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Odds are, you’ve come across lucky bamboo plants for sale at your local grocery or hardware store. They are usually sold in small vases of water or in pots full of smooth stones. While these plants can grow fairly well in these conditions, they are not actually bamboo. Sansevieria Boncel
Lucky bamboo, or Dracaena sanderiana, is actually more closely related to the lily than it is to true bamboo. With a weak, liquid fertilizer and indirect light, these bamboo lookalikes are able to spend their entire lives partially submerged in water.
Bamboo, on the other hand, cannot survive in these conditions. Bamboo rhizomes grow shallowly in nutritive soils and require constant oxygenation as well as a stable substrate that not only retains moisture, but also drains it effectively. While rocks may be relatively stable, they do not hold water for long and bamboo rhizomes cannot easily extract nutrients from them. Similarly, bamboo rhizomes are not able to extract oxygen from water and will drown if completely submerged.
If you’d like to grow real bamboo, indoors or outdoors, you’ll want to set yourself and your plants up for success. In this guide, we’ll talk about the soil conditions your bamboo plants need in order to thrive as well as introduce ways to achieve those conditions.
There are over 1,400 species of bamboo, and while they can require dramatically different temperatures and levels of sunlight to thrive, their soil preferences are pretty similar. Most commonly, a bamboo plant will prefer to grow in moist, nutrient-rich soils that drain well and do not allow water to accumulate. That being said, most species of bamboo are not overly picky about their overall soil composition as long as it has these basic characteristics.
©Legmiche, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons – License
If you want to give your new bamboo plants the best environment you can, it can be useful to first test your soil to determine its texture. A simple way to do this is to add a rock-free, half-cup scoop of soil into a quart jar and fill it with water. Then shake the jar vigorously and allow the contents to settle for a day or two. Once your test jar has settled, each major component of your soil should have separated out into distinct layers.
The finer clay particles will have settled at the top, followed by the silt, and then by sand which will have settled quickly to the bottom of the jar. By comparing the thicknesses of each of these layers, you will be able to determine which components make up the greatest proportion of your soil’s texture.
In the majority of cases, you will want to see layers that indicate that your soil is loamy. Loam is considered the ideal soil texture for most applications and is indicated by a clay, silt, and sand ratio of 1:2:2 (20%, 40%, 40%) respectively. This type of soil drains well due to its high sand content, but also performs well in terms of moisture and nutrient retention.
If the soil in your garden is too loose, containing large quantities of sand relative to those of clay, silt, and organic matter, you will want to amend it before planting your bamboo. After all, you can’t grow a healthy bamboo plant in rocks and sand alone.
While your garden is surely adequate already in terms of drainage, it probably also lacks the nutritional value your bamboo plants need to thrive. Turning organic matter like mature compost or well-rotted manure into your soil will help give it structure and improve its ability to retain moisture. This can also introduce soil microbes that will help break down nutrients into forms that are useful to your plants.
Garden beds inundated with heavy clay soils tend to contain plenty of minerals, but lack the structure and drainage necessary for healthy bamboo growth. Because clay particles are small and flat, they are very easy to compact when moist. This trait also causes clay soils to perform poorly in terms of drainage as moisture is not able to move easily between the small particles. Oftentimes, pooling becomes an issue in this type of soil.
Like overly sandy soil, this type can be amended in the garden setting by the addition of organic matter. Introducing compost and well-rotted animal manure into your soil will help break up the tiny clay particles and allow moisture and oxygen to better penetrate the soil. Organic matter can be incorporated into clay soil in the short term, but no-till gardening is the way to go in terms of long-term soil health and structure.
Adding a layer of mulch, like straw, leaves, or aged wood chips, will help prevent erosion and will help foster communities of aerobic microbes that are vital to the health of your bamboo plants.
When amending heavy clay soils, it would seem intuitive to add sand as well. However, the addition of sand to clay soils in practical amounts actually worsens drainage, creating a thick, hard material that behaves similarly to concrete.
Because silt particles are smaller than sand, but just slightly larger than clay particles, silty soils behave in similar ways to those with high clay content. They generally contain more than adequate amounts of nutrients and minerals, and they do a great job of retaining water.
Unfortunately, while they share the positive traits of clay soils, they are also susceptible to issues with drainage and oxygenation. The addition of spongy organic matter is the solution to improving this type of soil as well. As with clay soils, you should avoid adding sand to the mix when amending. You’ve just gone through all the trouble to avoid growing a bamboo plant in rocks, why plant it in concrete?
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