Get to the root of the problem: How to eradicate English ivy

Meet Mike Saturday, April 6, at 11 a.m. at Homestead Gardens in Davidsonville, Maryland, near Annapolis. Mike will reveal his top tomato growing tips and tricks, sign books and who knows what else. The event is free.

For the love (or otherwise) of ivy

Rick in Marshall (just South of Middleburg, Virginia, on Interstate 66) writes: “I have an ‘English ivy problem!’ I’ve lived at my home for 35 years and I swear that I never planted even one sprig of this ‘weed.’ The ivy looks pretty but is very resistant to eradication. I have a brick veneered house and this [bad word] plant grows over my planting beds and crawls up the wall like invading locusts!”

Yes, you’re in a world of trouble, Rickster, as it sounds like maybe you’ve been waiting those 35 years to notice that your home is getting an Ivy League education. Oh — and many people have similar ivy problems that they also didn’t cause, thanks to a discarded house plant or birds eating and then “planting” the numerous berries that appear on mature plants in the fall.

Ivy is a tough plant to eradicate

Rick continues: “Do you have any suggestions about how to get rid of it without nasty chemicals? I’ve tried pulling up the roots and stems, but it always comes back.”

You’re on the right track, Rickster, but not quite there yet. Instead of pulling, you need to cut each individual vine close to where it emerges from the soil. Roll up any ivy that isn’t attached to a hard surface as if you were rolling sod. Do not attempt to compost this mass — or even let it sit on the ground for any length of time. Bag it, let the bag sit in the sun for a week and then put the bag(s) out with the trash. Then wait for the rest of the aboveground growth to die off.

And I do mean “wait.” Do NOT try and pull it off your house while it’s still green and healthy or you’ll damage that brick facade — or heck, even non-facade bricks.

Getting to the root of the problem

Once English ivy gets a foothold — or a roothold — it is difficult to eradicate. Its waxy coating sheds broad-leaf herbicides before they can do any harm; and systemic herbicides would endanger your other plants — and you. Because of that waxy coating, the only answer that doesn’t involve killing your other plants and increasing your cancer risk is to cut and pull.

Sever the vines as described above, soak the area well with plain water and then use a poacher’s spade to dig out each vines’ root system. Luckily, the roots are surprisingly shallow (as am I) and easy to get out completely.

As with the actual vines, do not compost the remains. Shake off as much soil as you can, then bag those roots and let the bag sit in the sun for a week before putting them out with the trash.

After the work is “over”

Roots: If you did a good job with that poacher’s spade (one of my top three all-time garden tools), there should not be any re-sprouting.

But just in case, be prepared with a medium-sized sprayer (one holding a quart or two). If you borrow the device from someone, rinse it out, fill it with water and then spray the contents on the street to get rid of any chemical residues. If new sprouts do appear, use the device to spray them with regular white vinegar from the grocery store. Wear gloves and protective eyewear and don’t spray on a windy day. And rinse the sprayer well afterward.

Dead vines: Again, be sure to let the portions of the vines that are attached to the house die off naturally. I know it’s going to look like the dog’s breakfast, but those vines are glued securely to the side of the house and could destroy your veneer. The longer you wait, the better the odds you won’t have to resurface the wall.

When the vines are really most sincerely dead, pull them slowly off the side of the house. Don’t yank or pull too soon or you’ll damage the exterior.

There will probably be some strains left behind. There’s no agreement on how to remove them without damaging the surface, but my first choice would be a product called “Mr. Clean’s Magic Eraser.” I’ve been told that these eraser-like cleaners can be highly effective on difficult outdoor stains.

Honey do — and don’t!

It’s almost April and the smell of gardening is in the air!

To keep your lawn healthy and happy, replace your mower blade or get your old blade sharpened; this is the single most important thing you can do to achieve a good-looking turf this season.

You can now sow the seeds of lettuce and spinach directly outdoors, harvest the plants “cut and come again” style with scissors when they reach four to five inches in height; take off the top three inches and they will regrow for more cutting. (Or, if you have the room, sow fresh seeds every two weeks for the longest possible harvest period.)

Resist the urge to cut off the green leaves of flower-faded spring bulbs; without those leaves left intact to absorb solar energy, the plants won’t be able to produce flowers next year.

Mike McGrath was editor-in-chief of ORGANIC GARDENING magazine from 1990 through 1997. He has been the host of the nationally syndicated public radio show “You Bet Your Garden” since 1998 and WTOP Garden Editor since 1999. Send him your garden or pest control questions at

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