Bamboo: Serious Border Patrol - 27 East


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Bamboo: Serious Border Patrol

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Artist Joe Zucker with a gypsum plaster project of his eyes in his studio in East Hampton.

Artist Joe Zucker with a gypsum plaster project of his eyes in his studio in East Hampton.






author on Mar 4, 2012

When Lynch’s Garden Center customers approach manager Pam Healey in search of bamboo, she always asks whether they’re on good terms with their neighbors.

And when clients come to landscape designer Geoffrey Nimmer’s East End Garden Designs and request the Asian plant on their properties, he almost always turns them down.

Both Ms. Healey, who runs the Southampton-based gardening center, and Mr. Nimmer, whose business is located in East Hampton, have their reasons for treading cautiously around the infamously aggressive bamboo species. They’ve both seen their fair share of disasters in the Hamptons.

“I say, ‘I don’t want to plant it because it’s an invasive species and it’s very hard to control,’” Mr. Nimmer said, relaying a typical conversation with a client during a recent telephone interview. “Even if they say they’ll put a barrier up, it goes over the barrier, it goes under the barrier. If it can’t travel one way, it will travel another way. I have some growing into my client’s property from a neighbor. He controlled it on his side and not on the other side—an ongoing problem.”

Bamboo is an issue that has climbed its way out of local backyards and onto the discussion tables of two East End village boards—Sag Harbor and East Hampton. Last year, board members debated over whether bamboo is a beautiful border or a downright invasive species that should be slapped with regulations, or even banned.

In October, some Sag Harbor residents and officials were at odds over whether the village needed to take legislative steps to put controls on planting bamboo on resi-

dential properties in the village. The municipality was considering imposing a setback and requiring homeowners to take steps to keep the plant on their properties, or risk being forced to pay for damage it might cause on neighboring lots.

That same month, East Hampton floated the idea that a complete ban of bamboo be added to the village code. Under that scenario, bamboo could not be planted, maintained or permitted to exist by property owners or tenants.

The East Hampton Village Board put the ban on hold in November, and the topic hasn’t had any movement in Sag Harbor. But the same can’t be said to the west. Last month, Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Kathy Walsh proposed a local law that would ban residents from planting invasive bamboo in their yards and regulate existing bamboo. A public hearing is set for this month.

Dr. Mark Bridgen, director of Cornell University’s Long Island Horticultural Research & Extension Center in Riverhead, said he isn’t surprised that local municipalities want to take action, but doesn’t necessarily agree with it.

“Personally, I think it is crazy to put regulations on growing bamboo,” Dr. Bridgen wrote in an email last month. “There are many bamboo plants that are not invasive and they are quite valuable as ornamental plants.”

In fact, Dr. Bridgen has planted bamboo on his own property—but it’s of the clumping variety and only about 4 feet tall, he explained during a subsequent telephone interview. There are major differences between clumping species and running species, which can grow more than 70 feet high and are known to be invasive, he said.

“More people are aware of the invasive bamboo because they’ve been around longer,” Dr. Bridgen reported. “People started using them as barriers between properties. They do get thick. I’ve seen them on Long Island where they’re so thick you can’t even get through them. I’d be willing to bet that people don’t even know there’s clumping forms of bamboo that are not invasive and are just attractive.”

Bamboos, in general, are perennial plants in the grass family and are very hardy on Long Island, Dr. Bridgen said. Once they’re established, they’re extremely hard to get rid of, he added.

The plants spread by shooting out underground stems called “rhizomes,” not by seeds. A stem grows out and sends a new culm, or stem, up, Dr. Bridgen said. Clumping bamboos stay in groups, sending out rhizomes just a few inches per year. Invasive bamboo rhizomes can grow 3 to 5 feet in any direction per season, running as far as 15 feet in any direction, Mr. Nimmer said.

“I think that there is almost no place that running bamboo should be used,” the landscape designer said. “I think it’s an invasive plant and it’s going to cause more problems as people keep using it. If you keep it at the edge of a lawn where you’re mowing regularly, you can sort of keep it contained that way. The shoots only come up during the month of June. If they’re mowed down, they won’t spread into the lawn. But if you miss a couple weeks, then you will have it.”

Not only are running bamboos aggressive, but they’re extremely strong growers, Dr. Bridgen said. Controlling them is a challenge, he said.

“It’s very tough,” he laughed. “If you don’t want to use a chemical, you physically have to dig it out. And I’m not talking with a shovel—an axe. If you don’t mind using herbicides, you can spray it. It takes multiple applications to kill this plant because it’s so strong. Another issue, let’s say it’s invading your property and you use herbicide, it will spread in the plant and possibly kill your neighbor’s plants, too. That’s where you have to have to have good neighbors and communicate.”

Or only plant it on secluded properties devoid of neighbors, Ms. Healey pointed out. That’s what she does at home on her 2 acres in Water Mill, where she has both clumping and invasive bamboos running rampant, she said.

Though bamboo is most often used in lieu of shrubs or a fence, Ms. Healey said she rarely mentions it to those customers looking for a screening material.

“We’d generally recommend arborvitaes, but there’s a lot of deer, so we move into things like Leyland cypress and cryptomeria,” she said. “But people who want bamboo come in looking for bamboo. A lot of people bring them to the city and put them on their terraces in boxes. And they’re like, ‘I don’t care if it runs.’”

Bamboo can get expensive, Ms. Healey said. A 5-gallon, 14-inch-across container of running bamboo typically costs between $80 and $100. Clumping bamboos are sold in 2- or 3-gallon containers, which run 10 and 12 inches across respectively, and cost around $60, she said.

The store also sells plastic bamboo root barriers that can help keep the plant in check, she said. They reach 18 or 24 inches in depth, costing $13 and $19 respectively, but a 20-foot-long planting requires at least a dozen barriers, which interlock, she said.

“I personally think it’s a beautiful plant, but I’m forewarned,” she said. “I know what I’m talking about. But I definitely do tell people it’s going to spread.”

Lynch’s saleswoman Donna MacWhinnie added, “I think that people want it not so much for screening but because it is so pretty. You don’t really think about what could happen with it. Or they really don’t care.”

That is the crux of the bamboo epidemic on the East End: ignorance or, even worse, indifference, Dr. Bridgen said.

“Many times, these issues are ‘people management’ issues and not plant regulation issues,” Dr. Bridgen wrote.

Over the phone, he clarified: “With the invasive plants issue, not just with bamboo, we’ve been finding them in state parks. In particular, on the edges of them,” he said. “People have cleaned out their gardens and dump them on the edge, and what happens is those plants just spread. With bamboo, you need to educate people that these are aggressive plants and maybe they should evaluate the site where people should plant them. Have knowledge of what’s going to happen if you plant bamboo in certain locations. Instead of banning it, maybe towns ought to have regulations on what to do if it spreads. I’m not a politician, but maybe that’s another way.”

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