Build a Bamboo Barrier

You’ll need to go underground to keep bamboo from invading your backyard.

by Dani Yokhna



Bamboo is nice to look at, but it can be aggressive and take over your garden.

A grove of bamboo might be one of the most beautiful looking — and most beautiful sounding — forms of plant life. I’m certain that bamboo thinks so, too. Bamboo is so enamored with itself that it can hardly contain its enthusiasm. If bamboo is celebrating itself today in your neighbor’s garden, just think of the party it will throw after it crosses the invisible property line into your garden tomorrow. 

I suspect that people who sell bamboo plants share that enthusiasm. Like Dr. Frankenstein, they probably also have a soft spot for their creature’s flaws. This soft spot extends to the names used to classify bamboo as “running” bamboo versus “clumping” bamboo. Having seen acres of the latter ripped out of gardens, the more accurate names might be running bamboo versus “running in slow motion” bamboo. Sadly, many bamboo buyers have allowed the term “clumping” to lure them into believing that the bamboo knew when to stop growing. But even the clumping bamboo’s enthusiasm is boundless — eventually. 

There are places for bamboo, even if your garden is smaller than an estate. Planting it in the center of a circular driveway can be lovely; a 12-foot-wide moat of concrete is only 6 inches deep, but it’s wide enough to keep bamboo corralled. Planting the bamboo in a big pot set aboveground (so the roots can’t pass through the drainage hole and into the ground) will work. Bamboo also doesn’t like to cross water, so creeks and lakeshores are effective barriers, as well. 

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For a gardener whose neighbor has bamboo along a shared property line — such as myself — the only option is to go underground and install a root barrier. You can purchase root barriers and learn to install them on Lewis Bamboo’s website, a second-generation bamboo nursery.

To keep my neighbor’s bamboo out of our gardens, I rented a mobile trenching machine known as a Ditch Witch so that I could cut a 20-inch-deep trench as close as possible to the chain-link fence along our property line. I bought a roll of 24-inch-wide, 60-millimeter-thick, heavy-duty, plastic root barrier from a bamboo nursery. With the help of a couple of friends, I set the barrier in place and back-filled the trench.

A successful barrier requires two points of nuance: 

  1. If the barrier is perfectly vertical or if the bottom leans away, the bamboo roots will hit the barrier and go down until they can get under and past it. You want the top of the barrier to lean away from the bamboo so that the roots will go up once they hit the barrier. 
  2. The top edge of the barrier needs to be above ground by about 4 inches. If the barrier is too close to the soil’s surface, the roots can stay hidden as they cross over the top and attack your garden. If the root tries to cross the 4-inch-high barrier, it’s easy to see and cut it off. If it’s an edible variety, you’ll be able to contain the roots and eat the shoots each spring.

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