Bamboo heaven nestled in North Plains hills
Alongside gravelly Northwest Collins Road in the hills north of North Plains, you'll find one of the most unique nursery businesses in Washington County.
Especially on a misty, foggy day, it looks for all the world like some sort of hallucination rising out of the landscape. But according to the knowledgeable staff at Bamboo Garden, the rugged evergreen forest offers great growing conditions for many of the bamboo plants they grow.
"Many other plants in general — evergreen plants, especially — would have some trouble growing well in these conditions," said Noah Bell, Bamboo Garden's general manager, pointing out a group of dense "clumping bamboo" growing alongside a fir tree. "But this type of environment is actually a very close match to what their native environment is like."
Many bamboo plants grow well in the shadow of larger trees, Bell added.
"We're pretty lucky to have these beautiful trees," he said. "I see lots of nurseries in the valley that have acres and acres of shade cloth systems they've had to build. ... This is a beautiful shade system, and it's the perfect compliment to the type of environment that these bamboos need to do well."
Unless you're a master gardener, though, you might not realize how immensely variable bamboo is. The vast majority of the bamboos grown at Bamboo Garden are cultivars from China and Japan — along with a few from the mountains of Chile, Nepal and South Africa — which tend to thrive in temperate climates that get plenty of rain but don't get too cold during the winter. But there are also tropical and subtropical bamboos, some of which Bamboo Garden grows — in significantly smaller quantities, since there is less demand for them — in its production greenhouse.
"For the temperate clumpers, the closer you can get to Seattle climate, the better they do," said Anna Foleen, the nursery's garden designer and a veritable fount of information about all things bamboo. "For a lot of the runners, the closer you can get to, like, New Orleans, the better they do. For the tropicals, they really like, you know, Miami — that sort of a climate, humid and hot. ... Many Bambusas (a genus of clumping bamboo) are actually very tolerant of dry air, so in the really warm parts of California and Arizona, you will find Bambusas growing, and they're very tropical."Growing bamboo in pots can be difficult — Bell showed off one sturdy plastic vessel that a mature bamboo plant's root system had nearly ripped in half down the side — and even many plantings in the ground have to be given some space. There is a trick to it, though.
"What a lot of our customers aren't really aware of is that all the growth happens really in a two-month period," Bell said. "It grows like a grass, not a tree."
A species of bamboo holds the Guinness World Record for the fastest-growing plant, recorded as growing nearly three feet in one day's time. Bell said he has seen bamboo shoots at the nursery, under ideal conditions and at the right time in their development, grow as rapidly as two feet per day.
Bamboo Garden grows about 370 types of bamboo. Nursery staff don't actually have an exact number because of another bamboo oddity: Some variants of the plant behave in unpredictable ways, developing random mutations when they are divided, such as a different leaf or stem color or unusual growth patterns. It can take time to determine whether these unique cultivars will grow successfully and can themselves be replicated, at which point they can be considered a new variant and grown for sale.
"We're always working on new cultivars," Bell said. "It's an ongoing process."
Most of Bamboo Garden's business is done by selling bamboo plants to individuals, although wholesale transactions make up a significant minority of it. The nursery is preparing to truck several dozen mature "timber bamboo" plants — which can grow more than 50 feet high, depending on the species — to San Francisco for installation at the Transbay Transit Center, a transportation hub being built downtown. Another greenhouse is currently taken up by bamboo plants that will be displayed at Fred Meyer department stores, according to Bell.
Customers generally come north from Highway 26, which fronts North Plains, although some come down Dixie Mountain Road from the Scappoose area, Foleen said. The nursery also ships throughout the United States and Canada, she added, with loyal customers as far away as Vermont and Louisiana.
Bamboo Garden's variety of bamboo plants means that it can fill many customer needs.Foleen said most individuals who come to the nursery are looking for a privacy screen, for which many types of "running bamboo" are very well suited, since they grow closely together, fill out well and don't lose their leaves during the winter. Some types of clumping bamboo can be used the same way, but others are more ideal for customers looking for something more like a bush or shrubbery with an Asian flair. Clumping bamboo won't grow into hedges the way running bamboo will, but it will grow up in tight clusters that generally fan out at the top, making for an attractive addition to the yard. There are also "dwarf bamboo" species that can even be grown as ground cover.
Bamboo Garden also sells "Rhizome Barrier," a tough plastic sheeting that can be buried underground around bamboo to hinder them from spreading. However, the nursery strongly recommends that growers learn how to prune their plants' roots. Staff can provide customers with guidance on how to control and care for their bamboo.
The rural North Plains setting is not Bamboo Garden's original location. The company was founded in Southeast Portland some 30 years ago by a man named Ned Jaquith. As he found himself in need of more space for the nursery to grow, Foleen said, Jaquith was told by a customer about a 15-acre parcel of land off Collins Road, which had been used as timberland. He purchased the property in 1994, although it took years of work to clear it and it took until 2003 for Bamboo Garden to complete its move there. It expanded by about five more acres a few years ago, when a neighboring property-owner sold his land.
Prices at Bamboo Garden vary, with some plants retailing in the $20s and some larger or rarer plants selling in the $200 to $300 range. The expert staff at the nursery are also available for growing advice and consultations.
Bamboo Garden is located at 18900 N.W. Collins Road. It is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on Sundays by appointment.
By Mark Miller
Editor, Forest Grove News-Times
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