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Leonard Moorehead, the Urban Gardener: Bamboo Soars Upward

Saturday, May 12, 2018


Perhaps you enjoy coffee café style outdoors in a small space behind period buildings. Robust bamboo packs narrow raised planters, their gentle rustle conquers invisible city rumble just beyond. Sparrows are alert to half eaten croissants on white plates nearby small porcelain cups. The final sip foretells the future under dense bamboo shade. Can a city gardener create a peaceful zone amid old buildings, small spaces and coveted parking? A little apricot jam on the croissant, a nibble and dreams rise upward through dense bamboo shade. A bold sparrow is certain, a crumb has fallen a few hops onto the red bricks below. Snatch and flight upwards into the foliage is the essence of triumph. The auspices are good. Bamboo? 

Bamboo contains magic. Many succumb to the spells inanimate. No one can deny bamboo’s powers, tranquility is one aspect. Tall supple canes are alike yet not quite, rain and wind pause for bamboo, and snowfalls bend impossible tunnels. Delicate narrow green leaves absorb brutal July sunshine like no other and transform grounds beneath into redolent deep shade. Walk, stand, listen and bamboo responds. I found the perfect place.

A tall weathered cedar fence edges a cement city sidewalk. A duo of newer and ancient grafted wooden telephone poles mid-span is a riot of utility wires and street light.  Across the street and through generations of utility wires is a new and rather plain two story house. It could all go away with bamboo. Vanish is another bamboo power, a view becomes another when bamboo enters the picture. 

Gardeners guide nature. Bamboo is a giant species of grass. All grasses share characteristic needs and habits. Just as turf forms thick root systems in humus rich topsoil, bamboo has tenacious roots difficult to remove. Bamboo can be short or tall, reticulated or colored canes, black clumping types are dramatic winter features. Like turf, bamboo thrives in well drained, not wet soil exposed to as much sunshine as possible. Bamboo prospers with minimal care, Gardeners soon discover bamboo has an inordinate ability to accept countless bags of gathered fall and spring leaves and thrive. 

Bamboo is of generally clumping and runner types. All expand under favorable circumstances. Life is much easier for the gardener who prepares boundaries for bamboo. A 3’narrow trench parallel to the fence was lined with re-purposed 1” plywood wrapped in tarpaulin. A stone curb laid on top hides this impenetrable underground barrier. The curb evolved over time from found slate slabs, interesting stones found in landfills, pits and demolition sites. Contain bamboo, heap leaves beneath, and move into the garden. The first clutch of roots, hacked from a friend’s thicket and another from a Craigslist “help yourself to bamboo” ad and the journey began, 5 lonely canes kept vigil. The second year, nearly 30 canes and a few feet down the fence line. In five years, the bamboo has reached its 50’s maximum length, roots have reached the final barrier. 

Bamboo sprout season is a holiday on the May garden calendar. Gardeners are gentle with the delicate, edible shoots.  We lift off comic leafy hats bourn aloft by fast growing canes. Bamboo lives up to its reputation for rapid growth. The canes harden nearly as fast as growth. Quadrant branches form in intervals up the cane. Groom new and easily hand broken off branches to open and allow close passage beneath the overhang foliage. It is most pleasant to linger in thought beneath bamboo foliage during summer rains, a natural umbrella of narrow leaves funnels rainwater into fine mist. At night, the bamboo is Oberon’s Bower. 

Bamboo is master of its territory. No other plant can compete with bamboo’s roots and shade. The rewards are a lovely carpet of golden yellow leaves. The canes are visually pleasing at all times. Bamboo is green leaved except for a month before new growth begins. The leaves are easily raked and thrown under the canes. Canes culled from the patch offer endless supplies for long lasting stakes or trellis. Their use is confined only by the imagination. 

Apricot jam and croissants are always tasty. Strong coffee in small white cups adds zest to life. A lark of sparrows is noisy. They fly upwards upon crumbs and dreams alike. They burst into chatter and song where once there was none. Dream in your bamboo world, the auspices are good. 

Leonard Moorehead is a life-long gardener. He practices organic-bio/dynamic gardening techniques in a side lot surrounded by city neighborhoods in Providence RI. His adventures in composting, wood chips, manure, seaweed, hay and enormous amounts of leaves are minor distractions to the joy of cultivating the soil with flowers, herbs, vegetables, berries, and dwarf fruit trees.


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