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"The most useful service we can render a culture is to add a new plant to its agriculture."
– Thomas Jefferson
(Click here for bamboo taxonomy)
Please check out my new feature article, "Can Do Bamboo", at Mother Earth News!
Bamboo has potential to increase profits substantially on farms in USDA Zones 7 and 8. Fresh bamboo shoots are a succulent vegetable commanding high farmgate prices. The United States imports 30,000 tons of canned bamboo shoots every year. Fresh ones taste better than canned ones. They are not available. Bamboo is harvested for bamboo shoots every spring. Bamboo poles are harvested every winter. The leafy tops are relished by livestock who grow strong on the 18% protein and 4% fat in the leaves.
Grasses are very successful, efficient plants. There are more than 5,000 species of grass in the grass family, gramineae. Bamboos are the woody tribe within the grass family. Bamboos are successful and efficient like the rest of the grasses.
There are 1350 species of bamboo. Bamboos convert sunlight, carbon dioxide and water into wood very efficiently. Bamboo grows wood faster and more sustainably than trees. Bamboo should be harvested for food and for wood annually for best yields – like hay. After harvest no replanting (no reforestation) is needed. Bamboo wood fiber is the ultimate renewable resource. Private citizens introduced bamboo into the United States as an ornamental plant beginning in the late 1800's. The United States Department of Agriculture began introducing and researching bamboo as a new farm crop around 1919. Although the Department continued these activities off and on for 50 years, farmers and the general public remained unaware of bamboo's potential as a profitable farm crop. In 1979 Richard Haubrich formed the American Bamboo Society in Southern California. Since 1980 introductions of bamboo have occurred mainly through the American Bamboo Society using their quarantine greenhouses.
Public awareness in the United States of the role bamboo can play as a farm crop and for bioremediation began with the Pacific Northwest Bamboo Agro-forestry Workshop in 1994. Gib Cooper of Tradewinds Bamboo Nursery in Gold Beach, Oregon, conceived of and carried out this important event. "Proceedings" are available through Tradewinds Bamboo Nursery 541-247-0160 ; 247-0835; http://www.harborside.com/bamboo/. Awareness of bamboo, especially among the scientists and teachers in County Extension, Soil Conservation, and Ag colleges, increased dramatically when Tradewinds joined with Carol Miles, Ph.D., Washington State University Cooperative Extension, firstname.lastname@example.org, to put on the Second Bamboo Agroforestry workshop in June of 1997. Since 1994 County Extension agents, agronomists, and bioremediation engineers have begun investigating bamboo.
Weather Affects Yield of Bamboo Shoots
In the 1960's Maxwell Canterbury planted 6 starts of bamboo on the north side of his driveway. In time the bamboo, Phyllostachys nigra henon, grew together to form a thick hedge. In the 1970's Maxwell dug starts from this hedge and planted a new hedge on his north property line. He intended to hide the new houses being built there. In the year 2000, we can not see the houses next door.
In 1995 I decided to introduce bamboo to farmers in the United States as a new and profitable crop. I do not own land so I asked Maxwell Canterbury if I could use his groves to generate data. I needed to find out how much income a bamboo grove could generate. How many pounds of bamboo shoots could a farm grove produce per acre per year? Max and I began thinning his groves in the summer of 1995. I harvested bamboo shoots for the first time in May, 1996 and sold them to Charlie's Produce, a produce distributor, in Seattle, Washington. In 1996 and 1997 we finished thinning the Driveway Grove. Thinning took several years because Max had to get used to the look of an open grove. He was used to a crowded hedge and had loved it that way for 30 years. Now that the Grove is open, Max thinks it looks beautiful. By 1998 the Driveway Grove was open enough to allow for easy access for harvesting.
The Driveway Grove covers 750 square feet of ground. Today, July 30, I went to the Grove to count its culms. It was time to be more scientific about how I manage the grove. The Driveway Grove has 160 culms. See Graph Number One. Dividing 750 square feet by 160 culms means each culm has about 5 square feet of space. This figure is misleading because the culms are more closely spaced than the arithmetic suggests. The culms cluster towards the top of the slope in order to keep the path at the bottom clear from leaners. The closer spacing is OK because the grove is long and thin and runs east to west. There is a great deal of light penetration from the South.
Graph One shows me that I have too many culms in the 1, 1.25 and 1.5 inch range. It also shows me that half the culms that came up in 2000 are two inches and over, whereas most of the older culms are in the 1.5 to 1.75 range. I harvested all the smaller shoots.
My goal is to manage the grove such that the smallest culms are 2 inches and the largest are 3 and 4 inches. I want to cut and get rid of the 1, 1.25 and 1.5 inch culms as soon as I can. To accomplish this I will thin some smaller culms this fall and then again a month before shooting next spring in 2001. To promote more and bigger shoots next year, Maxwell who is in his late 80's, gathers grass clippings from his neighbor and each week spreads a garden cart of grass clippings as mulch into the grove. On July 2 I spread 25 pounds of Lime and 40 pounds of 16-16-16 over both groves. Then I remembered that inorganic fertilizer kills mycorrhizal fungi. Both groves have good populations of fungi according to tests by Soil Food Web in Corvallis, Oregon. On July 16 I spread 50 pounds of organic fertilizer. I purchased Whitney Farms Lawn Food with Iron 6-3-2. It is made of dried poultry waste, blood meal, feather meal, bone meal, sun flower hull ash and iron sulfate. We do not water the grove. It survives on the small amount of rainfall we get in summer in Seattle.
Bamboo Shoot Yield, both groves 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000
lbs. harvested 98 136 165 97 73
lbs./1000 sq. ft. 49 68 82.5 48.5 36.5
lbs./acre 2100 2950 3590 2100 1590
For years Max allowed people to dig clumps of bamboo from the North Grove. The result is that the North Grove has bare patches that are slowly filling in. I do not know why the Grove has filled back in slowly. The North Grove has smaller culms than the Driveway Grove. Many of these culms grow in clusters. As larger shoots have come up in these clusters, I have removed the small culms to give space for the new larger culms. By 2001 I believe the North Grove will resemble the Driveway Grove in size of culms and open spacing. In 1999 I thinned the North Grove considerably and again in 2000. The task is not yet complete.
When I began renovating the two groves at Canterbury's, I thought I knew how to do it.
1. Select the best canes. Remove the poor ones: leaners, undersized, half dead, all dead, etc. 2. Thin the canes enough so that each remaining cane has space to receive light on its leaves.
3. Fertilize: before shooting to promote shooting, after shooting to promote rhizome growth, and in fall because that's what the experts say.
4. Mulch after shooting.
5.Water in summer.
Max and I did not water or mulch. We fertilized a very small amount. We thinned the Driveway Grove but only partially thinned the North Grove. By 1998 I had three years of data. Each harvest was greater than the year before. The Driveway Grove was increasing in yield dramatically each year. I had thinned it. The North Grove was increasing just a little. I had barely begun to thin it. So! Clearly my thinning was having a positive effect on the yield of the Groves.
In 1999 spring was cold. Harvest did not start until June 9, three weeks late! I harvested 97 pounds of fresh bamboo shoots compared to 98 pounds in 1996, 136 in 97 and 165 pounds in 1998.. My reaction was "Oh my poor groves. I have harvested them for three years without fertilizing them! I have starved them." So in summer of 1999 Max and I spread manure and fertilizer. Unfortunately, great scientist that I am, I have lost my data for 1999. I think what we did was small compared to what we should have done. I continued thinning the North Grove.
The harvest in 2000 was the smallest ever! It was 25 per cent less than my first harvest year in 1996 and my fourth harvest year in 1999!. My reaction was, "I can't be doing everything wrong. When harvests were good I took credit and proclaimed how important thinning a grove is to increase yield. Now that harvests have been bad for two years in a row, I will look around for factors other than management. I don't want to take the blame, just the credit." Since spring had been cold in 1999 and 2000 and harvest had begun late, I decided to take a look at the influence of temperature on yield. What I found surprised me.
The Driveway Grove shoots before the North Grove. It is on a slope so its soil is drier and warms up sooner. The east end of the Driveway Grove shoots before the rest of the Grove. The east end receives early morning sun and continuous sun throughout the day. I placed four thermometers in the soil in the two groves. two in cool shady spots and two in warmer spots closer to the sunny edge. Usually there is no shooting while soil temperatures are in the 50's. As soon as the thermometer reads 60 degrees F shooting begins. Nothing at 59°F and serious shooting at 60°F. In 2000 I did not read a temp above 60°F because I always harvest in the early morning. I removed the thermometers on the last day of harvest.
In Graph Two there is a straight line indicating 60°F. Notice that in the years 1999 and 2000 the mean daily temperature was below 60°F for the months of April, May AND June. (I averaged only the days of June when harvest occurred. Temperatures after harvest are not relevant.) The soil has difficulty raising its temperature to 60 degrees unless the air is warmer than 60 degrees. April had mean daily temperatures in the 50's for all five years so I am thinking that the temperatures of April are less predictive than those of May and June. However it is interesting that in 1999 and 2000, April was colder by a few degrees than in 96, 97, and 98.
Bamboo Shoot Yield Driveway Grove 750 sq. ft. 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000
lbs harvested 49 75 97 32
lbs./1000 sq. ft. 64 98 126 42
lbs./acre 2790 5250 5490 1830
Bamboo Shoot Yield North Grove 1200 sq. ft. 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000
lbs. harvested 50 61 69 39
lbs./1000 sq. ft. 40 49 55 31
lbs./acre 1740 2130 2400 1350
Graph Three shows two common sense assumptions about yield: length of harvest and start date affect yield. The greatest number of pounds was harvested in 1998 when harvest lasted for 33 days.(four weeks and five days). The smallest number of pounds was harvested in 2000. Harvest lasted a day short of four weeks, 27 days. Generally speaking a long harvest season produces more shoots than a short one.
The two best years were 1998 and 1999. In both those years harvest started early, May 13. The other three years all had start dates at least ten days later, May 23 in 1996 and 2000 and June 9 in 1999. An early start indicates a good harvest. A late start indicates a reduced harvest.
In the Pacific Northwest yield of henon bamboo shoots is greatly affected by the temperatures in May and June. Probably temperatures in April affects yield somewhat. Perhaps early shooting bamboos are best for shoot production in a cold spring climate. When planting mid and late season bamboos, it is imperative to plant in a location where soil warms easily in spring. South facing slopes warm more quickly than north facing ones. Loam soil dries and warms more quickly than clay soil. Perhaps late shooting bamboos should be managed for poles rather than for shoots in a cold spring climate. By monitoring daily temperatures and soil temperatures it is possible to estimate the start date of harvest and perhaps the volume of the harvest.
In previous articles I suggested larger yield per acre than those in the chart above. In those articles I separated the Driveway Grove which has produced well from the North Grove which has not. The Driveway Grove differs from the North Grove in the following five ways. Its soil is drier and warmer. It has more mycorrhizal fungi. It is thinned well. It has larger culms. It was planted 15 years earlier. Notice in the table below that the North Grove hovers between .8 ton and 1+ acre ton an acre. The Driveway Grove varies between less than a ton an acre and two tons an acre.
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