Friday, April 25, 2008


There's a lot of bamboo around in these parts. Who it belongs to I couldn't say, nor could most people but the owner probably. And judging by the way most bamboo is left unmanaged, it's probably safe to say that the owner doesn't care either. (I've only ever seen one small managed grove, and it was very beautiful in its way.) An elderly lady that I used to do Tai-Chi with kept begging me to go and chop down her bamboo, but I didn't have the time, nor the means to do anything useful with it since her hill was too far from our house for me to carry it.

This means that you can pretty much go into any bamboo grove in your neighbourhood and harvest what you need. But a little bit of know-how is good. So are the right tools.

I have a folding pocket saw, a bill-hook and some forged scissors. These are the essentials. I also have a splitter which is only useful if you need regularly sized slats of bamboo. You can cut down even the biggest bamboo culm with either the saw or the bill-hook in a few minutes, but the saw is neater. The bill-hook is very useful for smashing dry dead culms which get in the way of harvesting and new growth. The scissors are for cutting off the little branches. They must be solid, forged scissors because the ones with pressed handles just deform like wax in your hand on about the third little branch.

So which culms to harvest? This picture shows my local grove of moso bamboo. Moso has big, heavy culms that taper gradually over their whole length. The internodes have what appears as a single line (the other main species in Japan have double lines). The culm walls are generally thick.

This artful shot shows a selection of culms of different ages. Basically anything that's brown is dead and should be cut down ideally. The dead ones in this photo look too far gone to be useful and could just be broken up and stacked tidily on the ground. The culms to harvest are the light, grey-green ones with the black joints. This is oxidized wax which indicates a mature culm. Avoid cutting the dark green culms with white joints. Cutting just above the joint is best so that the stump doesn't become a home to mosquito larvae.

This is a very messy stand of madake (I think). Madake has culms that are straight along most of their length, and double lines at the internode. The culms don't generally get very big and heavy, and the walls are quite thin.

The uses of bamboo in the cheapskate's garden are seemingly endless. They are very good as supports for climbing plants and stakes for weak free-standing plants. Here small branches support peas. I just stuck more branches in as needed.

This is the whole top of a bamboo culm with its branches left on, stuck in the ground for Okinawan goya to grow up. This worked very well last year. Again, more branches can be added as the plant begins to spread out.

Small branches are stuck in to form an X that stops this aubergine getting blown over. When it gets bigger, I'll make a truss of long, straight madake sticks to train the branches along so that the aubergines don't lie on the ground.

When the timber offcuts from building the house run out for making bed borders, I'll start using bamboo again as I used to. Even with the timber, the stakes used to fix them in place are pointed slats of moso, banged in with a little sledgehammer.

Bamboo can be used for fences, tied together with black string. Done skilfully they can be very attractive. Done with little skill, they can look backwoods and ratty.

This ratty fence prevents people trying to turn their cars around on my fig trees, and the little cages stop dogs from standing on them (mostly beagle/terrier mixes).

Ehime Prefecture has a Program to Promote Cyclical Use of Bamboo Resources (woot!) which has just been updated. They have an ambitious looking set of proposals, and they also have a PDF brochure with some useful information about bamboo in the Prefecture, and how to cyclically use it by, well, cutting it down.

I have a couple of books about bamboo. One is Building Bamboo Fences by Isao Yoshikawa. This is a charming book, with beautiful photos and drawings. It makes fence building look really easy, but having tried it, I can assure you that it isn't. Yoshikawa's book doesn't include photos of people with horrible facial injuries, but this is one of the risks involved. Hint: When using a splitter, keep your face well clear of everything. However, the book inspired me to build a fence, however backwoodsy, and to try making other useful things, and when I become more adept, I still hope to make a beautiful kenninji-gaki.

The other one is The Book of Bamboo - A Comprehensive Guide to this Remarkable Plant, It's Uses and It's History by David Farrelly. This book is actually quite annoying. The author attempts a poetic sort of prose, and he seems to believe that bamboo = Zen or some such nonsense, and Oriental = environmentally harmonious. And while the book does cover a lot of interesting information, each practical item is so barely touched upon (compared to the crap about the 'Tao' of bamboo) that it's scarcely worthwhile at all. But it does have some slight value nevertheless.

The Farrelly book mentions bamboo beehives, although typically, it doesn't have any useful information about them, nor any pictures. So I looked on the Web and found this PDF which has a description and images. This is so simple it must be worth trying.

Another thing I want to try is making bamboo charcoal. I don't want to be the only one in my neighbourhood who doesn't issue clouds of smoke.


Damian said...

It rains a lot 'round my parts and everyone has told me I need a rain shelter for my tomatoes. Looking at the local shop I could buy lots of poles and parts. It seemed like a big fuss and expense for a pile of junk. So instead I made a head high A-frame tent for my tomatoes using bamboo, weighted down with Mafia cement (stone) boots and guy ropes.

Unfortunately the wonder-stick doesn't grow in abundance here so I used the lengths that I had bought for another use in winter. Best part about it is that bamboo just keeps on keeping on and will be good for its winter use again once these pesky tomatoes are gone and the snow returns.

Rod said...

I inherited a load of those green plastic coated Chinese rust sticks from the neighbour of my mother-in-law, but I generally find it more convenient to reach for one of the legacy bamboo canes from last year. They go into the ground better and the lugs on them are more convenient. The twiggier bits are also very useful. I believe that 3-4 years is about the service life of bamboo, which is not that different from the boughten canes.

I might try covering my toms this year as they do tend to get split by the rain (not that that matters much if they're headed into a ratatouille anyway).

There's been rain nearly every week so far since the start of spring which is very convenient in some ways. But there's a downside as ever - slugs. The little bastards are everywhere.

Damian said...

Get a duck.