General Info on Arundo Donax (Reed Cane)

Copyright 1995 David C. Daye and the quoted author(s)

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Color Photos of Cane

Sources & Other Info from REC.GARDENS

From Fri Jun 10 16:09:35 1994 Date: Fri, 10 Jun 94 16:06:38 EDT
From: (Krzysztof Kozminski)
Subject: Re: Ornamental Grass: Arundo Donax
Newsgroups: rec.gardens

Don't bother with seeds, it would take a while before you get a sizeable plant. There are many mailorder nurseries that have A.donax (and, *much* prettier, variegated A.donax). [ Pipers' note: do not buy variegated cane, only the plain green variety. Longer sections, better suited for reeds. -- dcd ] Here's a couple:

You can find much more mailorder places in the books about ornamental grasses:

The prices are usually $5-10 per plant, a single plant will produce about 3-5 stems the year after planting. Variegated A.donax seems to be more vigorous in my garden than the plain green one.

Limerock and Tripple Brook Farm are recommended - i bought from both and had no complaints. Kurt Bluemel is the largest grass nursery in the US, also likely to be excellent quality, but I haven't bought anything from them, nor from Sandy Mush. Both were recommended by others on the net.

Assorted Growing, Harvest, Handling Notes From David Daye

The horticulture references [my wife used to have a job in our Hort dept and is a bit of a gardening enthusiast] indicate that Columbus, OH is 2-3 growing zones north of where cane is supposed to survive, and it's been doing modestly well here. Enough for drone reeds for bellows pipes and Highland. This is the 3rd year I've had big enough diameter for Highland chanter reeds and possibly uilleann pipes. Up to now though the big stuff has been very bad quality (creased, wrinkled bark, wood too soft) but maybe this is the year.

>Does it take much tending as it grows? And I think I remember you
>saying you could hide a bull in your stand: does it tend to take over like

No tending at all. Right now it's about 13 feet tall. I don't have enough quantity to hide a bull but it's more than tall enough to hide bison or meese!

I kind of think bamboo grows a lot faster, but then again I'm not in the ideal zone for arundo donax. Still, it's not unusual to see measurable growth on some days.

I regard this project as something of a stunt; on the other hand, I am harvesting a nice quantity of drone reed cane. I doubt I can match the quality of commercial chanter cane in this climate, particularly when I see the good basoon cane. But if the stuff's going to grow here anyways, and if it does come close enough, so much the better.

Anyone into growing cane for top-end personal use, and especially commercial sales, would have to regard this as a long-term project. Your plot probably needs 3-5 years to be producing enough volume for a few pipers, and you really do *not* want to make reeds out of cane less than 2-3 years aged after cutting. It isn't stable, it's prone to "creep" or deformation & collapse after manufacture, and probably is dull of tone and not very stable in tuning.

I got starts from the University arboretum and it's been growing fine here in Ohio ever since, tho' it's officially 2-3 zones outside its range. My patch is about 4' by 3', on the ground, and around 25' high in good years, 18' or so in bad years. Some pipers may need to consult with their wives about this aspect. I suppose you could top off stalks as they hit the 10' mark or so, if there is a problem with grass looming over the houses in your neighborhood.

The vast majority of the cane is unsuitable, maybe the wrong diameter, some spoilage, but I get enough to keep me in Highland drone reeds. There's a lot of smallpipe sized stuff which is very helpful for me with uilleann pipes. It seems thinner-walled than commercially sold UP drone cane, but then I rarely need to scrape the tongues thinner. In my experience this is an advantage but perhaps a professional piper or reedmaker might think otherwise; I haven't yet shared my UP drone cane with a pro for advice. I have enough GHB experience to be satisfied with cane for that instrument.

I cut the cane in the fall. So far I've been waiting till c. Dec. or so when it rather grudgingly yields to winter, but this year I'm taking it right now in full greenery. I strip off all the leaves so the stalks are able to dry rot-free. In France according to Guy Hardy they don't harvest till the dead of winter, having a nice dry rot-free fall, when all the sap is out of the cane and it's turned brown. I just can't wait that long.

Over winter I mulch the cane bed in a thick protective layer of leaves. This stuff is native no further north than Virginia so I don't want to chance losing it. SO far no trouble though.

Back to the harvest:

I let it dry outdoors protected all winter, then move it into the slightly heated/cooled attached garage for a year. During the early summer I'll cart the stalks up onto the roof for several sessions of sun-drying, to turn them golden brown, so long as there's an assured run of several sunny days each time. The French (GH again) spread their cane out on tarps and feverishly gather & shelter it from impending rain, then back out again, doing this for up to 4 years.

The second year I cut them down into lengths of about 3' (for purely accounting reasons; if piles get mixed up, I know the long ones are new, the medium ones medium, and the short ones are ready to use). They spend this year high up on top of one of our dining room/living room cabinets, last year's bundle is right overhead now and about as big around as a medium male bicep. I've already discarded any cane that isn't roughly the right diameter. Again this may be a matter for some spousal negotiation!

The 3rd year I cut it into short lengths of 2-3 sections' length and put it into the bin next to my reedmaking/pipe maintenance bench in the basement.

  • Click here to see again the large (240 KB) color photo of 3 different batches of cane sun-drying in my back yard. The shortest lengths at left are the 3-year-old cane mentioned above, well browned by sun. The middle batch is nearly as brown 2-year-old cane. The greenish cane at right (including the few large chanter-diameter pieces) is the recent winter's harvest.
  • The highland drone reeds I'm playing now were harvested & aged before I remembered about the sun drying. So curiously they're distinctly yellow- green, which is usually a sign of very immature reed cane (!), but this stuff is 3 1/2 years old and it's been fine from Ohio to Florida from 50 F. to 95 F. and indoor dry heat to outdoor driving rain. The most important thing for drone cane, so far as I've learned, and not counting professional level playing which I haven't done, is that the wood be uniform and about the right density, and that the diameters be precisely what's appropriate for your drones, and of course that the tongue be properly made. This is easy to do with home cane and I'm happier with these than with plastics or anything I can find on the market.

    This should give you something to go on. Your first year won't produce anything useful for Highland but you'll probably be getting useful cane 2nd year. My big hope is that some few of us have the space & inclination to grow in quantity and improve the market for good drone cane at least.

    Transplanting Cane

    In the event you should have to move, or if you've found wild cane to transplant into your garden, the good news is that it seems easy to transplant. It must be since I did it! Well think for a moment-- it's a weed. Here's the procedure I used.

    Cane stalks grow from large horizontal underground roots which are roughly the diameter of your arm, and lie just below the surface. Soak the ground thoroughly and cut the stalks down to a few feet height. Dig around the bases of the stalks to uncover at least part of the root system. Use a small tree- trimming saw to cut the roots into lengths roughly equal to the width of your spread hand. Place these into pots with potting soil and move to their new location.

    My plants sat around in pots for over a week before I got them into the ground. This didn't seem to hurt them at all. I moved in early June when the plants were in their vigorous growing time. I don't know if this was wise, neutral or foolish. In any case it worked just fine for me. This year I'll have plenty of small drone cane, possibly some GHB drone cane, next year I expect to have a large stand including chanter-sized cane again.

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