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The Bamboo that Ate Tacoma

June 17, 2010

I’ve been trying to interest a Japanese film production company in the idea of shooting an epic sci-fi series in our front yard. It would follow in the same the genre as The Turtle that Ate Osaka. I can only think that The Bamboo that Ate Tacoma would be a blockbuster suburban epic. It has certainly been the driving force of our yard life this summer.

When we first put in our young bamboo plants, they looked like little Charlie Brown Christmas trees. Within a couple of years, we had a nice hedge about four feet high. Now, a couple of years later, we have a tall, dense thicket: beautiful, but more of a potential big-screen thriller than the natural screen we originally intended.

We were originally given to believe that bamboo will not jump a concrete border, and our lawn has a concrete border that we assumed would contain the bamboo. The border, one of those silly curvilinear decorative touches designed, I suppose, to make the lawn like a pool, was put in by the builder. The only actual use I can imagine for such a border is to add sweeping duty to mowing duty.

If you decide to plant a living screen of bamboo — and it is a beautiful way to screen your windows from the street, and vice versa — and you visit one of those serene bamboo nurseries run by a slightly touched Vietnam vet who’s into bamboo and Buddhist statuary and New Age music, and he tells you that bamboo never jumps a concrete barrier, smile carefully — don’t show teeth — and buy the 40 mil barrier anyway.

Rent a trencher and install the barrier around all your precious baby bamboos. Then you will have a lovely screen where you want it, and you will not have, a few years later, 18-inch or taller spikes shooting up overnight in the midst of your cedars and rhododendrons, and at the edge of the sidewalk, waiting to impale a passerby who stops to tie his shoe. Had we installed barriers initially, we would not now be cutting out a sophisticated system of rhizomes nearly two feet below the earth, cutting down case-hardened bamboo that is on the march toward our very house, and feeling generally dumb because we believed a salesman.

A few years ago, my neighbor came over when the bamboo was barely up to mid-window height. She shook her knobby arthritic knuckles at me and demanded to know, “What happened to your lawn?” Our lawn was some sort of neighborhood legacy, and it was always properly kept, until we moved in. I smiled at her pleasantly, and replied, “I just got tired of looking at your house, Eileen.”

I had no idea how controversial bamboo was until another neighbor informed me that she was teaching her homeschool cooperative about bamboo: what it was, where it grows (“normally“), what people use it for, and why people grow it. Since she hadn’t come to me for information, I didn’t ask her any questions about the substance of her curriculum. People have a way of striking up antagonistic discussions by alluding to things obliquely.

My husband and I have never cared for the de rigueur American lawn look. We find bamboo beautiful, in sunlight, twilight, or sparkling in rain or snow. It bends gracefully in the wind, and birds love to flit between its branches. It provides privacy from the street, and an aesthetic diversion from the triteness of mid-century middle-class architecture. It also screens your remaining lawn so you don’t need to keep up with your lawn-obsessed neighbors.

In a world where such things as lawns and curious neighbors are likely to prevail, bamboo provides consolation.

  1. Janet permalink
    June 17, 2010 5:35 pm


    All you need is a giant panda.

  2. June 17, 2010 6:31 pm

    Janet, you’re on to my plan! I was going to start a panda refuge.

  3. June 23, 2010 2:28 pm

    I am now trying to convince my mom to install some bamboo into our english-esque backyard… Perhaps to provide some multiculturalism.
    I’m quite impressed that you spelled “de rigueur” correctly. Generally, I end up calling on my dictionary for that one.

  4. June 23, 2010 3:18 pm

    I don’t type, Emilie, and I’m always impressed that my voice-recognition software knows how to spell these things — and, I see, even your name!

  5. Michael Justice permalink
    June 25, 2010 10:28 pm

    Much as I love bamboo, I learned that planting it was thought an act of war by some. The only higher threat was considering the planting of kudzu.

    I wish you well in your containment efforts, Lauren, and remember, aqua regia will dissolve anything.

  6. June 26, 2010 7:25 am

    Thanks, amigo. But don’t you have a patented solution yet??

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