Doing the Garden Shuffle

Brace yourselves for a tangled look into the thought processes of a gardener. I'm sure it will look familiar to many of you, no matter what kinds of plants you grow. We all shuffle things around, trying a plant in one spot before deciding it might be better in another location. Sometimes a plant may be in one location for several years before we decide it needs to move. Sometimes it might be a few seconds before we realize, and the move is only a foot one way or another. I know I'm not the only gardener guilty of that last one, even with plants that will eventually grow large enough that it will never have mattered. Some plants may be better off on wheels, as many times as we move them. Gardens are constantly changing, never static.

This is also not a pretty post. This is a muddy, messy look at gardening, focusing on newly planted or young garden spaces that are far from polished and mature. We see picture-perfect gardens in magazines and on the internet all the time. It's not always pretty. I like showing the less-glamorous side of gardening sometimes.

The bright yellow culms of Phyllostachys viridis 'Robert Young'

I was given a division of Phyllostachys viridis 'Robert Young' three years ago, and I have moved it once a year since I got it. First I planted the poor thing between the rhododendron border and the deer fence, in hopes of both helping to block the view of the neighbor's property after he clear cut, and to return some shade to what had been a shade garden with only a few hours of morning sun.

A most unfortunate shade garden, now exposed to much afternoon sun. 'Robert Young' is in the space behind the rhododendrons in the background.

Now, not all running bamboo spread at the same rate. In cool-summer climates like the Pacific Northwest, some, like 'Robert Young', can behave almost like clumping bamboos, hardly spreading at all. This is more true of northern Washington. In southern Oregon, provided it had enough water, it would likely spread at a fair rate. Here in SW Washington, it's somewhere in the middle, sending runners perhaps 6 feet in a year in a warm location. 'Robert Young' really wants as much sun as possible in the PNW, else it leans drastically towards the light and never achieves its full potential. So I moved it from the first location, which had some dappled morning sun and about 6 hours of afternoon sun in summer, to a different spot near the driveway, with maybe 7 hours of sun starting in the morning, and dappled sun in the afternoon. A small improvement, but at least it was something. Part of the reason for the move was that I had acquired a Chusquea gigantea which I thought would make a better screen in the first location.
'Robert Young' after moving it to the bed next to the driveway. This warmer location triggered a surprising amount of rhizome growth in this slow-spreading species. 

I don't remember what triggered the next move. Maybe because I wanted to install a rain garden in the location next to the driveway, to reduce runoff across the driveway and hold more moisture in that area (and also to get rid of more lawn in favor of garden space). That rain garden still hasn't happened, even though it would be amazing and solve several issues, but I digress. I moved 'Robert Young' back to its original location with less sun, and moved the Chusquea gigantea, now in two pieces, to two different areas to help block other parts of the view of the neigbhor.

'Robert Young' grew well this past year, after its winter relocation, sending up several culms, one of which was bigger in diameter than the two culms from the original division. No doubt the previous year in a warmer, somewhat sunnier location, helped. But last summer was cool, more like the summers I remember, and this heat-loving bamboo sent up shoots so late that several failed to finish growing before the early frost hit. Clearly this location left much to be desired for this bamboo.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago. I was working in the garden, cutting things back after winter, and reached this bed, which I have been pulling my hair over basically since I created it. Lacking sufficient plants or mulch to fill in and cover the ground, it became extremely weedy. It had a scattering of very small starts that had failed to thrive; Epilobium canum that always turned crispy in summer, failed to bloom well, and looked horrid in winter; and various other odds and ends that just weren't working.

One of my least favorite beds, at the end of the grassy strip, with a Deodar cedar in the center.

The unfortunate planting in that bed, admittedly at its worst time of year, just after cutting back.

Anyway, I was looking at this hideous bed which needed a complete overhaul, and I ended up thinking about how it's one of the sunniest spots on the whole property. How nice it would be, I thought, to just plant 'Robert Young' here, where it will get the warmth and sun it craves, and let it occupy the whole space, laying down its own weed-suppressing mulch of leaves. I had planned on this area being part of the no-water garden, but there's a faucet not far away. I can lay a soaker hose, maybe eventually a small micro-sprinkler system, here without too much trouble. Once established, many bamboo are quite drought tolerant, and 'Robert Young' has a reputation for drought tolerance in hot southern states (of course they get rain in summer). It will need more frequent watering at first, as all plants do, but a good soak once or twice a month after it's established will probably be sufficient and not at all onerous.

I also acquired, 2 years ago, a Phyllostachys aureosulcata 'Spectabilis'. It was only a single half-dead culm with some rhizome. A friend and I had divided a container grown plant and I took this especially sad division, leaving her the healthier pieces to sell. I nursed this sickly plant along and it sent up a few whispy bunches of foliage, less than a foot tall. Last year it managed a couple shoots 2 feet tall. This year, it has over a dozen shoots, true culm shoots rather than the sad whip shoots it had sent up before, all several times greater in diameter than anything before. One of the hardiest Phyllostachys species, aureosulcata is capable of gaining 3-5 feet in height per year, and spreads quickly. It doesn't need as much warmth or sun as 'Robert Young'. It could be the perfect replacement, and a much more effective screen than 'Robert Young' ever would have been in that location. Though not as potentially tall as 'Robert Young', which averages 35 feet in the PNW and can exceed 50 feet in warmer climates, 'Spectabilis' can still reach a respectable 20 feet, and it's not unlikely to reach 30 feet.
Phyllostachys aureosulcata 'Spectabilis' in a 5 gallon pot. It doesn't look like much now, but it's an exceptionally beautiful bamboo when mature.

New shoots emerging on 'Spectabilis', several times larger than anything it had managed previously.

So, I now had a plan necessitating yet another series of shuffles. I quickly rescued a few plants from the ugly sunny bed to help fill bare spots in other areas. Then I cut the deodar cedar and hauled it away to turn most of it into mulch. On Friday, I dug the entire area, turning over the weeds and loosening the soil. I hauled 10 wheel barrow loads of richer soil and compost to raise the level of the bed. The compost was mixed primarily into the planting holes I prepared to place the bamboo into, to give it a good start.

After moving a few shrubs to other locations.

Deodar removed and soil turned over to reduce some of the weeds. Planting holes dug and mixed with compost, ready for the bamboo to move in.

On Saturday, I dug 'Robert Young', moving it in two sections using the riding lawn mower and trailer, with assistance from my mother, from its old location to the newly prepared bed, perhaps 200 feet away. Wet soil is heavy. Thank goodness the bamboo culms are at least hollow! A scattering of high nitrogen fertilizer, stakes to keep the bamboo upright until it establishes new roots, and plenty of water to settle the soil in, and 'Robert Young' is settled into his new home. I already love it there so much. As the trees in the vicinity grow up and create an arching canopy over that broad strip of grass, 'Robert Young' will create a stand of glowing gold at the far end, drawing you in.

One section of 'Robert Young' dug and loaded onto a board with a rope running under the board and tied around the bamboo, to make it easier to drag. I had to haul the sections out to where they were loaded onto the trailer, as the riding mower and trailer wouldn't fit back here.

'Robert Young' in its new location, staked to keep it upright as it establishes new roots. After growing in that too shaded area, I don't expect much this year, but next year should be impressive!

Looking out from the patio, with 'Robert Young' in the distance. This view doesn't have much going for it this time of year. The garden has a lot of growing to do.

Digging 'Robert Young' also revealed that, while it had produced good culms last year after growing in the warmer location next to the driveway the year before, moving it back to the cooler location had resulted in less than a foot of rhizome growth. When it was next to the driveway, the rhizomes had grown several feet. If I needed more motivation to move this bamboo, it was in that poor rhizome growth. The new, much sunnier, location should allow this heat-loving bamboo to grow much better, not leaning for the sun or producing thin, weak culms, and initiating shoot growth earlier so the new culms can harden off before fall.

Preparing that bed and moving the 18-foot tall 'Robert Young' was such a huge effort, I had to share the after photo with 'Spectabilis' planted in that space behind the rhododendron border, where 'Robert Young' had been. It's almost comical, this tiny little tuft of foliage dropped into that big space. But it will grow fast. It will still need a year or two to settle in and start spreading, though. Once it starts spreading, it will still take several years for it to reach the edges of its alotted 13' by 25' space, but I've already dug most of the trench to contain it.

I can't wait to share a photo in a couple months after the new shoots have had a chance to grow up and start leafing out. This is pitiful.
After spending 9 hours over 2 days on some very heavy labor (and I mean that quite literally; wet clay loam is heavy!) I plan on recuperating with the much less physically demanding task of running branches through the chipper to start making mulch for both bamboos. I plan on just mulching around both, not planting anything underneath even the 'Robert Young'. Maybe in a few years, if my mother still owns the property, I'll come back once 'Robert Young' has grown to provide enough shade to plant some native sword ferns and Mahonia nervosa as an understory.

Next time, I'll be writing about containment methods for bamboo, focusing primarily on the trenching method as opposed to barriers, as well as growing in containers above ground.


  1. I tend to resist moving plants but I also don't have the range of options you have to try new options - and after reading of the 9 hours you put into moving 'Robert Young' perhaps that's a good thing. I moved one of my 'Bright Star' Yuccas yesterday (just a few feet) and that was enough for me. That didn't take nearly as long but, as the plant I moved was between 2 of its siblings, doing it earned me several vicious stab wounds.

    1. I also tend to resist moving plants, but I've been doing a lot of it this spring, mostly to solve problems of crowding in one area and empty space in others. I've lost some plants and moved others to take advantage of the newly-opened spaces. Some things I've just had to admit aren't working in their locations after several years and need to move, if possible. Ha! Yes, moving 'Robert Young' was quite a large task, but most of that 9 hours was site preparation, improving the soil in the new location and relocating plants that were in that bed.

  2. Yes indeed "Robert" already looks smashing in his new home, perfect placement. For some reason I didn't get the plant moving gene. Maybe because of my cramscaping ways, and the fact it's too risky to move something when it's roots are tangled up with all of it's neighbors...

    1. I wish I had planted it there from the start! I love seeing it in its new home. Makes me smile every time.

  3. I have a group of Spirea 'Shirobana', and another group of Hypericum 'Hidcote', that I've moved countless times. Too dry in this spot, too much shade in that spot. But they are tough and full of promise, so we all keep trying.

  4. " 'Robert Young' will create a stand of glowing gold at the far end, drawing you in."

    What a beautiful effect that will be. Worth the heavy labor. I hate moving plants, but often it has been the right thing to do, so I suffer through it.

  5. I've read your blog long enough to remember the detailed plans you made for the different garden beds. The photos in this post gave me just enough of a glimpse into the awakening garden: it was delightful to see how much things have grown and filled in! The recent bamboo moves you made are absolutely excellent and the results are evident already. With time, our garden gives us the answers of which plant needs to go where...

  6. I can't freakin' believe that you managed to remove that big deodar by yourself... wow! You are a man of many powers, Evan! The bright gold of Robert Young looks fantastic in its new home, and I can't wait to see a fully grown 'Spectabilis'. I move plants around all the time, but usually they are of a smaller variety.


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