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Garden Plot: Plucked poison ivy still a perilous problem

Friday - 5/30/2014, 8:20am  ET

A goat grazes in the brush in a fenced off area at Congressional Cemetery. More than 100 goats took over the cemetery to help clean up brush in an area away from the graves. The goats grazed for six days to eliminate vines, poison ivy and weeds. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Poison ivy plucked can still pose a perilous problem

Mark in Poolesville writes: "I'm curious if poison ivy leaches into the soil. I removed all of the above-ground growth, but there are still thick roots in the ground and some thicker stems above ground. Is it safe to plant grapes or other fruits there?"

The allergenic oil in poison ivy doesn't migrate into the soil, Mark, but it is active in the roots and stems as well as the leaves. Touch any part of the plant - - including the roots - and you risk getting a rash. (About 25 percent of the population can handle the plant without peril; the rest of us react.) And the odds are strong that those roots will soon regrow their vines, so you should really clear the area completely before you think about planting there.

To do so safely and effectively, soak the soil thoroughly with water (which makes getting the entire root much easier; don't be afraid to have a hose dripping right next to the roots while you work). Then pull the well-saturated roots out slowly with heavy plastic bags covering both your hands. Drop the roots into a thick trash bag and continue, while chanting, "don't touch your face; don't touch your face" until you're done. (Oh and don't touch your face!)

Use a fresh bag to safely pull the bags off your hands when you're finished and dispose of everything in the trash. Then rinse your hands and arms down with cool water - no soap, no washrag, no jewelweed. Just cool clean water completely dissolves the oil.

Don't use gloves to pull poison ivy; they'll become contaminated with the oil and give you a rash every time you touch them.

Improving clay soil, one long toss at a time

Vicky in Laurel writes: "I want to create flower beds around a portion of my house -- one wall facing north, another facing south. Do you have a guide to converting the native clay soil to a more nourishing and accommodating flower bed?"

Yes, Vicky dig out as much of the clay as you can and toss it as far away as you can. Clay soil is much better for making pots than growing plants. Then build nice raised beds and fill them with a mixture of topsoil, compost and perlite (a mined volcanic mineral popped into little white balls, available in bags at any big garden center). Your plants will thrive with the good drainage and natural nutrition this combination provides.

Just don't locate the beds where they'll be touching the actual house. To keep subterranean termites at bay, you always want to keep a foot of open space next to your foundation.

Did wicked winter wipe out fig trees?

Harvey in Silver Spring and Carrie in McLean are among the many who report that their fig trees did not seem to survive our harsh, horrid winter. "What can we do to see if they're still alive?" writes Harvey. "Will new shoots come up from the root?"

"How long should I wait to be sure?" chimes in Carrie, who adds, "If I cut it down to ground level, is there a chance it will come back?"

It's common for fig trees to suffer some winter damage in our region, especially if they're growing out in the open. Actual death by winter is unusual, but this was an unusual winter. If you have a fig tree that still shows no sign of new green growth, cut it back to about a foot tall. If the root has survived, you won't get figs this season, but the tree itself will begin to grow back. If no green appears within a few weeks after pruning, it's dead.

And take this harsh lesson to heart. Our long run of warm winters has lulled us into forgetting that some plants, like figs and rosemary, can't take prolonged, bitter cold. To better their chances of survival, position tender new plants in an area with excellent drainage that's somewhat protected by nearby structures, not out in the open, and wait to prune off any winter damaged areas in the spring.

Fall pruning = A really most sincerely dead fig

Phil, who lives in in Rockville writes: "The fig tree in my back yard produced bushels of figs every August. In November, I trimmed it back, thinking it would encourage new growth and get rid of branches that were too high to reach. Unfortunately, the tree died. My wife claims that trimming the tree killed it. What do you think killed the tree? And how can I avoid this in the future?"

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