Weeding 101: English Ivy

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
Weeding 101: English Ivy

Is English Ivy (Hedera helix) a weed or a desirable addition to your landscape? Because it’s been cultivated for so long, the best answer is “it’s both.”

In the Pacific Northwest, more than one state has designated it as some level of noxious weed, and the USDA also indicates that it is a plant of weedy concern in several other US locations.  I would argue that it doesn’t require a government declaration to teach us about this plant’s invasive tendencies. And, unfortunately, it’s so adaptable that it’s insidious across a large swath of North America.

Although H. helix is most commonly referred to as “English Ivy,” it actually hales from the European mainland. In all likelihood, the English began growing it in their gardens and then transported to the “New World” gardens. From there, it spread far and wide across the continental United States. Among the many species in the Hedera genre, this one is a particularly menacing plant. It isn’t picky about soil, shade or sun. It travels as a groundcover and a twisting, twining, “helix” of a vine that smothers everything in its path – from delicate native perennials to towering native conifers. That behavior, in my book, qualifies it as a truly unwanted weed.

So, what to do about it?

If you don’t have English Ivy in your garden, don’t buy it to plant. Some nurseries still offer it as an easy care, evergreen groundcover or edging. Don’t be fooled. There are plenty of other fantastic plants to choose from instead.

If you do have H. helix in your garden, consider chipping away at it. If a few seedlings pop up courtesy of pooping birds, pull those the moment you see them. If you have a garden where English Ivy is well established, it is unlikely you will eradicate it in one weeding session. Instead, tackle it based on what’s best for your situation. In Washington where I live, this plant is so well established that despite being listed as a noxious weed, it is classified in a way that doesn’t require homeowners to wipe it out. True obliteration would be near impossible. Instead, we are encouraged to no longer plant it and to do our best to keep it under control.

How does one go about controlling something as obstinate as this plant?

Using Power Gear Large Pruners to cut ivy climbing a tree

If your ivy patch is beginning to climb up trees, begin by clipping the vines at the base of the tree. Do not pull the vines attached to the bark right away. Instead, let them die back for a few weeks or months, removing them only after they’ve begun to wither and lose their grip on the bark. If you had pulled them off immediately after cutting, there’s a good chance you would do irreparable damage to your tree as well. Although Ivy doesn’t actually sap anything from a tree as it attaches itself via clinging adventitious roots that climb in a helix pattern, it does add weight and the potential to cover a tree’s leaves thereby depriving it from the sunlight it needs to feed itself. So, clip, wait, and later remove the dead stuff remaining on the tree trunk.

Okay, so what about the stuff alive and growing at the base of the tree – or growing anywhere else for that matter? It’s really going to depend on how much you have, how well established it is, your tolerance for it, and how much time you have to work on it.

If your English Ivy reaches maturity, it will begin to put on white flowers followed by black berries. The flowers will feed pollinators, and the berries will feed birds. But those berries will also become a bigger patch of Ivy in the future. So, try to battle back anything mature – or reaching maturity – sooner rather than later. Less blooms = less new plants.

If Ivy covers your entire property, you may choose to beat back the patches closest to your home first. Ivy creates habitat for rats and mosquitoes, so working away at spots where you spend time may make the most sense.

Clipped Ivy Hedge at MossWood Acres in Richmond VA

And, if you simply cannot seem to win the war against this plant, you might try taking an artistic approach and spend your time using a pair of hand shears to clip it into hedges and topiaries instead. Sometimes, it makes more sense to make the most of a bad situation.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a magic wand for killing off Ivy. It’s both adaptable and tough as nails. Digging, digging and more digging is the way to go. It might mean you have a combination of spading fork, pointed tip digging shovel, and a Big Grip Knife to loosen soil, spade up big patches, and carefully lift the bits from tighter spots. Take care to get every bit of root, or that nasty patch will simply grow right back.