I have a love-hate relationship with bamboo. I’m from parts of the country where the stuff takes over the edges of some roadways and chokes out some of the natural diversity found in some locations, usually locations with a lot of uses for wildlife and foraging. On the other hand, bamboo is really useful stuff. Whether somebody’s looking at a long-term, widespread, nation-altering event and wants the sustainable source of materials, or whether somebody’s just trying to save a few bucks to get ahead of the curve or save up for basic preparedness, a stand or two of bamboo has a lot to offer us. Even hitting some examples for inside and outside homes, gardens, and livestock I can’t even touch on all its uses. Feel free to list out what I miss at will, from its use as cups to the impressive BTUs bamboo can offer, furniture to bridges. It really is a handy material to locate.
I’m going to encourage you to drive around looking and knock on doors or don a blaze-orange vest and harvest from roadsides instead of planting bamboo. Try to wash off boots, vehicles, and tools after any harvest of wild species, especially in damp areas. There are all kinds of things from phrag grass to kudzu that will hitch rides, plus various diseases and pests we can transfer between locations.
The great *they* like to tell us that you’re supposed to harvest bamboo from as close to the ground plane as you can.
I don’t do that.
I prefer not to create future punji sticks and heel-catchers we can’t see from all the future leaf fall. Nor do I cut at knee-height.
I tend to cut up in the rib to head level. It eats up the earth space or footprint and takes longer to die back and be replaced, true. However, pretty much nobody is going to get speared when they kneel down, nobody’s going to snag a boot or toe, and nobody’s dog is going to gash its face.
What size bamboo you want is dependent on your task, but as you harvest, don’t just abandon the leafy bits.
Remember, bamboo is really just a big, thick grass. In most cases, the leaves make fine mulch and compost. You can also use trimmings as a fiber element for goats – especially goats that are getting rich tree and shrub fodders. Chickens and rabbits can have it as well.
There is a handy knife-type saw the Japanese and Koreans each have specifically for bamboo. I use mine for all kinds of harvests. However, for bamboo, I’m more likely to go with either style of long-handled pruners, a laminate or hardwood blade on a hacksaw, or the same on a sawsall – it depends on what’s waiting closest in my truck and sometimes how much I’m planning to harvest.
The hacksaw or pruners are handy for dropping, then immediately bucking off the tops and the leafy “branches”, and sorting as I go. I tend to always have good one-handed pruners in my pocket or bag(s), though, so there are times I alternate cutting and stripping instead.
I can’t do an article about bamboo and not talk about one of its best-known uses as a garden trellis material. However, because it is so well-known, I won’t beleaguer the point.
What I’ll say instead is that bamboo is fairly long-lived, but not indefinite, especially in the damp-soil conditions of a lot of gardens. It’s not as strong as steel. However, it is pretty tough, and it does last out a season or longer, easily. The thicker the bamboo, the longer it lasts. I will also point out that unless it’s the UV-resistant type, or painted, PVC is also going to crack under a lot of conditions – sometimes in a season, sometimes after two or three.
So if you’re able to find it for free, and are looking for a long-term sustainable material that can be whacked and added to compost or used as mulch when it’s failing, bamboo can be a super alternative to buying tomato cages or lumber for squash and bean trellises.
I also want to point out a handy trick. Instead of using just cord, or any cord at all, you can drill out holes near the tops of your poles, and use thinner stalks as a pin.
I prefer drilling bamboo while it’s green, first with a thin “standard” bit, and then either a larger drywall bit or a narrow auger, depending on the size hole and thickness of the bamboo.
You can use other lengths of bamboo as a spacer to create a wider tripod, or keep it snugged up tight for a teepee type structure.
The amount of “top” left above the holes and pin can change what the bamboo will do for you. You can lay out another thick piece or pieces across the tops to move water, form a longer bean trellis, or support a row cloth or plastic cover. Or, you can trim it nice and tight for a neater appearance and create fewer perches.
Other Garden Uses for Bamboo
Bamboo can be used in lots of other ways for our food production.
It has been used to create irrigation systems in both frigid and steamy-humid parts of the world for millennia. We can use it to create “gutter” or “PVC” style tiered raised beds for shallow-rooted plants.
It can be split or small branches can be stripped and bent while green to create exclusion nets or frames – to keep butterflies and thus their caterpillars off our plants, or to protect plants from dog tails, birds, or chickens. The same types of frames can be used to create feed-through graze boxes for chickens, preventing just how much of a plant they can reach and damage, which allows the plant to survive and grow back for continuous feeding.
It has also been used to create the framework for hoop houses.
Bamboo can be used to create our whole greenhouse, point in fact, and to build raised garden beds. By size and desired style, it can create everything from neat, tidy faces to woven wattle. It can be left raw and rustic, or have boards added to smooth the upper surface.
Again, this stuff isn’t cedar, it’s not CMU brick, and it’s not landscaping timbers. It will have to be replaced more frequently than those. However, it’s been used pretty much forever and it does offer that free, sustainable material instead of paying for something.
While we’re building our garden out of free, sustainable materials, we might also want to fence it. Bamboo can also help either lower those costs or eliminate them.
We can weave it in wattle style, or get artsy and cute. We can fill in gaps on rail fences to prevent dogs and rabbits from slipping through, or extend the height of fencing to deter deer.
We can place it tightly or weave nearly mats with it to help buffer winds and create snow fences as well, which lets us almost pick the places snow will pile up or spread the snow load out to create lower drifts over a larger area.
Housing & Enclosures
Bamboo can also keep our livestock housed and where we put them.
From bird cages to goat pens, and even for the live otter and primate trade in parts of the world, it’s been doing so for centuries.
We can create full sheds and barns out of it, using either the lap-roof, tile or thatching styles for roofs.
We can also create fish traps and boxes of various types. Those boxes can be used in our aquaculture and aquaponics systems to separate breeders and growouts without needing separate tanks, or to purge our fish before harvest depending on our feeding systems.
Bamboo can also be used to create the drop-out or crawl-out tubes for various types of BSF larvae or mealworms for our feed systems as well.
Around the world, from places like snowy Nepal to steam Thailand, bamboo gets used for long-term construction on a regular basis.
The most effective roofing style is the split-overlap that prevents drips, although roofing is also done with mats and thatching styles using bamboo stalks and leaves.
In many cases where load-bearing is of issue, you’ll find bamboo bundled into pillars and pillars closer than we use in 2×4 stick construction.
As mentioned with beds and trellises, construction isn’t going to last forever. However, folks have been using it for centuries and in places with high winds and snow loads, they’re still using it.
If we have running water, we can use some of those eons-old construction methods to make our lives easier.
Water wheels use running waterways to lift relatively small amounts of water up into aqueduct style irrigation systems or through channels or piping to cisterns – which either hold it, or are used to create pressurized tanks to then distribute that water elsewhere.
Bamboo is also used to build mills that Westerners are more accustomed to seeing. Those mills can be used to do work directly – like threshing and grinding grain – or to spin low-level turbines for pumps or generating energy.
Similar designs for slow-moving fish wheels exist as well, spinning in rivers and streams and using scoops to drop fish into catchments. They’re not super efficient, but like a yoyo, they’re fishing while we’re off doing something else.
Creativity – Corn Crib or Coop?
Even if we don’t see plans for something straight off, the flexibility of bamboo and our minds can help us cut costs.
There’s no reason a shelf system can’t be combined with a plan for hampers to create a drying rack for foods, herbs, tea, or seeds.
Likewise, with some modifications, a coconut caddy we see from the balmy East can be modified into a corn crib, or a hay feeder that will reduce wastes and costs – even now. That caddy and what we know about cages can be used to create a bird coop or rabbit hutch, or that hutch can be converted back to grain drying and storage or curing potatoes or sweet potatoes.
We aren’t limited to the styles we see, either. While slender wands aren’t as strong, we can use them pretty much anywhere bamboo would have been split.
We can also take inspiration from the uses for bamboo, and apply them to things we may have in excess in our area, like young stands of aspen, copious privet, or willow.
As much as I love bamboo for all the things it can do, it doesn’t really belong running loose in North America. While certain species are less invasive than others, and it can be controlled by mowing around it and keeping it contained, I caution against planting it. Some of that is the Seventh Generation outlook on life. Sure, even invasive stuff can be fairly easily controlled on a property now, with mowing or due to other plantings or the terrain. But what happens when we’re no long fit and able, and it’s no longer our property?
So while I love it, I highly encourage preppers and homesteaders and craftsmen to find a patch of bamboo, not plant it. They’re out there, California to Wyoming, Florida to Vermont. They’ll usually be found on a secondary highway or county road, routinely in damper areas along those roadsides, or near homes.