Bamboo is quickly becoming a must have for everything from non-woven fabrics to composites, food to forage. The problem is there isn’t enough bamboo planted at this time to fill that need. Manufacturers are scrambling to lock in raw materials for current and future use. Bamboo grows fast and harvesting can begin in less then 7 years and sometimes as soon as 4 years. The harvesting can then continue annually for decades.
Bamboo grows in many climates and there are over 1600 varieties currently known. This versatile grass gives off up to 35% more oxygen then an equivalent stand of trees. It also is excellent at soil remediation and could potentially be used for toxic site clean up.
If you are in an area that is tropical like Central Florida or South Florida then clumping bamboos are the best choice. If you are in a colder region then running bamboos will be required. Both have great options for structural and bio-mass producing plants. It is very important that you pick the right plant for your area and your intended use.
What will I do with my bamboo? There are two main options for utilizing bamboo one is poles and the other is bio-mass. Think tiki hut construction vs particle board. One involves using whole culms that are treated and dried. They can then be made into lumber, or used in construction, art, and manufacturing as poles. The second option involves chopping up the plant material for use in composites like plywood, clothing, and paper type products.
In the first case the plant would need to be a variety that has a good structural density and is straight. There are applications that could require specialization such as plantations that make curved bamboo culms. These could be used in bicycle or furniture manufacturing. The second involves a fast growing plant that produces a large quantity of material. Of course left over pieces from the poles could be used for bio-mass as well.
In Central Florida we have some good options. One is Bambusa ventricosa or Buddha Belly. It’s common name comes from the bulging nodes that the plant will produce when grown in bonsai like conditions. When planted in the ground this fast growing bamboo can get over 55′ tall with culms that are a bit over 2″ in diameter. This plant can be used for both poles and bio-mass as it is very structural and grows rapidly. Other options include Bambusa Old hamii and Bambusa malingensis.
Bamboo requires water and fertilization. They are heavy feeders and to get optimal growth from a regimen of irrigation and fertilization. This being said I am a firm believer that sites should be chosen well for planting. Clumping or tropical bamboos do well in low sites even ones that might hold water for short periods of time. High and dry requires a lot of water which might not be the best solution for bamboo especially with growing concerns about the future of our water supply. In northern regions running or temperate bamboos require well drained soils and will not tolerate standing water.
As the bamboo industry begins to blossom in the USA processing facilities will evolve to process the material. At this time they are not available but there are plans for some to go online in the near future. These processing facilities will be the buyers of the bamboo poles and a grower could contract with them to both harvest and process the plant when the time came. This is the important part because it will be when you get paid!
It takes between 5 and 7 years for tropical or clumping bamboos to be ready to harvest. This depends upon the size of the plant initially and the rate of growth. The first harvest will be small and will happen during the dry season. In Florida harvesting is best done between February and April. This is when the plants hold the least amount of moisture and so will be naturally more resistant to insects and funguses. Every year the harvest will be at this time and then the new growth will come after. The time frame may be a bit altered for running bamboos since they tend to shoot earlier.
The bamboos can be harvested every year until the plant goes into flower. Flowering of bamboo is cyclical and each cycle is different for each plant. Some plants flower don’t flower for 80 years. The longevity of the grove depends on where you are in that cycle. The confusing part is knowing when that will happen. Unless your plant came from seed there isn’t a guarantee on it’s lifespan. You might be buying a plant that has 50 years to go or 10 years to go it’s unknown. For this reason it is important to diversify the planting so that there is less risk.
When a bamboo flowers it will produce seed and it puts all of it’s energy into this process until the plant dies. This can take a few years and can generate lots of potential seedlings but the original plant is rendered useless and a new grove has to be started. The biggest risk therefore is how long will the plant live before going to seed. Sometimes a person will know when the plant flowered because they grew it from seed or bought it as a seedling. This is ideal because you will have a good idea how many years are left in the cycle.
That being said you can diversify your grove by getting different clones of the same plant and by planting different varieties. The bamboos quickly pay for themselves and turn a profit so having several varieties online can help when one type goes into flower. Also when that happens you will have potentially a enormous amount of year one plants that will now be available to you and be highly prized in the market place for new groves.
As we move into a new realm of manufacturing and farming in the US it is important as always to be well informed and work with people who have experience in the field. Bamboo is part of our developing future and I encourage you to research it further or contact me for additional information.