Burton's Bamboo Garden: An unlikely farm flourishes in Warren County, passing from father to son

MORROW, Ohio - In the last hours of the worst winter in 20 years, a cardinal darted over the sleeping fields of Ghiels Carroll Road. Not far away, an elderly man slowly walked a path, in a coat the same shade as the redbird’s wing. All around him, life had gone brown. But in a few weeks, his land would shimmer velvety green in a new chapter of the man’s quixotic experiment of nearly 40 years: To nurture in southeastern Ohio the tropical wonder of bamboo.

The man is Jerry Burton. He is 72. In younger days, he served in the U.S. Marine Corps; then he sold insurance. But as he put it, he was a little too honest, and he got fired. By then, though, it didn’t matter. Jerry Burton had found his calling: bamboo. The books he read inspired him with bamboo’s versatility, beauty, and variety. When Burton got that pink slip, he was already on fire with a lush and verdant idea.

Bamboo in Warren County? Believe it

Burton knew a widow who owned a slice of heaven, surrounded by corn farms, in eastern Warren County outside Morrow. He persuaded her to sell the property: 22 acres with its own water source, a seven-acre lake, which was vital to his vision. Few plants are as thirsty as bamboo.

In the plant family, bamboo is classified as a grass. It needs no fertilizer or special growing medium. The U.S. Agriculture Department calls bamboo a specialty crop. About 1,000 farms and landscape nurseries in the county grow it for commercial sales. The American Bamboo Society has a membership of about 700 enterprises in the United States and 37 countries.

In the common imagination, bamboo seems fit only for the sweaty, humid climates of Asia. But bamboo advocates in the United States like Jerry Burton have been arguing for years that bamboo could become a transformative crop; you can eat the shoots, feed animals with the leaves, make clothing from the fiber, use the canes for building material. Plus its light footprint on the land could ease climate change.

Burton learned the nomenclature and admired bamboo’s eccentricities, its exotic beauty: the yellow cane and black cane, the strains that grow with one groove or two, the knee-high dwarf plants. Year after year, he delighted to see his bamboo go from sprout and to 60 feet in six weeks. Year after year, he proved that bamboo could grow and thrive in Ohio. The big challenge isn’t the cold of Ohio winters: It’s the wind, which can blow chlorophyll right out of the leaves.

Burton's Bamboo Garden grows

He built an Asian-inspired house on the property, where he and his wife Sharon reared three sons--along with peacocks, rheas, emus, turkeys, pheasants, ducks and two huge, fierce cassowaries--named with puckish humor Clarice and Lector. Burton befriended the family of a Chinese restaurant owner who took several tours of the property and pronounced it a suitable resting place for their clan's astounding collection of hand-carved stone sculptures from the Yangtze River: fu dogs, a massive temple bell, a Buddha, drums, lanterns, dragons.

Along the long drive off Ghiels Carroll Road leading to his property, Burton planted bamboo that the county trimmed so it wouldn’t overtake the power lines. All summer long, the high green cover lured cardinals to roost.

At Burton’s Bamboo Garden , Burton gave tours for $10 a head; he waived the fee if you bought some plants. He erected a long building at the lake’s edge that he christened Haiku House, where he could give talks and where visitors could sit in the quiet and listen to the breeze rustle the canes.

Over time, Burton acquired 60 varieties of bamboo, drafting his sons as field hands to manage the crop. Unlike most plants, bamboo roots grow vertically, which is how it gets a difficult reputation for spreading uncontrollably. Landscapers who bought plants from Burton for privacy screens understood that feature. But Burton had to school many nervous homeowners on managing the plant: Build a barrier 24 inches into the ground. Burton even sold rolls of black plastic that corralled the roots. Once contained, bamboo behaves.

Feeding pandas

About five years ago, Burton’s Bamboo Garden took on a life-saving mission. Zoos called him for food for their red pandas--the smaller, even cuter cousin to the giant panda. Every Sunday, Burton harvested canes with the with the most tender leaves, trimmed the branches, bagged them, boxed them and shipped to two dozen zoos.

The older Burton sons, Byron and Bishop, went out on their own, leaving the farm. But the youngest, Zach, loved the place, the animals, the plants, the peace. Zach knew the plants’ Latin names from boyhood. For a brief time, he trained to join the professional ultimate-fighting circuit. But when he and his girlfriend had one son and then another, Zach could not imagine living anywhere else.

Two years ago, Jerry Burton could no longer ignore the claims of age on his body and his mind. He signed the business over to Zach, and father and son worked through a transition.

Then the hard winter of 2014 descended.

A foot of ice

covered the lake. The ground froze. The bitter wind howled day and night, shaking the canes, blowing the green out of the bamboo. To fulfill the zoo orders, Zach Burton reached out to a bamboo farmer in Georgia and bought extra plants to supplement his stock. Even the almost eternally green land of Burton’s Bamboo Garden turned brown and dry.

But bamboo’s magic is its sheer will to live.

Bamboo springs eternal

"There's no place like this" -Zach Burton, Burton's Bamboo Garden

On the March day when winter crossed over into spring, Zach Burton, 29, (pictured above) slipped on his rubber boots and walked around the garden, full of plans for the year. Already, the garden’s website was buzzing with orders. He’s talked to a local housing developer about planting bamboo privacy screens during construction. He’s bringing aboard two new species, including one in which the cane grows in a zigzag. He’s dreaming of buying planting land down south as a hedge against tough winters to come.

He will build his own house on the property, he hopes by the end of the year. He wants his sons to know this place as he knows it. Maybe one day, one of them will take over.

Zach looked back at the elderly man in his coat, bright as a redbird’s wing, who slowly walked back through the garden, past the pheasants and the cassowaries, to his house. Then a cardinal zoomed low over the neighbor’s cornfield, took a sharp turn up and over, then it dove straight into its place amid the bamboo.

More about Burton's Bamboo Garden:

  • Website
  • Address: 7352 Gheils Carroll Road, Morrow
  • Open seven days a week, by appointment
  • Telephone (513) 646-7687
  • Email: Zach@burtonsbamboogarden.com

Connect with WCPO contributor Anne Saker on Twitter: @apsaker .

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