The Buzz

Bamboo Fencing

Bamboo, or take’ in Japanese, is probably one of the most consistently used plant materials in Japanese gardens; although not in the way you might initially think. Being a grass, bamboo is terribly fast growing, abundant, and is very aggressive, impeding all other plant growth in its vicinity. It is typically not planted in the garden for these reasons, but, due to its copious nature, structural stability and straightness, it makes for a fantastic building material, especially for fencing.

There are many types of fence, gaki, within a Japanese garden, each with their own particular purpose and ambiance, complimented by the gardener's own style. There is the simple yotsume gaki, a rustic, transparent fence with a simple vertical and lateral arrangement, commonly found in tea gardens. There is the mizu gaki, a solid barrier to provide security and privacy. But fence that I have been working on and utilizing in the garden is the simple nanako gaki, or hoop fence. 

MBG horticulturalist David Vaughn and Chris O’Bryan assisting with last year’s nanako gaki

Nanako gaki is typically used along walkways as a simple barrier and a reminder to stay on the path. Although it may be simple in form, there is much work that goes into making it. Unlike in Japan, we here in the U.S. do not have a bamboo store to purchase materials for a job like this, so you have to make your own. The material for this year’s fence came from long-time MBG Spring Plant sale vendor and friend of the garden Paul Little, of Little Hill Nursery. (Be sure to check him out at our sale.) Paul has a grove of Phyllostachys virdis growing on this property and was kind enough to let me harvest some for the project.  Ideally, you want a larger diameter bamboo, 6+”, as it will make flatter and wider pieces, but smaller bamboo, 2-3”, will work as well.

Harvesting of bamboo is preferably done during the dormancy of winter, as the sugars in the plant have turned into starches, making the material stronger. You want to harvest canes that are straight and 2-3 years old. This ensures that they are mature and structurally sound and keeps the grove healthy. By removing older canes, you make room for new canes to grow in their place, making for straighter canes, ideal for fence material. Older canes will have a rougher texture compared to smoothness of new canes and will have black soot of sorts on it as well. When cutting the cane, be sure to cut just above a node as these areas are solid the whole way through, making a cap of sorts to deter water from rotting out the area you just cut.

Once you have your material on the ground, remove all stems from the cane and scrub the canes with soapy water to remove dirt and grime. Next is to determine the length of your pieces. I prefer a lower style fence, so I cut my pieces around 24-30”. Depending on the size of your bamboo you are using, you should be able to get several sections out of one cane, providing the cane is straight. Now comes the splitting of the bamboo sections you just made. Like I mentioned before, flatter pieces are better as more round pieces will snap when you put them in the ground. Use a sharp hatchet and a hammer to gently pound the hatchet into the bamboo to make two even sections. Once started, you should be able to push the hatchet through the piece with some force and also hitting it with the hammer.  Continue splitting until you have made a piece that is flat, 24-30” long and, ideally, .5-1” wide.

To install, simply push one end into the ground to a depth of about 3” as this will give the fence more structural stability. Now take the other end, start bowing it, and push it into the ground X distance away. Be sure not to work the pieces too fast as this might cause them to break. The next piece overlaps the last by whatever distance looks right to you. Repeat the process until you have completed the fence.

Garden features such as the nanako gaki help to create an ambiance in your garden, setting the mood for which you desire. Just remember, work slow and be patient; good advice for most things in life.

Posted by nick esthus at 7:00 AM


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