This 101 on harvesting, curing, and using bamboo comes from HOMEGROWN all-star Christa, a Pennsylvania gal who knows a thing or two about using what’s on hand—and pretty much all other topics homesteading-related. This 101 started out as a blog post back in 2010. Since then Christa has expanded her bamboo repertoire; details below. Thanks so much, Christa—and please keep the good ideas coming!
The idea of using bamboo in the garden first came to me a couple of years back. I was thinking about growing beans, which led me to thinking about needing a trellis for my beans, which led me to thinking about the bamboo grove next to the house . . .
"Heck,” I realized. “I'll just make a trellis from the bamboo!"
Bamboo is something found all over the United States, often in abundance, and is a useful building and craft material. Many folks have it in their backyards, or you can often find growing in abandoned fields and other forgotten places where, more than likely, no one would mind if you cleared some out for them.
First I selected the bamboo plants to harvest. I chose the larger, straighter ones that tapered off in width toward the top, meaning I would have different sizes to work with.
I started out using an old bucksaw to cut down the plants, but I’ve since ditched that—and any type of saw, actually—in favor of large pruning clips, which save a lot of time over sawing.
After cutting down the plants, you’ll want to trim the branches. Pruning clips are perfect here, too. I decided to save the branches to use in my trellis (see below), but you could throw them in a mulcher and make use of them that way.
I then cut the poles into more manageable pieces, about 4 feet each or so in length. There's no reason why you couldn't keep them long and cut them to length later, as needed for a given project.
The next step in preparing your bamboo is to cure it. There are several ways to do this, and there are pros and cons to each. One way is to use heat (more on that shortly), but honestly, even with what I've been reading about the benefits of this method, it’s kind of a hassle using the grill.
If you have the space and time, it's much easier to cure large amounts of bamboo in a dry location, rather than going to the trouble of using heat. I have lumber racks hanging from the ceiling in my basement where I now store the cut bamboo for up to a year before using it.
If, however, you don’t have a year to wait (or the patience to wait for it), heat will work. Ideally, you would use an acetylene torch, but it's also possible to use a gas grill, as I did.
I removed the racks from the grill, turned the heat to to high, and began heating the bamboo. Make sure to wear gloves, as the bamboo gets very hot.
As you heat the bamboo, you will see the wood start to change color, and visible resin will rise to the surface. The resin is very valuable to the curing process, as it seals and strengthens the bamboo. Using an old rag, rub the resin into the heated sections of the pole as it accumulates.
As it cures, the heated bamboo will change color from a deep green to a more of a flat mint. When the pole has reached this lighter color, set it aside to cool. When it’s cool enough to handle, use any kind of long, pointy thing to poke out holes in the inner membranes. This will help hasten the drying time.
1. Bean trellis. After you cure your bamboo, the rest is up to you and your imagination. You can find all sorts of DIY info online about different projects. As I mentioned earlier, my plan was to make a bean trellis. The first thing I did was to create a simple tripod out of three poles and attach them together by wrapping them with wire.
Then I collected those long, straight branches that I had trimmed off of the poles. I removed the smallest branches and leaves then positioned the branches horizontally and tied them to the tripod using twine.
You’ll want to do this for as many levels as you think you need for your trellis. And voilà! It’s done!
2. Goats. In the last couple of years, I have added goats to the homestead, and bamboo is a great food supplement for goats. They love it! I just cut a few bamboo trees down, toss them over the fence, and the goats strip all of the leaves off.
3. Trade. Cured bamboo has value for sale and bartering. I have sold trailers full of bamboo posts, and I have bartered with a local nursery that uses the bamboo for trellising and other projects.
4. Tool handles, like the replacement handle I made for my rake.
5. Protection. I made the netting cover supported by a bamboo frame in the photo (middle right) to keep the ducks and chickens out of the strawberries.
6. Fencing for garden beds, as in the photo at right.
7. Flutes! Yep, flutes (below). Pretty neat, huh?
How have you used your bamboo? Post a comment below and we’ll add it to the 101. Got a question for Christa? Post that, too, and keep the conversation rolling. You might also be interested in browsing more of Christa's photos or perusing 101s on gardening with seaweed, garden tool care, and raised bed gardening. And you can always find more things to plant, grow, cook, preserve, make, craft, and cure in the HOMEGROWN 101 library.
ALL PHOTOS: CHRISTA NELSON
Great 101 Christa. I'd be interested in what variety of bamboo you are planting/harvesting. I am in zone 6a, SW Michigan USA, which may be similar to you in the commonwealth of PA. I am interested in growing bamboo for project material and privacy hedgerow. Any advice would be appreciated.
Wonderful 101 : For me, bamboo has been a miracle material - free and most people don't mind sharing their supply.
I work with students at two middle schools and used bamboo to finish an existing chain link fence. The students were pretty enthusiastic about constructing this and helping to keep the garden secure against deer, and deterring unwelcomed guests.
We also used bamboo to construct a teepee structure to grow beans and other trellising plants. With this we did not see much success. The Morning Glories LOVE the teepee; everything else needed more poles/things to grab onto. So my suggestion for others on this project would be to use twine to create more structure or use smaller bamboo poles either around horizontally or vertically.
As for growing your own, once bamboo starts, it's hard to control. Remember, it's an invasive species. Like I mentioned before, the good news is that once you know what the groves look like you'll start seeing it everywhere AND most people will be happy to share!
Emily: Do you think you'll try the tipi again with more twine/horizontal supports? Seems like such a great idea; would be great if you could get it to work. Thanks for sharing the pics!
Jennifer, I hope to have some of the same students who originally constructed the Teepee devise a better trellis system. I think I will give them twine, wire, and some thinner bamboo pieces and leave them to their own devices. One of the major benefits of teaching students with at-home-farming education/experience is that they often have experience mending fences and can teach others about wire-working - giving them a confidence boost (and they are able to do some of the wire-working far more securely than I could ever imagine being able to do myself.)
Emily: How cool that the learning goes both ways! You'll have to keep us posted on how the beta version turns out.
My neighbor is from Japan and her family are farmers she had a nice small grove going in the back yard but eventually had to remove it as it had "escaped" its bunker. However I planted a bit for a few years and it also escaped (50 ft. into my neighbors yard) however she said that when growing bamboo and you want to use it, always cut the canes that are over three years old. She said that one a new cane comes up it helps nourish and feed the plant immensely for the first three years, then drops off significantly and becomes more woody.
Also when putting in a new planting it takes 3 to 5 years for the canes to reach their full size. The first year you typically get pencil sized stalks about 5 ft. in height and every year the new ones will come up thinker and taller until it reaches full size and height.
If for whatever fluke of a reason your bamboo grove should "flower" it will probably kill the whole grove..some species only flower every 100 years or more and it is poorly understood the conditions that cause a grove to flower. There are quite a few species of bamboo that are cold hardy. Pennsylvania considers it an non-native, invasive species of plant for conservation purposes.
I recently moved in to a new house and fortunately found a place within a few miles that has wild growing bamboo so I can harvest without worrying about it taking over my yard.
This was a last minute project so I didn't have time to cure anything but I think it'll work just fine for now.
It's a bird screen cage to keep those wascally birds away from my precious blueberries. I used my existing chain link fence for the structural support and wire tied the bird wire fencing, perpendicular to the top rail of the fence in long strips that will arch over the blueberries and down to a bottom bamboo rail. After tying the strips of fencing to the bottom rail, I slid in another bamboo strip above the bottom rail and added a connecter between the two forming an I with a really wide top and bottom. The bamboo pole sticking up out of the ground in front of it keeps it propped up when tending the plants.
If/When I'll have to make it again, I think I'll start by making a bamboo frame first, and fitting the wire around it. This way works fine and is super light, but it's a bit too flimsy for my taste.
What a good idea! Have you used bamboo for any other projects?