John Kohler has a rule about bamboo: Love it or hate it, just don’t ignore it. For the record, Kohler comes down strictly on the “love it” side; he even wears clothes made out of bamboo, which is the largest member of the grass family.
Even so he sees both sides of the coin in any given week—whether it’s installing the beginnings of a bamboo grove in Gladwyne for property beautification or erosion control, or removing and remediating a site in South Jersey where a grove has been improperly maintained.
“Most of the bamboo around here hasn’t been maintained, and if you let anything grow uncontrollably it’s eventually going to become a nuisance,” says Kohler, founder of Chester County Bamboo in Malvern. “If you planted ivy and let it go for 25 years, you wouldn’t be able to see your house. Bamboo just needs to be taken care of. The problem is that most people don’t understand it.”
Kohler’s deep appreciation for bamboo dates back to the mid-2000s, after he purchased a new home and found himself in need of a cost-effective privacy screen. He quickly became enamored with bamboo, which has more than 1,400 species and is one of the fastest-growing plants in the world, and became deeply engrossed in the topic.
“Bamboo just became the most sensible, viable option for my property, and it taught me that other people needed help controlling it,” he says. “Shade trees can be beneficial, but what happens when you have to replace one? A maple tree or oak tree can take 50 years to mature, but bamboo fills in quickly, and a grove can be sustainably harvested and heal itself with new, natural growth.”
Upon realizing how many people appreciated bamboo or simply needed help managing groves on their property, Kohler discovered the seed of a growing business. Chester County Bamboo, which became licensed in 2009, now has harvesting rights and management agreements with groves throughout the area, including a notable 17-acre property in Newtown Square. On his own 2-acre property, he maintains 22 different kinds of bamboo, two of which are used strictly for privacy.
“Bamboo is deer resistant, plus it’s evergreen and you can’t beat it for erosion control; it’s like a net,” he says. “You can build a house out of it, you can eat it, and you make clothes or a floor out of it. It absorbs five times the amount of CO2 as an equivalent stand of trees, and it creates about 35 percent more oxygen. When you look at it, bamboo’s positives far outweigh any perceived negatives.”
The operable word is “perceived,” as some people—and, recently, some townships in the southeastern corner of Pennsylvania—now consider bamboo an invasive species that can displace native species and, therefore, deserving of eradication. Yet there are at least two bamboo species considered endemic to the United States—both in the Arundinaria genus—and some are certified to grow in Pennsylvania. Kohler considers these “bamboo bans” a troubling trend, merely for the fact that local governments are dictating to residents what they can or cannot plant on their property.
“Many of our jobs involve multiple neighbors, and I don’t mind getting involved,” he says. “If I put a [bamboo] barrier on one side of a property and don’t explain how it is going to impact a neighbor, it can get tricky. So it becomes a consultative approach as to how we sell, install, remove and contain it. You teach people to look at all the environmental benefits, so at the base of what we do is education.”
Kohler is always precise when choosing the species of bamboo for a particular installation, because different bamboos should be used for different purposes—whether for strictly aesthetic purposes or for more practical, utilitarian uses such as erosion control and privacy. He often finds that the root of some people’s frustration with bamboo comes from the fact that its original installer chose the wrong species for the job, purely for its appearance.
“If you go into a tall grove of bamboo and look up, you just can’t go into a forest and get that kind of beauty, but bamboo goes far beyond beauty,” he says. “Our plants range from 3 feet to 30 feet, and are locally grown and harvested. It’s got a truly carbon-negative life cycle, and it always seems to find a way to grow and regenerate. I guess that’s where it gets challenging sometimes, but that’s why best management practices are so important.”
Chester County Bamboo LLC