Raising Cane

“Bamboo Bob” Foley wants to be the Johnny Appleseed of the plant he says has all the answers for 21st Century homeowners. And, yes, it thrives in Jersey.

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Thomas Edison used a strip of bamboo as the filament in his early manufactured light bulbs. Eastern cultures prize parts of the plant for medicinal purposes and to promote fertility. Bamboo’s tensile strength rivals that of steel, making it ideal for building fences, ladders, scaffolds, even bridges. Yet it can also be made into both pen and paper, as well as beer to sip while writing odes to this drought-tolerant, fast-growing plant. And where would Chinese restaurants be without bamboo shoots?

Bamboo elicits images of rainforests and giant pandas. But it also thrives in the Garden State, as Morristown native Robert Foley—“Bamboo Bob” to his customers—loves to point out. “It’s really something special,” says Foley, whose Morristown landscaping business, Touch the Earth, specializes in bamboo hedges and ornamental gardens. “Everyone thinks it won’t grow around here. That’s just not the case.”

A woody grass, bamboo grows at the rate of several feet per day in the tropics. Varieties suited to Jersey’s climate aren’t quite as vigorous, but the canes can grow up to 3 inches daily, some reaching full height (around 60 feet) in six to twelve weeks.

What’s more, bamboo grows in sun or shade; deer won’t eat it; it retains its leaves in winter; and its dense root system fights soil erosion. “They say the safest place you can be in an earthquake is in a bamboo grove, because the roots are so tightly knit,” Foley says. The downside? Like all grasses, bamboo likes to spread. But Foley claims it’s easily checked by proper trimming. “I have more problems with ivy,” he says.

Foley, 59, first became fascinated with tropical plants in the early 1970s.  In 1978, he started Touch the Earth, focusing on 60 to 70 Chinese bamboo species (of nearly 2,000 worldwide) that can stand up to Jersey winters. “There’s no other plant like it, with so many uses,” he says. “I learn something new about it every day.”

Nowadays he drives around in a pickup truck whose cargo bed is outlined in bamboo fence. (“People stop the truck to get information from me,” says Foley. “I get at least one job a week from the truck alone.”) To meet demand, Foley maintains 70 acres of pesticide-free bamboo groves in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Indeed, he says, even by plant standards, “you can’t get any greener than bamboo.” It produces 35 percent more oxygen than trees, soaks up excess nitrogen in the soil (reducing runoff), and regrows quickly after harvesting—an efficiency that makes it a practical source of sustainable flooring and textiles.

“Whatever I harvest, twice as much grows back,” Foley says. Beyond that, bamboo is beautiful. “It’s very tranquil, moving in the wind,” he says. “Buddha liked to hang out in bamboo groves, drink tea, and meditate. Even in winter, the canes will bend all the way down in heavy snowfall and then swing back up. It’s like a ballet.”

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