Bamboo: More Than a Battle, It’s War

Thiele aims to help homeowners under siege
An expanse of razor-sharp bamboo stumps waited to be excavated in a difficult and expensive effort to remove the plant from a Montauk property. T.E. McMorrow

New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. has introduced legislation that would hold anyone who plants or maintains running bamboo on their property responsible for the cost of removing the invasive species from neighboring properties and repairing any damage the roots, called rhizomes, have caused. But for at least two Montauk residents, the protection the legislation offers, while welcome, is many thousands of dollars too late.

“It spreads like wildfire,” Stephen Kelly, who purchased his house on Adams Drive four years ago, said recently. When he bought the house, he noticed his neighbor to the east had a row of bamboo for screening between the properties. “He had a lot of really tall bamboo,” Mr. Kelly said. That tall bamboo began wandering into Mr. Kelly’s yard, in the form of little shoots. Mr. Kelly hired a local landscaper, who brought in a crew that dug up the border area between his property and his neighbor’s and methodically removed each root.

Within a year, the bamboo returned. Back came the landscaper’s crew, digging, and, this time, laying down an underground cinderblock wall.

The bamboo returned. “I confronted my neighbor. ‘This bamboo is costing me a great expense,’ ” Mr. Kelly said he told his neighbor. The neighbor’s reaction? “He shrugged and didn’t say anything.”

Assemblyman Thiele’s bill deals with shrugging neighbors. Based on a law in Connecticut passed late last year, it defines running bamboo as any bamboo in the genus Phyllostachys, including Phyllostachys aureosulcata. The law in Connecticut makes neighbors “liable for any damages caused to any neighboring property by such bamboo, including, but not limited to, the cost of removal of any running bamboo.”

A statewide law would clear up the current patchwork of laws dealing with running bamboo, the assemblyman said after he introduced it last month, “particularly on Long Island. It wouldn’t outlaw or prohibit the plant,” he said, but it would address issues that currently cause neighborly strife. The law would also restrict the planting of running bamboo, requiring a setback from adjacent properties of 100 feet.

“There was a time when it was considered exotic,” Brian Frank, the East Hampton Town Planning Department’s chief environmental analyst, said in April, about the plant’s history in East Hampton. “It had an exotic look, and was a cheap method of screening,” he said.

“From a vegetation standpoint,” he said, “it is a real problem, because it reproduces asexually.”

The rhizomes of the invasive species grow laterally, according to John Mark, a Montauk landscaper who Mr. Kelly called in after his first landscaper failed to bring the plant under control. “They can break through anyplace there is an opening. They can squeeze through or they can go underneath. They come up through asphalt, they can come up through a patio,” Mr. Mark said yesterday. Unchecked, running bamboo can take over an entire yard in just a few years. The roots run about 18 inches below the surface in all directions, unless they meet an obstacle, which they will either go around, or, in some cases, through. According to Mr. Frank, bamboo roots also can wreak havoc on septic systems, as they did on Diane Hausman’s property on Gravesend Avenue in Montauk.

The bamboo not only compromised her septic system, it covered her entire lawn. “It took about seven years,” she said about the spread of the plant from her neighbor’s property, turning what was once manicured green grass into a bamboo forest.

Mr. Mark began work on the unwelcomed growth last October, sawing each stalk down, one at a time, using a weed-eater with a saw blade attachment.

Once cut down, the harvested bamboo stalks are of some value. They are extremely strong, and are used in some countries to build houses. Here, they are considered particularly useful for fencing.

There is an amount of danger in the work, Mr. Mark said. Once the bamboo is harvested, it leaves a stubble about a foot tall of bamboo shoots that are as hard as steel, essentially spikes which can cut an unwary worker. “When we are removing the stems, we have to walk through the uprights. There always is a potential to fall and be injured,” Mr. Mark said.

Next, Mr. Mark brought in a mini-excavator and dug up Ms. Hausman’s entire front yard to a depth of about 30 inches. Every piece of the rhizomes must be pulled out of the ground. Just one left behind can potentially give birth to a new bamboo forest.

He has been monitoring both yards since the removal. “I have not seen anything come up in the yards since,” he said.

Mr. Mark took the rhizome-laced dirt to Bistrian Materials, where it is segregated from any landfill. Then, after the removal is completed, several truckloads of new topsoil are brought in. Normally, this soil would be accompanied by an underground barrier between the properties, but that was not necessary on Ms. Hausman’s property because the neighbor, seeing Mr. Mark’s work, asked him to remove her bamboo, as well.

In the case of Mr. Kelly, a barrier was needed between the two properties, after Mr. Mark removed the unwanted growth. Mr. Mark laid in the ground a high-density polyethylene sheet, 30 inches tall. It is angled so that when shoots hit it, they are forced up toward the surface, where they can be removed. If they were forced down, they would evade the barrier, and continue to reproduce.

The cost of all this? “Anything but the smallest of jobs, you are talking thousands,” Mr. Mark said. The Gravesend Avenue project came in at about $10,000.

Assemblyman Thiele is looking for a sponsor for his bill in the State Senate. He believes it may take two years to wind through both houses and to the governor’s desk. “There is an education process that needs to go on,” he said.