Using our bare hands (and a sharp pair of clippers)

Although my camera is never to hand when a hummingbird approaches the fuchsia bush for a sip, I keep still and watch the precise maneuvering it employs to probe each tiny blossom, an acrobatic hovering that must be worth it, though how many drops of nectar can such tiny flowers contain? My garden is a tangle of plantings with just such moments in mind, and especially in these stay-at-home months, my main source of nature-nourishment. Any bird activity keeps me watching and wondering who will show up next. But I realized with a sense of woe that I have seen very few butterflies this year.

I’m lucky to live in a neighborhood that’s fairly environmentally conscious but this lack is likely a widespread phenomenon. I’ve been dipping into a very enlightening gardening book by Douglas Tallamy, Bringing Nature Home, with the instructive sub-title, “How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants,” for insight on what to plant next in my tiny refuge. According to Tallamy, the key to biodiversity is native planting. Plants that belong naturally in your area support healthy insect life, the foundation for a wealth of birdlife and so much more. He describes a host of popular plants introduced by “well-meaning horticulturists looking for exciting new species to sell in the garden trade” that have made many a backyard a desert for wildlife and which have, in too many cases, escaped the manicured confines and now threaten to overwhelm whole areas because—of course—they have no indigenous enemies to keep them in check. Think about the infamous kudzu and Japanese knotweed; think about English ivy!

Ivy can start small, just a couple of leaves and a bit of root….

Not the postcard ivy-covered cottage of a Jane Austen movie, but the nightmare version rampaging through out local parks. The kind strangling even Douglas-firs and entangling and smothering every native berry-producing bush and species of undergrowth that is the glory of Northwest forests. I recently spent a morning learning more about English ivy with a good friend who dedicates time every week to addressing this scourge in a very hands-on way. We went to Watershed Park—one of the places dear to Margaret McKenny who led the effort to keep that area in its natural state—to see the state of nature there today. When walking on the trails there is so much to enjoy that the dark green menace might not be that obvious, but let your eyes stray further and you’ll see trees with thick ropes of ivy snaking up the trunks and dark green patches of the trefoil leaves that blanket areas that should be more variegated.

My friend led me off to an area where I had never ventured before, to show me the extent of the problem and what can be done about it. Ivy was everywhere. It latched onto trees and blanketed the ground, swelling over fallen logs and invading every nook and cranny. Its tendrils and root systems reached high and low. Clearing breathing spaces for native plants and saving trees before the ivy kills them by rampant-growth weight alone or by vacuuming up all the nutrients and sunshine needed for survival is both an art and a science. Understanding how ivy roots, grows and spreads is key to unraveling it from any area. Ivy wants to reach for the sun; if you can thwart its spread and leaps upward, you can start to cut it back. First save the trees—for the sake of the trees—but also understanding that trees are the ladders to light. And a tall tree loaded with ivy that is brought down by wind catching in the clogged branches is a highway of several hundred feet laid down in a new direction for that ivy to spread.

A tree virtually cleared of ivy!

You can attack the problem at the root. And what roots! Arm-thick muscular-looking growths emerge from the ground and press against the base of trees, sending up shoots that reach into the crown. Fortunately you don’t need to climb the tree, just cut that root and break the link, stripping the tree of the vine to about chest-height. Try not to damage the tree as you pull the ivy away from the bark. The rootless vine will whither and die. For good measure dig up as much of the root mass as possible.

Marvel at the thickness of this ivy root! This is what you –and the tree–are up against. This is a very determined and implacable plant.

And gather up the snipped vine and either remove it for disposal or stash it in such a way that keeps from re-rooting until it can be retrieved for removal. (Note: It should not be composted as that can merely reintroduce it if it is not thoroughly destroyed.) An area several feet around the tree should be cleared as well.

Ivy bundled for removal, kept from touching the ground so it can’t re-root as soon as you turn your back.
Ivy tangled around a fallen log and heading off to claim new areas.

Ivy on the ground can likewise be cleared in ever-expanding circles, checked periodically so no new starts can repopulate the areas.  It takes diligence and devotion. Ivy is an implacable foe. But standing in a clearing free of its menace is exhilarating! Seeing a tree thriving anew thanks to your work is like removing a dark gloom from your heart. Encouraging the small growth of native plants that in turn will support all manner of wildlife and birds is a miracle born of your persistence. How often can our efforts be so graphic and measurable? Removing ivy takes force, a force driven for all that we hold dear. It’s a start to bringing back birds and butterflies and a brighter future. My friend toiling away in this patch of forest is a quiet hero whose legacy is as tall as a Douglas-fir and as wide as the world. I can’t thank him enough!

If you are interested in clearing ivy and other invasive species from our local parks in Olympia, get in touch with the Park Stewardship program here:  Children and teens can help too.

Or wherever you live, look for a similar program.

Another group working to free areas from this invasion and restore natural eco-systems is the Olympia Coalition for Ecosystems Preservation. Find opportunities to get involved here:

When shopping for plants in local nurseries ask them to consider not selling invasive species like English ivy, and of course, don’t buy any for your garden either! For lists of what other plants to avoid, see here:  

3 thoughts on “Using our bare hands (and a sharp pair of clippers)

  1. Good article. Thank you for recruiting more volunteers.

    I have lived in Olympia 24 years and the efforts to fight back ivy in Watershed, Priest Point and other parks have been on going efforts. I think it is a rare youth who gets through school here without pulling ivy in parks. The areas saturated with English ivy are referred to as ivy deserts for the reasons you describe. Although I have not see ivy that was cut near ground stay alive in top of conifers, I have seen it stay alive in tops of big maples. It must get enough moisture and nutrition in the high crotches of big limbs.

    Watershed has some other significant invasive plants. Lamium, an ornamental mint, has crept in from adjacent residences. It is not as bad as English ivy but spreads by deep roots and may be toxic to some other plants thus reducing the competition. English holly and Portugal laurel are also problems but they are easily removed with a saw. There are only small colonies of these in Watershed but some parks like Grass Lake are more negatively impacted by them and blackberry.

    As far as native plants, I recommend Art Kruckleberg’s Gardening with Plants Native to the Pacific Northwest. It is a excellent reference. As is the Native Plant Society website.


    1. Hi Julie
      Many thanks for your comment! You offer further information that everybody needs to turn this dire situation around. I wasn’t familiar with Lamium until I looked it up and realized it’s the plant I see everywhere but had no name for. I even have some in my garden that has crept in from a former neighbor’s plantings. I plan a more ruthless campaign….and not into the yard waste bin, either. How do we approach nurseries to be more responsible? Through ignorance, we are literally dumbing down our landscapes with these mono-culture invasive species that choke out diversity and healthy habitats. Let’s keep talking, all of us, about these issues.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s