We continue our monthly invasive species blog series with a particularly troublesome vine – English ivy! English ivy (Hedera helix) is one of the most prevalent invasive species in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. It is a woody vine that climbs trees, fences, and other vertical structures. Left unchecked, it can harm trees by weighing down their limbs, robbing leaves of sunlight, and leaving them more prone to storm damage.

In its climbing form, it also produces berries that birds eat and spread to other areas. These berries then sprout on the ground, where they can grow into a dense carpet of vines which can prevent other species from growing. From there it spreads until it finds another vertical surface to climb and repeat its process. The result is a forest with an unhealthy canopy and little to no native understory, creating a vulnerable forest with relatively poor habitat.

Managing English Ivy

The good news is that controlling English ivy is simple, and it’s possible to remove without herbicides. Because the leaf has a waxy cuticle, herbicide application on established vines can be ineffective. Removal is best done in the winter, when the evergreen ivy is easily identifiable and there is less other foliage to work around. This also allows the ivy time to die and gives the infested tree a jump-start in the spring without the ivy to compete with.

All you need to manage climbing vines is a hand saw and a pair of gloves, to be safe. Some people can develop a rash from handling English ivy.

A hand holding a saw in front of a vine attached to a tree

Preparing to cut an English ivy

For vines that are climbing vertically, it’s as simple as cutting them. Find a spot a few feet off the ground that is comfortable for you, and cut the vine in half. For smaller vines this can be accomplished with a pair of clippers.

A vine growing on a tree

Take care not to cut into the tree underneath! Go up the vine a few inches from the first cut and cut the vine in half again. Make sure you take out the middle section between the two cuts – this will prevent the vine from healing back together. Once cut, the upper portion of vines can be left on the tree where they will die and eventually fall off. Resist the urge to pry or pull off vines from the tree! Doing so can inadvertently damage the tree’s protective bark.

Relief will come fairly quickly for the afflicted tree as the ivy dies and dehydrates over a few months. The lower portion of the vine should be pulled/dug out of the ground so that it does not regrow. For very thick vines like the ones shown in the pictures, this last step can be difficult. If you cannot remove them from the ground, it’s fine to keep an eye on them and continue cutting them back yearly as necessary. The roots will still have enough stored energy to send up new growth, but persevere! Continue cutting back the main vine. After a few growing seasons, it will be exhausted.

A cut vine against a tree

The method above makes quick work when dealing with a few vines, but sometimes you might have a tree resembling the picture below. The process is the same, it will just take more time. Remember that you don’t need to do it all at once. Chip away at it over time, and eventually you will succeed.

Vines blanketing the ground can be a little more complicated of a task due to their density. There are several methods, however, to tackle this! For minor infestations, you can simply use a hard metal rake to pull up and gather the vines. For larger vines that are not easily raked up, use a shovel to cut and dig them up. Clippers can be helpful to cut vines that cannot be removed with a rake.

Another method is to use a shovel or edging tool to cut a “lane” through the middle of the patch. Make two parallel cuts a few feet apart and rake out the vines in the middle section. From there, pull or rake up the vines that remain on either side of your lane.

Thick groundcover growing up nearby trees

An English ivy groundcover infestation climbing up nearby trees

Keep in mind that English ivy is very persistent, and you are likely to miss some roots and vine sections. Patches of English ivy also rarely exist alone. It’s likely that your neighbors or nearby forest also have ivy present, and it will spread again to your cleared area. But that’s no problem. Take note of where it is coming back, and take the new growth on the following season. Each time it will become easier as you remove more of the root stock.

Cleanup and Prevention

So you cut, pulled, dug, and raked up a ton of ivy. What do you do with all those vines? It’s important that you don’t leave them lying on the ground, because they can regrow from cuttings, and any remaining berries can be picked up by animals and spread around. One method is to lay them out in the sun on a tarp or other area where the roots cannot touch the ground. This will dry the vines out and then you can dispose of them with the rest of your yard waste. If there are berries on your cut vines, you can use clippers to cut off the bunches and dispose of them separately so that they cannot spread. Generally, the berries grow high enough that you will not have to deal with them.

If you appreciate the look of climbing vines or the ground cover that ivy provides, and you want to restore some understory in a now ivy-free area, there are native alternatives. Check out the Alliance’s Native Plant Center, which provides a list of over a dozen native vines! This page will guide you through the plant selection process based on your region, soil type, and soil moisture, and will have you on your way to restoring a native, bay-friendly habitat in your community.