photo by Jorge Bogantes, Anacostia Watershed Society
About a year ago, I decided to remove all of the English Ivy which was growing in my backyard. The annoying invasive exotic plants had been there for decades, and covered the entire inner root zone of our mature red maple tree. It was a problem I inherited when I bought the place.
English Ivy — sometimes called Irish Ivy or Atlantic Ivy — can quickly engulf an entire tree and cause fungal problems in bark. Sometimes in urban areas, trees are so weakened by such vines that they become much more likely to fall in storm or on a windy day, especially if the plants add more weight than the tree can sustain.
When English Ivy is allowed to mature and form berries, it also becomes a problem on public lands. Birds eat the berries and distribute the seeds deep in the forest, and because this plant can thrive in the shade, a carpet of ivy soon grows to the exclusion of most other plants and trees. There is some evidence that English Ivy also causes an increase in flooding along slopes and that in some cases may increase mosquito populations in urban locations.
For twelve years I had tried to minimize the vines’ impact on our beloved tree by keeping it off of the trunk of the maple and making sure it had no chance to form berries. I hadn’t ever tried to remove the stuff growing along the ground, however. It just seemed too herculean a task for me to take on and there was just too much else to do on any given workday in my garden.
But when new neighbors moved in behind me and we collectively decided that the two ancient fences separating our properties needed to be replaced, I suddenly realized that the ivy should go, as well. There was no more delaying the issue, because to let the vine grow on the new fence would be a foolish waste of money. Besides, the new neighbors were also working to clean all the overgrown invasives out of their yard; if we both worked together on the problem we just might stand a chance of really eradicating the plant completely from our tiny collective yards.
It took a full month of Sundays. Well, actually, I decided I would work for only few hours each Sunday during the month of November, when cooler temperatures and a lack of other garden chores would make this a more bearable job.
I pulled and piled, pulled an piled, until all of the vines had been removed and sent out as yard waste for the municipal compost pile.
And actually, it wasn’t as hard as I had feared. The ground in November proved to be nice and soft and I was often able to pull on the vines and get long, long pieces of root up without any effort at all. Underneath I found missing baseballs, pieces of broken brick, and a few party favors lost during a particularly good pinata break a few years back. There was also a defunct yellow jacket nest in the ground at the very back — making me especially glad I had waited until the colder weeks to attempt the heaviest work — those wasps were long gone by the time I got to their home.
I was also lucky because although the English Ivy in our yard had been there for years, the roots remained small and shallow. I have seen wooded tracts where the plants have gone vertical and the roots are several inches in diameter, though. I am very glad I didn’t have to deal with anything like that on our property.
“Wow,” my daughter remarked on Thanksgiving weekend, just after I cleared the last patch of green leaves. “The yard looks HUGE!”
The kids had never liked stepping into the “Land of the Ivy.” It was icky and risky, they told me, to step into leaves when you couldn’t see what might be under foot. Thinking about the yellow jacket nest I realized they were probably right.
In the spring, we knew planting grass in the spot where the ivy used to roam would be pointless and frustrating. The generous shade of the maple and its twisty surface roots would prevent most of the seed from taking root. And besides, the tree and the grass would just compete with each other for nutrients. I should also note that we gave up raking our leaves off the shady side of the yard many years ago in order to increase the habitat potential of our yard, so really a lawn was never in the cards for that spot.
Photo by Jorge Bogantes, Anacostia Watershed Society
I did want to protect the root zone of the maple, however, and so we called a local arbor care company and asked if we could get some wood chips delivered. They were happy to oblige and didn’t even charge us; it seems that trips to our county’s compost facility are expensive and consume a lot of diesel, so they offer their leftovers for the taking. You just have to be able to wait until they have a load that doesn’t include poison ivy, holly or other prickly problem plants that you wouldn’t want to spread in a backyard setting. A reputable company will be honest about this — so I would actually recommend going high end when you ask around for this service since price is no object when it comes to free stuff! Its always best to avoid anyone that isn’t licensed.
(In case you are wondering if there is any danger of spreading disease from wood chips, I should also say that the evidence seems to indicate that this is highly unlikely. For more about that topic you can check out this EXCELLENT write up from Linda Chalker-Scott .)
The chips I got were from two trees that came down in a storm; from the smell and the appearance they were cedar and oak species. The company saved money and I was glad to keep one more truck off the Capital Beltway and I-270 that week.
I’m pleased to report that a year later, we haven’t had a substantial return of the ivy, and the wood chips are working out great. When we do find ivy sprouts beginning to run through either the root zone of the tree or along the fence, we pull them out before they can take hold. It only takes a moment and doesn’t demand much muscle, just a good eye that can recognize the plant in its early stages.
My only regret is that we didn’t work on that ivy sooner. If I had known how pretty it was going to look and how easy it was going to be to maintain the area after the vines was gone, I’d have spent that month of Sundays pulling the vine out a long time ago.
If you want more information about removing ivy from tree using the “lifesaver method,” check out this Oregon State University website.
If you want help identifying English Ivy, this site from King County, WA is also good.