period! Such rapid varieties are not particularly useful to the average permaculture gardener, but other species of bamboo may well have a place on the permaculture plot, as they offer a variety of functions.
There are two basic varieties of bamboo: running and clumping. Running bamboo spreads its roots out underground, pushing up new growth at what can be significant distances from the original stem. Some species are such good travelers that they can ‘escape’ your garden and pop up on neighboring plots. That’s why it is recommended that you use the clumping varieties (although you could use running varieties in pots, if you wished, to contain them). The clumping species don’t spread, instead the root growth remains around the main stem and new shoots (called ‘culms’) are sent up adjacent to it, forming something like a tussock. Clumping bamboo is much easier to control, allowing the permaculture gardener to make the best use of it and avoid it impacting upon other species of plant or creating unwanted microclimates.
Bamboo is an attractive plant for bird species. Planting a section of bamboo on your site can serve to bring in more bird species, with all the positive effects they bring, such as controlling populations of pest insects. There are two main properties that the bamboo provides that attract birds. Firstly, the shoots and leaves provide birds with good nesting material, while the plants themselves are an excellent source of cover, protecting the birds from predators and the elements. This influx of birds will also have the effect of filling your site with birdsong – another positive function of bamboo.
Although parts of bamboo stems are hollow, they are still very strong. As such, bamboo is used extensively in the manufacture of furniture and flooring, but its ‘construction’ potential also has uses on the permaculture plot. Bamboo clusters will need thinning out intermittently to prevent them becoming too dense (as, for instance, causing problems with the flow of wind) and the harvested stems can be used to make trellises for climbing plants to attach themselves to, and fences.
While cut stems can be used to make fences and screens, a growing cluster of bamboo plants can also be used to give protection and privacy. A species such as Oldham’s bamboo grows to around 10 feet in height, so planted on the border of your plot can give privacy from neighbors, as well as offering windbreak potential (although, as mentioned, you will need to ensure the planting doesn’t become too dense and create eddies of air).
The density of a bamboo cluster can have beneficial effects, though. For instance, if you have a problem with deer getting into your plot and eating your crops, a screen of bamboo can close off the entry point. The dense clustering of the plants, particularly the clumping varieties, means the deer cannot penetrate the screen they create. If you want to create a dense screen for this purpose, ensure that you use a lower-growing variety to avoid problems with wind diversion.
The roots of bamboo plants are rhizomatic. This means that they form clumps of nodules, from each of which root hairs extend. This makes them very efficient at storing and processing nutrients from the soil. It also means, because of the way that bamboo plants grow closely together, that the roots systems of individual plants interlink with those of their neighbors. This creates a very stable growing medium that has the benefit of maintaining the soil structure. Lots of root hairs mean that lots of pore spaces are created for microorganisms to move through, moisture to percolate into and aeration to occur. It also helps prevent erosion of the soil. This is a primary reason why bamboo is useful for planting on slopes. Not only does it help bind the soil together, preventing erosion by wind and rainwater runoff, it also helps slow the movement of water and nutrients through the soil, meaning they remain available for the bamboo and other species for longer.
The other way that bamboo is beneficial to the soil is that the leaf litter they create is excellent natural mulch. All bamboos shed leaves, and because the plant is so good at processing nutrients, the fallen leaves are nutrient-rich, meaning that as they rot down, the soil ‘absorbs’ these nutrients, making them available for other plants as well as the still-growing bamboo. If the leaf litter becomes to problematic (in the fall, perhaps, when leaf drop is at its highest), you can rake the leaves and add them to the compost pile, so that the garden still gets the benefit of the nutrients within them.
It’s not just in the garden that the benefits of bamboo are available to the permaculture gardener; bamboo is a great addition to the kitchen as well. The young shoots of bamboo have firm flesh that is a good source of vegetable protein and is rich in essential nutrients such as magnesium and calcium. It is a feature of many Asian cuisines, and lends itself to steaming, sautéing and as an addition to soups.
Not all the benefits of planting bamboo on your permaculture plot are materially defined. One must not forget the pleasure that this plant can provide simply by its presence. The sound of wind moving through the stems of bamboo plants has a calming, meditative effect – which is why bamboo is used in many traditional Asian cultures to craft musical instruments and wind chimes. The movement of the tall stems in the breeze is also very pleasurable to observe, and a space adjacent to bamboo can be a good place of reflection for the permaculturist.