Walking into the Bamboo Ranch is like walking through a portal. The rumbling of Tucson traffic dissolves into a whisper of rustling leaves. The temperature cools. The driveway ends in a wall of green.
The only reminder that one is, in fact, in Tucson is the occasional buckthorn cholla or thorn-lined oco-tillo, barely visible among the giant green poles and quivering leaves.
It may feel far away, but the Bamboo Ranch is only minutes from the Grant Road exit off Interstate 10. Matt and Holly Finstrom, who own the ranch, are the Southwest's most prominent growers of the giant grass, with 25 years of growing experience.
They grow some 100 species, many of which are drought-tolerant. Because bamboo has shallow roots, the plants need frequent water, but not a lot of it.
"They're pretty tough when they have to be," Matt Finstrom says. "It's easy to overwater bamboo, actually."
Among the many other positive attributes of bamboo, Finstrom says, is its ability to provide a lot of shade from a narrow base, its rare flowering, its non-toxic leaves and its status as a natural flame retardant. It's also evergreen; so long as they are adequately watered, the plants drop few leaves, mostly in the fall.
Finstrom's list of bamboo's many uses is long. He touts its use for musical instrument making, fabric, food and construction. He says many people buy plants to have a sustainable construction material at their disposal. "It's like having a wood lot in your backyard," he says.
It could also have a major civic use, Finstrom says. He suggests a hedge of sorts along Interstate 10 between Tucson and Phoenix. "It could really help with dust storms."
Bamboos grow in two major varieties: clumping and running.
Clumping bamboos grow mostly in tropical and subtropical climates, though the Bamboo Ranch focuses more on the subtropical species. Clumpers have shorter rhizomes than running varieties and grow in a tight cluster, reaching great heights more quickly than runners. Finstrom recommends clumpers for small urban gardens, especially for people looking for a somewhat tropical look.
Running bamboos can tolerate lower temperatures, and Finstrom recommends them for creating a grove or providing erosion control on a steep bank. He says runners only grow where they are watered regularly, so it's unlikely that the plants will grow in unwanted areas. "It's never going to be a plant that can get out of hand in the desert," he says.
At the same time, Finstrom tells purchasers of running bamboos to pay attention to where their neighbors water and, in some cases, to use a rhizome barrier, often a piece of 60-80 mil plastic, to keep the plant from spreading beyond the desired bounds.
In planting bamboo, Finstrom recommends replacing the soil rather than amending it. Bamboo likes organic material such as compost, but it also likes good drainage. An ideal soil mix would also contain a lot of sand. He suggests digging a deep hole to make sure that water does not end up sitting in the hole, unable to run off because of rocks or caliche.
Most bamboos should be able to withstand winter temperatures in Southern Arizona, but adding rose feed to the soil at the base of a bamboo plant about six weeks before the first freeze could help if temperatures drop dramatically. The salts in rose feed, Finstrom says, act as a kind of natural antifreeze. Owners of tropical species might also want to consider putting lights at the base of their plants during a freeze to ensure the warmth of the roots.
Despite the somewhat higher price point of bamboo compared to desert plants, business at the Bamboo Ranch has not much slowed since the recession began. Finstrom says that perhaps because people are living so close to one another, he is receiving more inquiries about bamboos appropriate for screening between neighbors and - the perennial concern in Tucson - for shade.
Temple bamboo is often considered by customers looking to replace oleander, which is toxic to many animals.
"This is prime animal forage," says Finstrom, gesturing at a 30-foot tall densely leaved cluster. "The rabbits are getting fat on it."
A biologist by training, Finstrom would know. He loves plants, but he pays close attention to animals, too. He was working as a general biologist for an animal exporting outfit in Panama when he fell in love with the giant grasses. He began making flutes from the plant while working his next job as a herpetologist for the Knoxville Zoo.
But it was in Tucson, while working as a herpetologist at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, that Finstrom really began to grow bamboo on a large scale. He joined the Bamboo Society and has been selling bamboo for about eight years now - from a green and shady lot not far from the heart of a large desert city.
IF YOU GO
Drought-tolerant varieties of bamboo
• Buddha's Belly (Bambusa ventricosa), a large, ornamental clumping bamboo.
• Punting Pole (Bambusa tuldoides), a large clumping bamboo with strong shoots.
• Temple (Semiarundinaria fastuosa), a large running bamboo dense with leaves.
• Elegant (Phyllostachys vivax), a giant bamboo that grows in open groves.
Why bamboo is rare in the U.S.
When bamboo is brought to the United States, it must be quarantined for one year. To control bamboo smut, one of the plant's most harmful diseases, as well as the workload of agricultural inspec-tors, no more than six plants of any variety can be brought into the country. Subsequent plants must be propagated from the surviving of the original six. As a result, some species may be difficult to find in the United States and may be relatively expensive.
Source: The Bamboo Society, www.bamboo.org
Carli Brosseau is a Tucson-based freelance writer. Contact her at email@example.com