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He makes bamboo and a new life work

By Reid Creager
Correspondent

The headline on the HGTV Gardens website leaves no middle ground: “Avoid Bamboo Like the Plague.”

When told of this, Vann Mills chuckles. He says he’s at a stage of life where he needs to be open-minded about opportunities. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be reinventing himself by selling perennial plants. And he certainly wouldn’t be shipping bamboo to New York City so it could be used to make flutes for schoolchildren.

Mills was trying to contain the rampaging bamboo at the back of his property after he moved to Mount Holly from Charlotte in 2007. “My first experience here was, I ruined my tiller trying to till a little garden area in the back. It kind of got stuck in the roots. You know how bamboo can be.”

How it can be is more invasive than bad surgery. Bamboo sprouts can grow 12 inches a day. Underground roots of common bamboo can travel 20-plus feet from the original clump and reach 15 feet tall. Bamboo can run below concrete barriers and pop up on the other side.

It’s also thick; Mills says it can reach 9 inches in circumference. “For years, I thought just like everybody else: Who would want bamboo?” says Mills, who grew up in rural Union County and sells his homegrown perennials at the weekly farmers market in Mount Holly.

“The growing season for it is May and June. It grows a lot in the springtime. In my backyard in the spring, it looks like a herd of cattle coming up the hill. … Never in my wildest thoughts did I think I would make a dollar on bamboo.”

He’s had to change his thinking on some other things, too. A longtime human resources professional who also worked in retail, Mills sought a new direction when he moved to Mount Holly but has found “the economy is tough on this side of the Catawba. It’s taken a lot of people to sort of encourage me to switch gears.”

He started landscaping and growing things at his house. Two summers ago – he remembers the date, July 19 – he decided he would try to sell plants for a living. Now he’s licensed by the N.C. Department of Agriculture as a plant nursery.

Mills puts seven templates of ads on Craigslist year-round. His most interesting response came from a New York City group, Yung Flutes. Perry Yung is a performer and teacher of the shakuhachi, which Mills says is “the most difficult flute to learn to play. He teaches elementary school children in New York City how to make these flutes, and how to perform.

“They were looking for a national distributor of bamboo in order to make flutes. I was just floored by that. I thought, ‘I’m going to try to milk this for all it’s worth.’

“We went back and forth and I said, ‘Why don’t you send me the specifications on what kind of bamboo it is, and I’ll see if I have it?’ What they require is, you have to go underground to dig it up. … You don’t just whack it off at the ground. There are rings, almost at the root, that they need in order to make the mouthpiece.”

He sent two packages of bamboo – six 3-foot sections. Mills didn’t charge money that time, although Yung paid for the shipping. Instead, he asked for and got a flute. “Now I just have to learn how to play it,” he says, chuckling.

He hopes for an ongoing relationship with Yung once the latter returns from a tour in China and Japan. Regardless, “This is hilarious to me because I think it’s so novel.”

Mills says bamboo has myriad uses that range from tomato stakes to hat racks to coat racks. “I had someone from Goodwill buy some huge bamboo stalks to make a waterfall. It’s like a pipe. You can hollow them out; I’m working on that right now. I whack them off and you have to dry them, so I throw them on top of my carport and they fry in this hot sun.”

He says a couple of teachers have asked about the bamboo to use for displays in their classrooms. “They’ll use it for arts and crafts, to be able to hang things from it. Most people only think of it for using it for fishing poles … I’ve sold some for that.”

The price “can go for anywhere from $2 to $200, depending on what it’s used for. But it’s not enough sales to cause me to make a living at it.”

Mills says he’s up to 42 items in his inventory that he grows in his yard, including a lot of banana trees. “My motto is: I try to turn a passionate hobby into a profitable way of life.”

Reid Creager is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Reid? Email him at reidcreager@yahoo.com.
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