If you're looking for a plant that produces a fast-growing privacy screen or massed planting, think about using bamboo (Phyllostachys spp., Fargesia spp. and other genera's species). A member of the grass family (Poaceae), bamboo comes in two basic types: clumping bamboo, which spreads slowly from a single central zone, and running bamboo, which spreads aggressively, sending out underground runners that can pop up many feet from the parent plant.
Both types are simple to grow and can be suitable garden plants, provided you take precautions to control the spread of running bamboo. Bamboo needs only basic care to perform well in a garden.
Although running bamboo is useful in some areas, its growth habit can be quite invasive, depending on its species. In some parts of the United States, its use is regulated by local laws. So check with your municipal authority before planting running bamboo.
If you plant bamboo, you can control its invasiveness by sinking a solid barrier -- such as metal or high-density polyethylene sheeting -- 30 inches deep in the ground surrounding the planted area. An 8- to 10-inch-deep trench surrounding a bamboo planting is also effective if you check it regularly and remove all bamboo shoots that appear in it.
Selecting a Site and Planting
Picking the best spot for a new bamboo plant depends to some extent on your climate and the bamboo variety that suits your needs.
Sun vs. Shade
Some bamboo plants do best in partial to full shade, performing well in areas under tall trees that provide shifting shade during the day or near a building that casts shade in the hotter afternoon hours. Fountain bamboo (Fargesia nitida) falls within this group, preferring afternoon shade. It's an upright, clumping plant with purple overtones and grows as a perennial in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 5 through 9. Yellow groove bamboo (Phyllostachys aureosulcata) is a running bamboo with showy, yellow grooves on its canes. It grows best in full sun and is perennial in USDA zones 4 through 9.
Timing and Spacing
The best time to plant bamboo depends where you live. If you are in a warm-winter area, you can plant bamboo any time during the year. If you live where winters are cold, plant during the growing season, from spring to early fall, so that the plant has time to send out new roots before winter arrives.
The correct spacing for new bamboo plants depends to some degree on their variety. For example, space black bamboo plants (Phyllostachys nigra) about 8 to 10 feet apart to allow them to spread and fill in the area. Black bamboo is a clumping type that is perennial in USDA zones 7 through 11 and becomes 10 feet tall and wide.
Bamboo does best in organically rich soil. So add 2 to 3 inches of compost to your planting site, mixing it into the soil well to a depth of at least 6 to 8 inches. Set each bamboo plant in a hole that will keep it at the same soil depth it was at in its nursery pot; ensure the hole is wider than the plant's root ball. Fill each planted hole with soil, tamping it down. Water the soil well to ensure no air is trapped around the roots.
Watering and Fertilizing
A bamboo plant needs regular moisture, especially during its first year in a garden. So provide extra water during dry spells, but let the soil dry slightly between waterings, never letting it stay soggy. Watering two or three times each week, or whenever the top 1 to 2 inches of soil is dry to the touch, is a good rule of thumb to use. Adding 2 to 3 inches of mulch on the soil surface under the plant helps conserve soil moisture, but keep the mulch a few inches from the plant's center to discourage fungal growth.
Bamboo needs regular fertilizing to thrive and does best when fed a high-nitrogen formula, such as 21-5-6 in granular form. Apply 2 pounds of this fertilizer for each 100 square feet of area planted with bamboo, scattering the fertilizer on the ground under each plant and watering it into the soil well. Feed bamboo that way twice yearly, once in early spring and again in midsummer.
Thinning and Pruning
Although a bamboo plant doesn't require regular pruning, its stems -- called culms -- can dry after several years and become what is considered unattractive. Thinning the plant by taking out some old culms each year also helps light reach younger culms, keeping the plant healthy. Cut off old culms at soil level in early spring, before the plant's new shoots appear to prevent damaging them. Use sharp shears or a pruning knife, wiping the tool's blade with rubbing alcohol before you begin and after each cut to prevent spreading plant diseases.