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A living lesson on bamboo

Gavino Villa, co-owner of Paso Bamboo Nursery.
Photo courtesy of paso bamboo nursery
Design Notebook 5-4-11
Gavino Villa, co-owner of Paso Bamboo Nursery. Photo courtesy of paso bamboo nursery Design Notebook 5-4-11

About four miles north of Paso Robles is a sight more befitting the forests of Asia than the rolling hills of North County. It is Paso Bamboo Nursery, a 40-acre farm owned by Gavino and Estefana Villa.

Gavino was formerly an engineer who took up bamboo gardening as a hobby 20 years ago. He planted a bamboo grove in his Bay Area back yard – an antidote to the stress of his job.

“It was so lush and tropical – my little oasis of peace and tranquility,” he said.

When the couple purchased the farm in 2000, they test planted 60 bamboo varieties to see which would stand up to the temperature extremes of the region. The 10 species that did exceptionally well are now sold in pots. A total of 40 species are grown onsite and can be dug up for purchase upon request.

“The plants that do well in our climate here will do even better and grow taller in more temperate areas like San Luis Obispo,” he noted.

The farm also has an olive orchard, pasture land and wilderness areas. The four acres devoted exclusively to bamboo are a living classroom with full-size bamboo groves that allow visitors to observe various species at maturity. More elaborate demonstration gardens are in the works, as are structures made from bamboo canes such as huts and trellises.

The nursery portion of the farm offers plants in five, 15 and 25 gallon containers. Guests can pick up a small starter plant or a 20- to-30-foot specimen. The nursery offers delivery anywhere in the county.

Bamboo species are divided into four categories: giant timbers, exotics, hedges, and shrubs/ground covers.

Shrub or ground cover bamboos are the most low-growing. In contrast, giant timbers, under the right conditions, can grow up to 60 feet. In North County, they tend to be shorter – around 35 feet. When space permits, giant timbers are ideal as a tall natural fence, a wind screen, or a source of shade. The massive culms are often harvested and used for building.

Exotics are typically selected for their unusual hues, such as the Robert Young with culms that turn gold with vertical green stripes, and Black Bamboo that turns black after one year. Gavino likes to use exotics to break up large expanses of green in a bamboo garden.

One of the most common uses for bamboo is for a privacy screen. According to Gavino, this is especially helpful where zoning restrictions limit fence height. Bamboo is evergreen and allows you to control the height, fullness and width of the screen. It also requires less trimming and maintenance than most shrub hedges.

Although many varieties make good screening candidates, one of Gavino’s favorites is Semiarundinaria fastuosa or Temple Bamboo. It has very vertical, straight culms that grow to around 25 feet. Short branches run the length of each culm, making it ideal for creating a compact, dense screen. The smooth, round culms are initially green, then become purplish-brown.

For a faster-growing privacy screen, he often recommends Phyllostachys bissetii. A vigorous grower, it will top out at around 20 feet. Bissetii has dark green leaves and is upright, although it has more of an arch than Temple Bamboo.

Although bamboo can be planted nearly any time of the year in temperate climates, spring is ideal. Many plants are ready to put out new shoots, so planting bamboo now may give you a fast start to creating your own tropical oasis.

Paso Bamboo Nursery is open by appointment and located at 5590 North River Road in Paso Robles, 712-1759.

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