From Bradford pear to timber bamboo

When we bought our house in 1997, the front yard was “graced” by two Bradford pear trees (Pyrus calleryana ‘Bradford’). Once considered a near-perfect street tree—it grows fast, it’s hardy, tough and drought tolerant, and it has pretty white flowers in the spring and beautiful red foliage in the fall—the reality is that as the tree ages, its limbs become too heavy and break off from their weak attachment points. One of our neighbors had a Bradford pear that split in the middle, luckily missing the house as it broke apart.

As if that genetic disposition to breakage wasn’t bad enough, our Bradford pears were also infested with mistletoe, weakening them even more. We were already concerned because bits and pieces had been breaking off over the years, but one sunny and calm Sunday morning in the fall of 2009, an entire limb broke off of one tree and fell across the street, almost touching the sidewalk on the other side. Luckily, no cars had been parked in front of our house or our neighbor’s, otherwise pretty serious damage would have ensued. This was the last straw for us and we petitioned the City of Davis to have the tree removed. After the tree had been examined by the city arborist who agreed with our assessment, the matter went to the city tree commission which luckily approved our petition (they’re quite conservative when it comes to the removal of trees, but this one clearly was a hazard and liability). At the very end of December 2009 the city came and cut down the tree and ground out the stump.

Even in 2005, before our big remodel, it was easy to see the mistletoe infestation on the Bradford pear that eventually led to its removal.

Summer 2008, a year and a half before the Bradford pear was removed

Instead of having the city plant another tree, we opted to go our own way and replace the Bradford pear with something that would grow much faster than a tree and give us a more unique look: a giant clumping timber bamboo aka Bambusa oldhamii.

I bought a 5-gallon plant from Madman Bamboo and it went in the ground at the beginning of February 2010.

Bambusa oldhamii planted in early February 2010

Looking a bit lost in this seemingly large space

Initially, the Bambusa oldhamii looked quite lost in the space where the Bradford pear had been, but when summer rolled around and the oldhamii began to shoot, things began to change. The new culms measured between ¾ and 1 inch in diameter and shot skyward at a very satisfying pace.

The oldhamii made it through the winter with flying colors, and as you can see in the following photo, it had increased in size over the prior year by several orders of magnitude.

March 2011

Fast forward five months to August of 2011, and what was a wispy plant 1½ years ago is now an assertive presence in front of the house.

August 2011

August 2011

Shooting season began in late July, and the biggest of this year’s culms is 2 inches in diameter. I expect it to top out at 25-30 feet.

2 inch culm

I’m so used to the oldhamii that I hardly remember what it was like to live with the brittle and messy Bradford pear. But even though the tree itself is gone, there’s still plenty of life left underground. A veritable army of suckers has appeared for the past 1¾ years. I keep a close eye on the area and every couple of weeks, I arm myself with my trusty hori-hori knife and cut them out. In the spring, I tried a chemical sucker suppressant but all it did was temporarily slow down sucker production. Removing them manually, again and again and again, seems to be the most effective approach. At some point all the energy stored in the roots has to be used up.

The Bambusa oldhamii doesn’t seem to be bothered by the Bradford pear roots that are left underground. It forms a fairly tight clump anyway, and if down the line it meets up with the roots, they will act as a rhizome barrier, deflecting its growth. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, considering I want to keep the clump from getting too close to the fence.

110821_oldhamii suckers1

110821_oldhamii suckers2


  1. Can you post the 2005 and Aug 2011 photos of your front yard side-by-side? It's hard to see the difference... ;-)

    When you look back at the old pre-garden photos, do you wonder how you ever lived with it that way? I know I do when I see my own yard's photos.

  2. Alan, deciding what kind of a yard you want is the hardest part. Once you have clarity that way, you can identify what needs to be done and get started.

    I'm hoping that our yard (esp. the front yard, which is very visible) will inspire other neighbors to take that all-important first step away from the lawn monoculture that is still dominant here.

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  4. From the pictures, your oldhamii seems to have its first branches much higher up the culm than mine. Do the branches move up with maturity? Or is it maybe a difference in climate?

  5. Dave, I removed some of the lower branches so I can get to the back of the clump in order to remove the pear tree suckers (and I like to be able to see the culms instead of foliage).

    I believe larger culms will branch higher up anyway; I'll let you know once this year's culms have branched out.

  6. The difference is very much noticeable indeed. The after pictures are great and the house looks very livable. I wish I could have a house just like yours.
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  7. This is the result of a creative and artistic minds indeed. I love the idea of planting bamboos. They add beauty to your home. By the way, I admire your keen attention to small details. Great job.

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  8. @Jennifer and Andie, thank you! Bamboo makes every space most beautiful.


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