Bamboo is among the Earth's most beautiful and useful plants. Long associated with the Panda, bamboo is actually distributed throughout Asia, Africa, Australia and the Americas. Its hardiness and ease of growth (as well as being edible) makes these plants great candidates for aviaries and other exhibits.
Bamboo belongs to the grass family and comes in two main types, clumping and running. The clumping species only expand a few inches every year while the runners will spread out more aggressively. However, with a little knowledge, anyone can grow well behaved, exotic looking bamboo.
Bamboo grows in fits and starts. For most of the year, very little seems to be happening, then in about thirty to sixty days, (usually in the spring) new shoots explode from the plant. Typically a running bamboo will double its size each year if given good care. Shoots of some species have actually been clocked growing four feet in a twenty-four hour period.
One of the nice things about bamboo is that it offers you a lot of options. There are species of bamboo hardy enough to grow outside all year in many parts of the Northeast as well as species which do fine indoors in tubs or containers.
The major concerns for bamboo grown as houseplants are adequate light and humidity. These plants need regular misting to compensate for the lower humidity inside. Keep your soil lightly moist and regularly fertilize them with a slow-release organic type. Dividing and re-potting should be done every few years because the rhizomes will hit and follow the sides of the pot. This leads to new growth in a ring around a dead center and containers that will slowly burst.
In the Northeast, growing bamboo outdoors can often eliminate the need for barriers or containment methods. (Remember, if given the chance, bamboo will grow and spread to its hearts content.) Our cold winters limit the growth by killing off parts of the plant that are above ground. If growing bamboo outside, treat them as you would a perennial, plant them in a sheltered location and mulch well to over-winter them. Also do not fertilize bamboo until after the plants have made it through their first winter. Over-fertilization can lead to water retention in the rhizomes and will cause them to freeze.
I recommend using an organic fertilizer that has twice the nitrogen than phosphorus and potassium (composted horse manure is the bamboo fertilizer of choice in Asia). The idea is to go with slow-release types and to avoid nitrogen-hot ones such as chicken manure. These can be applied in early winter to allow time for nitrogen conversion and use for the rest of the year. If you are growing bamboo in containers indoors, consider using some of the commercial organic fertilizers which have much less of an odor. For container use, apply fertilizer in March, May, July, and September.