Home & Garden Special Section: A bamboo oasis in a Blaine backyard

Published on Wed, Apr 25, 2012 by Carissa Wright

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In the corner of the yard, a rare black bamboo plant is flowering. Tom Burton planted it 31 years ago, after receiving it as a housewarming gift when he and his wife finished building their Blaine Avenue home. Bamboo flowers infrequently, and afterward the plant dies. However, Burton is hopeful. His black bamboo plant is the only one around, so he’s going to leave it be and hope that since it can’t cross-pollenate with any other plants, it’ll survive.

That first bamboo plant spawned in Burton a hobby that became a passion that grew into a thriving business. Burton runs a bamboo nursery from his home in Blaine and, with a truckload of plants, makes the trek every summer Saturday to the Bellingham Farmers Market. Tom’s Bamboo has been a market mainstay for 16 years now, and Burton has no plans to discontinue that tradition.

Burton never really intended to start a business, though. After receiving his initial bamboo plants as gifts (he was given three), they languished in an unused corner of the yard for a time, since he really didn’t know what to do with them. But when he and his wife realized they needed some kind of screening to block the neighbors’ view directly into their house, Burton decided to plant two of the bamboo plants in front of the window. It was perfect.

“That kind of triggered it,” he said. Over the next decade or so, Burton and friend Richard Sturgill found themselves in a sort of competition, collecting different varieties of the plant they were both so interested in. Eventually he started selling a few.
“After 20 years of growing bamboo, you find yourself in the bamboo business,” Burton said.

The most surprising thing about going into the business was how much interest people showed, he said. And more and more people are stopping by his market booth every year.

Most people are looking for a fast-growing screening plant, and Burton is ready with running bamboo for just that purpose. Running bamboo spreads very quickly, which is great until it spreads right into your blueberry patch.

With running bamboo, Burton strongly suggests constructing a root barrier with thick, flexible plastic buried in a 2- to 3-foot deep trench around the bed. He calls it a kind of “bottomless pot” to keep the bamboo from spreading out of control.

In his own nursery, Burton grows his plants right in the container he’ll sell them in, which makes moving the plants around and carting them to Bellingham dramatically easier, even if the plants don’t grow to maturity quite as fast.

Burton’s philosophy of selling bamboo is simple – low prices make the plant accessible for more people.

“I’d rather sell you two plants than one,” he said. Keeping his prices low gets plants into gardeners’ hands and encourages people to get interested in bamboo.

Getting people interested in bamboo (along with all other things horticultural) is one of Burton’s driving passions. He works closely with Blaine High School teacher George Kaas to offer students in his horticulture class some hands-on experience. From giving them tasks as simple as seeding a lawn bed to teaching complicated bamboo propagation techniques, Burton helps to connect students’ learning experiences with the world outside the classroom.

It might be easier to seed the new lawn himself, Burton said, but then how would the students learn?

In addition to the commercial nursery, Burton has quite the selection of bamboo surrounding his home. A clumping Himalayan variety stands near a garden archway (made of bamboo, naturally), while a grove of four-inch-thick stalks towers next to the house. A striking yellow-groove bamboo provides screening at the kitchen window, and that original black bamboo still stands in its corner. He used to have even more, he said, but he and his wife are getting back into gardening for food now that their children are grown, and needed the sunlight for their nascent crops.

Besides, he says, nothing in a garden should stay the same for too long.