How to prune clumping bamboo


I’ve known many people who are afraid to plant any kind of bamboo, even a clumping type, for fear it will take over their yard — and with good reason. Here in Austin, many a back yard is clogged with running bamboo, which is often planted for privacy along a fence but quickly metastasizes, spreading across the lawn and into the neighbors’ yards as well.

Clumping bamboos, however, don’t “run,” making them garden-safe.* Even so, they grow vigorously enough to require regular pruning in order to look their best. Take ‘Alphonse Karr’ bamboo, for example (pictured here). I usually prune it twice a year, in late spring and early fall, to keep it from looking like a shaggy green beast and to give it shapely definition. Here it is in beast mode (above) — lots of leaves amid a thicket of culms (the canes) that are arching over the gutters and blocking a window.


And here it is after an admittedly exuberant pruning. I removed about a quarter of the culms entirely, all the way to the ground (never cut them off halfway, which causes ugly side growth), and limbed up others, revealing the green-and-yellow stripes on the exposed canes.


I start by trimming off the side branches that grow along the culms, starting at ground level and pruning up to just above my head. How high up you prune should depend on the height of the bamboo. You do still want to have plenty of leaves up top to keep the plant healthy.


Using a pair of sharp bypass pruners, clip off the stems close to the culm, holding onto them with your free hand to keep from making a mess below. Just toss them in a bin for composting later. And be careful not to nick your free hand with the pruners!


I use a long-handled pruner for getting into the culms and pruning out weak ones or those leaning over the gutter. I also thin out culms that spread beyond the original planting.


And that’s it. It’s a pretty Zen activity, really. Here’s another look at the overgrown beast, before pruning. Nothing wrong with this, of course, if you need a green screen that won’t run, but it’s too much for a small space like this one.


And here it is after an hour of pruning. Leggy, airy, and out of the gutter!

Here are a few more bamboo-pruning resources:

I first learned about limbing up bamboo on the Austin blog Growing Optimism, which also features a nifty bamboo-and-zip-tie fence to hold leaning canes away from paths: Growing bamboo in a narrow space – pros, cons, and a solution for support

For expert advice, watch Cass Turnbull of Plant Amnesty explain how to prune bamboo: How to Prune Bamboo – Instructional Video w/ Plant Amnesty

Also, watch Austin’s own Merrideth Jiles share his extensive knowledge of bamboo, including pruning tips, on Central Texas Gardener: Bamboo Basics | Merredith Jiles |Central Texas Gardener

And finally, here’s a helpful list of clumping bamboos for Austin from The Great Outdoors nursery. By the way, although TGO’s guide says bamboo needs to be watered twice a week during Austin’s summers, I have not found this to be true in my garden. Once a week works fine for my established bamboos ‘Alphonse Karr’, ‘Tiny Fern’, and, to a lesser extent, Mexican weeping bamboo.

*Note: Clumpers do gradually expand but not aggressively. Please, do your research to learn which is which before buying. I can’t think of any reason to plant a runner, frankly.

I welcome your comments; please scroll to the end of this post to leave one. If you’re reading this in a subscription email, click here to visit Digging and find the comment box at the end of each post.
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Digging Deeper: News and Upcoming Events

Mark your calendar for the Inside Austin Gardens Tour on May 6, sponsored by Travis County Master Gardeners. This fun garden tour occurs every 18 months and features a mix of homegrown gardens “for gardeners, by gardeners,” as their tagline says.

Get on the mailing list for Garden Spark Talks. Inspired by the idea of house concerts — performances in private homes, which support musicians and give a small audience an up-close and personal musical experience — I’m hosting a series of garden talks by design speakers out of my home. Talks are limited-attendance events and generally sell out within just a few days, so join the Garden Spark email list for early notifications. Simply click this link and ask to be added.

New galvanized wall planters hold succulent cuttings


Spring fever has hit! For me, that manifests as refreshing my many pots of succulents, some of which have been inside all winter, others huddled against the house, and others (too big to move) left to weather as they will. If they took a winter hit, I’m not afraid to rip them out and start over. After all, succulents last a long growing season here in Austin, and it’s worth it to buy a few new 4-inch pots each spring to freshen up winter-weary containers.

Even more fun, I’ve been creating new containers with cuttings from winter-hardy succulents that needed a trim, tucking in a few new plants and decorative accents. Kitschy, fairy-garden flamingos stalking through a succulent jungle? Heck, yeah!


But let’s start with the planter. I found three galvanized wall planters at Target a couple of weeks ago, lying forlornly on a back-corner shelf before all the other spring garden stuff came out for display. I’d seen these online and coveted them, but they weren’t available for shipping, and Target’s website indicated there were only a few left in stock at various stores. So I wasn’t expecting to find them, but then I did! At only $8.99 each, I snapped up all three. (And no, I’m not getting paid to promote these. I just like them.) They look like deep-dish pizza pans to me.


The pots didn’t have drainage holes, so I used a hammer and nail to punch a few holes in the bottom of each one. Then I filled them up with cactus/succulent potting soil (you can buy it by the bag at most nurseries), tucked in a few cuttings from my succulents (let them harden off a few days after you cut them, before planting, to avoid rot), topped them with a thin layer of small gravel, and voila! So. Easy.


The copper-and-glass sun and the flamingos came from The Natural Gardener‘s gift shop. Anything can work for an artful or playful accent, though. Maybe a plastic dinosaur? A small Buddha figurine? A vertical piece of driftwood?


Succulents can easily be pulled out and refreshed with new cuttings when they grow too big or get leggy. In our hot climate, be sure to place them in dappled shade or morning sun only. Afternoon sun can fry them.


Here’s where I hung them, over my new galvanized potting bench, also from Target, which I assembled and placed in my side yard. After years of potting over a low table, I’m loving having this taller potting station, and my back is thanking me too. I’ve stashed potting supplies in a couple of galvanized pails with lids, and I’ll be rotating plants and pots through here all spring.

In fact, I’m going outside right now to do a few more pot refreshers. Spring feverrrrrr!

I welcome your comments; please scroll to the end of this post to leave one. If you’re reading this in a subscription email, click here to visit Digging and find the comment box at the end of each post.
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Digging Deeper: News and Upcoming Events

Get on the mailing list for Garden Spark Talks. Inspired by the idea of house concerts — performances in private homes, which support musicians and give a small audience an up-close and personal musical experience — I’m hosting a series of garden talks by design speakers out of my home. The upcoming talk with James deGrey David has sold out, but join the Garden Spark email list for speaker announcements delivered to your inbox; simply click this link and ask to be added. Subscribers get advance notification when tickets go on sale for these limited-attendance events.

All material © 2006-2017 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Planting an agave is a thorny endeavor


Last weekend, after creatively wrestling this bad boy out of the car, my family helpers and I slid it onto a utility cart and rolled it into the back yard. This new whale’s tongue agave to replace Moby, while far from mature-size, is still large enough at 15 gallons to make planting — heck, even unpotting — a challenge. Especially as I would be planting it on my own, with everyone else at work or school.


For the uninitiated, whale’s tongue agaves, like most agaves, are well armed, with hooked thorns along the edge of every leaf and a sharp terminal spine at the end. The leaves are stiff (meaning they can poke you good) but also fragile; if you tip the plant on its side, the leaves can break and your beautiful plant will be permanently marred.

So how to plant it? First of all, you must wear eye protection. I recommend wrap-around safety goggles. You also need thick work gloves, sturdy and protective shoes, and, if you’re smart, a long-sleeved work shirt and pants. I wore short sleeves because it was hot, and I caught a few spines along my arm.


A mere flesh wound — no biggie. Definitely protect your eyes though.


After removing Moby last fall, I cleaned years of decomposing leaves out of the planting bed and added a yard of gravelly soil. It had settled over the winter, so it was prepped and ready for easy digging. I dug a hole just a little wider than the pot (since the soil was already loose, not compacted; otherwise, I’d have dug a wider hole to loosen things up for growing roots) and exactly as deep as the root ball. You don’t want an agave to settle deeper after a few rains; that leads to rot. So plant it high, but don’t leave the root ball exposed.


But first things first: how to actually unpot and plant this monster? I had to get creative. The plant was very heavy, but I was able to roll it close to the hole on the utility cart. I carefully slid it off the cart (this may have been when it bit my arm) and wrestled it over to the hole.

Tipping it over to unpot was impossible due to its weight and all those spines, plus I didn’t want to risk breaking the leaves. Instead I leaned the pot against a mound of dug-out dirt in order to access the bottom of the pot. Using tin snips, I cut the nursery pot off the plant, starting at the bottom drainage hole and working my way up. It cut more easily than I expected, and the pot was opened up in just a few minutes…


…revealing a mass of roots that had circled around the pot because there was nowhere else to go. I did what I do with all plants that are rootbound: I took a sharp tool (a shovel, utility knife, or pruning saw will work) and made deep, vertical cuts in four places on the lower half of the root ball. I also teased loose the roots circling around the top of the pot. It may seem like you’re hurting a plant to cut into its roots like that, but it actually encourages the roots to stop circling and grow outward into the soil.


Getting the agave into the hole proved tricky too. Because of its spines and weight, I couldn’t just pick it up and plop it in. I sat on the ground, leaned under the leaves (wearing my safety goggles!), and rocked the plant from side to side to edge it close to the hole. Then I leaned back and pushed with my legs to try to control its slide into the hole. Somehow it worked, and I didn’t even get stabbed! I backfilled soil, patted it firm, and stood back to admire Moby2. I’ll mulch this bed with gravel for good drainage — maybe after the live oak leaf drop, which seems to be starting early this year.

I welcome your comments; please scroll to the end of this post to leave one. If you’re reading this in a subscription email, click here to visit Digging and find the comment box at the end of each post.
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Digging Deeper: News and Upcoming Events

2/25/17: Come to my talk at the Wildflower Center. I’ll be speaking at the day-long Native Plant Society of Texas Spring Symposium at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin. My talk is called “Local Heroes: Designing with Native Plants for Water-Saving Gardens,” and it’s about creating water-wise home gardens that don’t sacrifice beauty. The symposium is open to the public. Click here for registration. I’ll be offering signed copies of my books, The Water-Saving Garden and Lawn Gone!, after my talk ($20 each; tax is included). I hope to see you there!

Get on the mailing list for Garden Spark Talks. Inspired by the idea of house concerts — performances in private homes, which support musicians and give a small audience an up-close and personal musical experience — I’m hosting a series of garden talks by design speakers out of my home. The upcoming talk with James deGrey David has sold out, but join the Garden Spark email list for speaker announcements delivered to your inbox; simply click this link and ask to be added. Subscribers get advance notification when tickets go on sale for these limited-attendance events.

All material © 2006-2017 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

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