Uncontrolled growth of backyard bamboo pits neighbor against neighbor

There’s no debate about bamboo’s ability to spread like wildfire. It is this capability that has been at the root of many arguments between residents throughout New Jersey and elsewhere, when bamboo, planted by someone, migrates to the yard of a neighbor who wants nothing to do with it.

Bamboo problems have encouraged some municipalities throughout the state to try and get in front of the issue. Howell Township passed a law in June that requires its residents to control the invasive plant’s spread, and Ocean City introduced an ordinance at a late August meeting that would go even further – it would prohibit residents from even planting it.

“You turn your head and the plant grows,” said Millburn Township Forester Tom Doty. “It crosses property lines. It’ll come through pavement.”

To fully understand the bamboo problem in New Jersey, however, it is important to look at how it compares to other invasive plants in New Jersey and to assess the existing tools local and statewide governments have at their disposal to keep it from spreading.

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‘Outcompetes everything’

Bamboo is not native to New Jersey. It can be classified as an invasive species, which means it is part of a set of plants that can damage natural and agricultural resources throughout the state.

It is possible for the plant to spread into the woods and forests of New Jersey. According to state botanist David Snyder, who works for the state Department of Environmental Protection, a small patch of it near a river system can sometimes break off and float downstream, which allows it to easily migrate to other areas. It grows very quickly, and its roots are very difficult to remove once they are established.

It has only been in the past decade that Snyder said he has noticed bamboo spreading in this way. In the past, the issue was largely fought out amongst neighbors who noticed it creeping from yard to yard.

Now, though, Snyder said he has seen in growing freely in the woods more often.

“It’s fully something that’s able to spread on its own,” he said. “It just outcompetes everything.”

He said he has been to places, specifically in Monmouth County, where the woods have been extremely dark with bamboo – sometimes spreading throughout an entire half acre.

A residential problem 

For the most part, though, bamboo challenges remain an issue that residents have to deal with.

There are other invasive plants, such as Japanese barberry and multiflora rose, that threaten natural areas more dramatically than bamboo, since they are more widespread. But since bamboo is often planted by one resident in a yard and spreads that way, it is often people that end up dealing with home and yard-related problems associated with the plant. Snyder said that metal barriers placed next to the bamboo are intended to keep the plant from spreading, but that it often finds a way to migrate anyway.

That is why it has fallen to municipalities to try and regulate bamboo’s presence. There are no existing statewide regulations that allow similar bamboo restrictions to be enforced.

Doty, for example, has the power to not approve a new landscape plan for a new project in Millburn. When it comes to existing yards and homes, though, there isn’t much Doty can do to keep people from planting bamboo and allowing it to grow freely.

Invasive species groups have mourned the state’s lack of a role in reducing such species’ spread. In the past five years, the state has cut down on its invasive species prevention efforts.

It wasn’t always supposed to be that way. Michael Van Clef wrote the strategic plan for the New Jersey Invasive Species Council – which was formed as a state government-run entity intended to address problems with invasives – that was released in January 2010. Soon afterward, newly-elected Gov. Chris Christie pulled the plug on the council, and its efforts essentially “fell apart,” according to Van Clef.

States like Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire and Connecticut all have put forth more of an effort to address these issues and have worked to ban some invasives. Because New Jersey’s council was disbanded, however, there was no one left to implement the plan, and there was no strong direction for the state to take on the matter.

A coalition of stakeholders then came together to create what eventually became New Jersey Invasive Species Strike Team, a non-profit that primarily focuses on keeping new and emerging plants from spreading. Van Clef is the group’s science director, and while he is pleased with the work the strike team has done, he has noticed the state’s absence.

“It was clear that the state was not going to be a leader,” he said.

The strike team has not focused on bamboo as much as other plants because it does not have as much of a presence in natural areas as do others. It is also not an emerging threat.

“It really is much more of a cultural pest,” Van Clef said.

Next steps

So municipalities have tried to fill the void. In Howell, the township’s code enforcement officer is tasked with making sure the bamboo regulations are followed, and the same would happen in Ocean City if its regulation is passed. As with all new laws, it remains to be seen how easy the enforcement will be.

If such laws become more widespread throughout New Jersey, they could potentially keep residents from getting at each other’s throats as often as they do on this matter. Doty said he receives at least a call per month about bamboo issues.

Regardless of what happens, it is likely that bamboo will remain a divisive issue for some time.

“Bamboo is prob one of the most controversial plants, either meaning: A. you love it, or B. you hate it,” he said. “There’s no in-between.”

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