How to Remove English Ivy
There’s no denying the usefulness of English ivy (Hedera helix) as ground cover: it’s evergreen, grows quickly, and tolerates shade, drought, and a variety of soil types. These characteristics, of course, also make it easy for English ivy to spread where it isn’t wanted. Notably, English ivy can climb – and destabilize – walls, fences, and trees. The ivy-covered tree above, for example, broke off during the January 2022 ice storm.
What’s more, few native insects or birds feed on its leaves and seeds. For these reasons, many gardeners these days are removing English ivy and replacing it with less aggressive ground cover that supports native species.
Last December I cleared the English ivy – mixed in with Virginia creeper, honeysuckle, vinca, wisteria, and of course poison ivy – from about 1,600 square feet in my back yard. Based on a little research and a fair amount of elbow grease, here are some thoughts about how I went about it.
The tools for manually removing English ivy are pretty simple: clippers, shovel, and rake (if the ivy is covered by leaves). In addition, use personal protective gear: long pants, boots, and rubber gloves. This is because the sap of English ivy has the little-known property of triggering a skin rash similar to the one caused by poison ivy.
Start by cutting the vines with a shovel or edging tool in two parallel lines, making a strip about 4 feet wide. (Picture 3) This is the really critical step because it ensures you won’t be trying to pull long vines out of the ground. Then rake away the leaves on the strip between the shovel cuts – no need to remove them along with the ivy.
Next, use clippers to cut across the trimmed and raked strip, perpendicular to the initial shovel cuts (Picture 4, step 1). Cut right at ground level, or even a little below, to make sure to cut the roots and not just the vines. While cutting, pull the freed vines back towards you, making a loose pile and exposing the soil (Picture 4, step 2). Then simply work backwards, cutting across and pulling back, until the entire strip is free of ivy (Picture 5). It took me about an hour to clear one 4-by-20-foot strip.
After that, it’s just a matter of repetition. Make a new cut with the shovel to create another 4-foot strip. Rake the leaves if desired, then dive in with the clippers to remove the ivy. (Pictures 6 and 7) Proceed one 4-foot strip at a time until the area is cleared.
Finally, how best to dispose of the vines? Don’t just dump them on a compost or brush pile because they may re-root. Even shredding vines with a lawnmower or wood-chipper could leave pieces large enough to grow new roots. A good option is to dry the vines thoroughly on a tarp or piece of pavement, then shred them. Another method is to put the vines in black trash bags and leave them in the sun for several weeks, until they’ve “cooked” enough to be non-viable. Personally, I took advantage of Charlottesville’s excellent $35 bulk pickup service.
Final thoughts, a few months after removal
I removed the vines from the ground in December 2021. Six or seven months later, I’m honestly surprised by how little is growing back. I’ve checked the cleared area every few weeks this spring, and I’d say that no more than a couple dozen English ivy sprouts have emerged. They’ve been easy to find and remove, but I’m sure that it will be at least a few years before the last remnants of the vines are gone.
The good news, though, is that the area is mostly clear of invasive plants. And now I have a fantastic blank slate for native, deer-resistant, shade-loving wildflowers, shrubs, and understory trees that will provide habitat and sustenance for birds and insects and maybe even – I’m thinking of trying to grow ramps out there – the local two-legged mammals.
Based on an article in The Garden Shed, by Piedmont Master Gardener Chris Stroupe
References and further reading
Blue Ridge Partnership for Invasive Species Management (PRISM) Blue Ridge PRISM
Controlling English Ivy in Urban Landscapes North Carolina Cooperative Extension
English Ivy- Friend or Foe? North Carolina Cooperative Extension
Pest Alert – English Ivy Rash North Carolina Cooperative Extension
English Ivy Control Clemson Cooperative Extension
Ivy Removal in a Home Landscape Oregon State University Extension Service
English Ivy Can Be Contained Oregon State University Extension Service
Managing Invasive Plants: Methods of Control (PDF link) University of New Hampshire Extension
Take Ivy Off Trees Tree Stewards of Arlington and Alexandria, Virginia