To hear Charles Corrigan tell it, he discovered something of a “godsend” in John Kohler. It was Kohler, after all, the founder of Chester County Bamboo LLC in Malvern, who tamed the extensive grove of bamboo on Corrigan’s Paoli property—a task that proved impossible for a firm he had hired previously.
“When we first moved in seven years ago we called a tree company to help us manage the grove, and they didn’t know what they were doing with bamboo; they just ripped it out,” Corrigan says. “John understands all kinds of bamboos; he knows how to thin it out, which he does carefully, by hand. What he does remove he grinds up and we use it as fertilizer to help the remaining bamboo.”
Kohler typically pays the Corrigans a visit twice per year: once after the winter thaw, to dispose of canes broken amid harsh weather; and again in summer after the bamboo has “made its run and grown into places you don’t want,” says Corrigan. As part of a grove-management program, Kohler also removes bamboo from undesired areas and transplants elsewhere. In one instance he also pruned a tree on the Corrigans’ property as a way to feed more sunlight to transplanted bamboo.
“Some people don’t know how to control it,” says Corrigan, adding that some of the canes on his property measure 40 to 50 feet tall, to provide extra privacy and shade. “You need someone like John to help you maintain it; otherwise it would grow out of control. The bamboo is sort of a dividing line between the house and the back patio, where we have a spa area. We like the privacy it provides, and it stays green all year round, so it never has that dismal period during fall and winter. Just like people, the bamboo just needs a haircut every once in a while.”
Based on customer testimonials, one might be tempted to call Kohler the “bamboo whisperer.” His fondness for and knowledge of bamboo—the largest member of the grass family has more than 1,400 species and is one of the fastest-growing plants in the world—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 and deeply engrossed himself in the topic.
“Bamboo is probably the most misunderstood and unfairly maligned plant,” says Kohler. “If you see the bamboo around here that looks like it’s just growing wildly, that’s because it hasn’t been well maintained. But if you let anything grow uncontrollably it’s eventually going to become a nuisance. Bamboo has so many positive attributes that far outweigh any potential negatives. It simply needs to be taken care of.”
In addition to bamboo’s use as a privacy screen, its quick growth means that groves fill in rapidly, compared with the 50 years or more needed for an oak or maple tree to reach maturity. Also, groves can be sustainably harvested, and they “heal” themselves with new, natural growth without much help.
“Bamboo is also deer resistant, plus it’s evergreen and it’s unrivaled for matters of erosion control,” he says. “If that’s not enough, it absorbs five times the amount of CO2 as an equivalent stand of trees, and it creates about 35 percent more oxygen. You can also eat it, you make clothes out of it and you can build a house out of it.”
Kohler now has harvesting rights and management agreements with groves throughout the area. In any given week, he could be installing the makings of a bamboo grove for property beautification or removing/remediating a site where a grove has not been maintained. On his own two-acre property, he maintains 22 different kinds of bamboo, two of which are used strictly for privacy.
Bamboo has become somewhat controversial, as some people—and, recently, some townships in the southeastern corner of Pennsylvania—now consider it an invasive species in need of swift 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 understands the flap, but he considers these “bamboo bans” a troubling trend, merely because he believes local governments should not dictate what residents can or cannot plant on their property.
For his part, he 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 the plant stems from the fact that its original installer chose the wrong species for the job, purely for its appearance.
“You can’t beat the kind of beauty you get in a bamboo grove, but bamboo goes far beyond beauty,” he says. “Our plants range from three feet to 30 feet, and they are all locally grown and harvested. It’s got a truly carbon-negative life cycle, and it always seems to find a way to thrive. This is where things can get challenging, but that’s why best management practices are so important.”
Paul Johnson, a homeowner in West Grove, had two species of bamboo installed on his property a few years ago but became concerned about the prospect of the grove encroaching on his pond and his neighbor’s property line. He quickly identified Kohler’s firm as the most feasible option to manage it. After installing four separate below-ground barriers to stop the roots from spreading, Kohler was able to contain the bamboo within the areas desired by the homeowner.
“We already had quite a few evergreens blocking the house, and we just wanted something different,” Johnson says. “We always liked the look and feel of it as much as we liked what it could do for our privacy. When John came out here, we immediately knew that he knew what he was doing. He was very reasonable and gave us all sorts of different options. Now I anticipate that we’ll be able to control the bamboo before it ever gets into a removal situation.
“This service allows us to enjoy the benefits of bamboo without the fear of it getting away from us,” he says. “If you’re willing to spend a little extra money, you can get a really cool, really interesting look—a hedge that will be maybe 80 to 100 feet long and is 10 to 12 feet thick—and you don’t have to assume it’s going to get away from you.”
Bamboo has flourished in the wooded areas of the suburbs, but it can also thrive in environments where one might not expect—like Center City Philadelphia. Will Augenbraun, whose home is based downtown, hired Chester County Bamboo to plant black bamboo and install a pondless waterfall with exceptional results: “Not only did Chester County Bamboo do an amazing job with our Center City waterfall garden project, but they also did it on budget. They are definitely not your typical landscaping contractor; they are both timely and highly professional.”
Homeowners Paul Johnson and Charles Corrigan, who calls Kohler “a valuable asset for anyone with bamboo on their property,” would certainly agree.