Out with the Ivy

By: Rob Lee

Rob Lee came to gardening through composting and a love of coastal conifers. Tiring of the challenges of a sand-dune…

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The trusty Subaru with a pile of ripped up and rolled ivy of about the same size. Author’s photographs

The trusty Subaru with a pile of ripped up and rolled ivy of about the same size. Author’s photographs

The pulling began the day I moved in to my new place—impetuously, innocently, with no idea of what I was getting into. I grabbed the ivy cascading over the stone wall onto the stairs and heaved it, muscling the woven mass, bit by bit, as I ascended the steps. The creeping monster had taken root in the built-in planters atop the wall. I ripped those roots out, and the ivy, so tenacious just a moment before, was suddenly limp, slumping into a pile on the far side of the low wall.

“That wasn’t so bad,” I thought to myself. Under a leaden sky in the gathering darkness, I looked at the hillside of ivy. Curving away from me with the sweep of the slope, I had to walk along its bottom edge to see that it had the shape of a cutlass. I had just removed the very tip of the handle from the stone stairs. Later, I realized that the cutlass was about 125 feet long, twenty-five feet at its widest, and had been there a long time. The mat was two feet thick and had insinuated itself into two huge rhododendrons in a terrible tangle at the top of the slope. Some of the roots were as thick as my forearms, buried four feet into the clay. But, I knew none of this that night. That first winter, I only managed to pull back eight feet of the ivy and was astonished that even that meager effort produced a roll the size of a small whale.

Before spring arrived, I dug in stone outcroppings and planted a few native plants. That was four years ago. Restoring the hillside became a labor of love. And, as is often the case with love, it’s been more than a little ridiculous—an amazing learning experience, gratifying in ways I had no way of expecting. In fact, the process of ripping out the ivy, creating “structure” on the hillside with rocks, logs, and branches, and selecting, placing, planting, and observing the habits and growth of the native plants (and the animals they attract) has been so captivating as to be almost hypnotic, a recurring dream of randomness and symbiosis, a colorful hillside come to life of its own accord, as if no one had ever touched it.

Richardson’s penstemon (Penstemon richardsonii)

Richardson’s penstemon (Penstemon richardsonii)

The Invaders

English ivy (Hedera helix) and Algerian ivy (H. canariensis) are native to much of Europe and thrive in the wet, moderate climate of the Pacific Northwest, especially where deciduous trees are present or along forest edges—ever-present in urban areas. With no local, natural controls (insects or browsers), the ivy spreads prodigiously, like a wave that never flows back but just keeps coming. Unchecked, it forms “ivy deserts,” which are largely devoid of life (apart from the ivy itself), since the ivy covers and kills native plants; there is almost no animal life that has any use for it. Only in pulling it out have I really understood what “no life” means. No bugs, no spiders, no rodent holes, no nothing. This is why invasive, non-native plants are such a destructive threat: they invade, supplanting the fabric of local life, making the ecology more susceptible to other invasives in a downward spiral of degradation. Every area of the country has its invasive species with which we, as gardeners, can and should become familiar.

As I had hoped to get rid of the ivy in five winters (the ground must be wet to pull the roots cleanly), I would have to remove a good deal more in subsequent years than I did that first winter. The most efficient tactic to remove a mat of ivy is to roll it up like a rug. I yank the beast’s roots, pulling at the finger-thick cords, and rolling the mass a few inches at a time. I quickly came to an impasse when the roll was too heavy for me to move. I stood there on the jumble of roots, muck, and still-living ivy, covered with mud, hands on hips—stymied—when my gaze fell on my little green Subaru.

Even with all-wheel drive, I was often sliding around in the mud, the car fishtailing wildly, yoked to the hill. It took a while to figure out where and how to lasso the ivy, to not bite off more than the car could chew, but enough to make climbing up and down the slimy mass worthwhile. It’s not easy, repeatedly scaling the steep, rain-slick mountain of ivy, feet caught in its never-ending loops, lashing the rope to a stubborn root or snaking it through the tangle, kneeling in the mud to tie it under the bumper.

I’ve removed all of the ivy except for the tip of the cutlass; only one winter to go! I cover the bare soil with straw to prevent erosion and then dig in the stone outcroppings, logs, and interesting bits of beaver-cut wood. They help hold the soil, give many creatures places to live, help the soil retain moisture, and are appealing to look at. I’ve also placed a series of stepping stones and stairs, so I can more easily access the steep slope. Stepping back and trying to take the whole space in, I arrange these elements to emulate the randomness found in nature. Lying on my recliner, after a wet afternoon of pulling, has become integral to getting a feel for plant placement. At least, that’s what I tell myself, as I lie there in a warm daze, muddy loops of ivy leaping free, stone and logs moving into different configurations on the slope behind my closed eyes, until they settle into comfortable relationship with each other. I began to understand that the science of ecology points toward an infinitely complex matrix of relationships—connections that outstrip our limited perspective, making our pretension of control the fantasy of a particularly mean child. So, my basking in that feeling of intuitive connection began to make sense. Not that I’ll ever know the whole story.

Lupinus rivularis, Lonicera ciliosa, and Cornus stolonifera

Lupinus rivularis, Lonicera ciliosa, and Cornus stolonifera

A Search for Native Plants

When I first began searching for native plants (specifically, black huckleberry) at local nurseries, all I got were blank looks. At the fifth stop, I asked the young owner why. She explained that people want plants that are bursting from their pots—little explosions of green. Native plants tend to be more delicate and subtle, and, in infancy, seem not to thrill the average gardener. Perhaps the notion of natives can seem boring, pedestrian. (Isn’t anything we bring along with us better than what we find upon arrival?) What we forget is that this continent has, in the past 200 years, been essentially mowed down, plowed under, transformed. A great deal of the original complexity and diversity of plant life is gone. We don’t know our natives because, for the most part, we’ve never actually met them.

On my forays into the woods, I’ve come to recognize the span of time since a particular tract was logged by looking at the stature of the native trees. What is surprising is how long diversity takes to reestablish itself. After fifty years, the undergrowth may consist of only one or two species under uniformly sized trees; after one hundred years, perhaps ten or twenty species. A virgin, old-growth forest contains everything from titanic to infant trees, as well as a multiplicity of species growing in interlocking layers beneath the canopy. Many gardeners may mistake the anemic dregs of native plants left by our brutalization of the landscape for the botanical plethora once held by the natural terrain.

Meadowfoam (Limnanthes douglasii), Amelanchier alnifolia behind, and Lupinus rivularis in the hillside’s second spring

Meadowfoam (Limnanthes douglasii), Amelanchier alnifolia behind, and Lupinus rivularis in the hillside’s second spring

The irony of the modern garden is that, by buying our plants from commercial nurseries, which mostly offer the same plants, we are reducing the complexity and diversity of the landscape. By planting a sensible range of natives, we are actually boosting regional diversity as well as creating more interesting and healthy gardens. One garden in a neighborhood goes native, and then another, and another, and suddenly the place is exploding with birds and insects, as water and chemical use plummets.

When I tell people that I don’t water my native plants—at all!—they look at me in total disbelief. Yet, it’s true: not one drop—ever. On the stone terraces next to the slope, I have over twenty hybrid roses and various other exotic plants; I water them deeply when I know they need it. When they decline, however, I will be replacing them with native roses; harlots in their own way, perhaps, but only in spring, when their pink blossoms quicken the pulse.

Nootka rose (Rosa nootkana)

Nootka rose (Rosa nootkana)

Native plant nurseries are not easy to find. They tend to be the poor stepchildren of the industry, hidden away in far-flung places, operating out of a love for tiny green jewels. Fortunately, the situation is improving, as there are more and more people like me, willing to make the pilgrimage, joyous before rows of little lupines, huckleberries, and lilies.

I like to plant in winter, while the plants are dormant; this gives them a head start to take advantage of the spring growing season. It means I buy really pathetic looking plants: a thin stick poking feebly up from the pot that hopes to be serviceberry some day; a few desiccated wisps of leaves that claim to be Douglas’s aster; or a pot of bare dirt whose floral aspiration is noted on a plastic stick. This may seem a dubious way to buy plants, or a terrific way to buy outrageously expensive soil, but, in fact, I’ve had success with almost every native plant I’ve bought. They are tough creatures whose modest needs are generously met by soil, light, and water.

The hillside has filled in nicely in its third spring

The hillside has filled in nicely in its third spring

Slow but Sure Changes

So modest was that first year’s growth that my dream of a copse bursting with life seemed a decade off. But the second spring arrived, and the hillside burst out in green epiphany—an explosion of frightening vitality, a sequence of flowerings splashed over the slope from late February until October. Red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum), lupines, checker mallow (Sidalcea), strawberries (Fragaria), monkey flowers (Mimulus), California poppy (Eschscholzia californica), and penstemons keeping pace throughout, with asters spreading promiscuously underneath. Woody shrubs, like serviceberry (Amelanchier) and mock-orange (Philadelphus), are developing more slowly, which is something of a relief.

Great camas (Camassia leichtlinii)

Great camas (Camassia leichtlinii)

Concurrent with this vegetative explosion is an abundance of insects feeding on nectar, pollen, and leaf. The air above the slope throngs with the rise and fall of winged attendants. The transformation from no insects to many thousands, backlit in their risings and fallings in the late afternoon light, is startling. And then I come upon hundreds of tiny mason bees in orgasmic frenzy within the white and yellow cups of meadowfoam (Limnanthes), the surrounding air vibrant, shimmering with their delight. The local bumble bees fit precisely inside native penstemon flowers, which I had assumed were adapted for feeding by hummingbirds. That same spring, a pair of violet-green swallows nested in a bird house that had previously stood empty; soon, a succession of new swallows were flying out of that little house into the daylight.

Mock-orange (Philadelphus lewisii)

Mock-orange (Philadelphus lewisii)

Pulling the ivy leaves a disturbed site, a magnet for weeds that need to be controlled while the natives establish themselves. I’ve found that I can control the weeds with about four hours of hand pulling each week, tapering off as spring turns to summer and the decreasing precipitation slows the sprouting of weed seeds. Weeding is not as much fun as, say, drinking wine on a recliner, but I’ve found it to be a great way to become familiar with the garden in an intimate way, learning what’s what at an inch tall, and reading the lovely text that sprouting California poppy and Douglas’s aster (Aster subspicatus) seedlings scribe on the bare earth. To be consistent with my goal of restoring nature, I eschew using chemicals for weed control.

My walks in wooded cathedrals have, over these past fifty years, focused and concentrated my joy in living; I sometimes stop in the midst of rough-barked pillars, moss, deer fern, and berry bushes, and feel supremely happy to be part of it all. Planting the slope, participating in the creative complexity of life and death, feels like I’ve brought a bit of those woods—and that feeling—home.

Yellow-faced bumble bee (Bombus vosnesenskii) feeding on coast penstemon (Penstemon serrulatus)

Yellow-faced bumble bee (Bombus vosnesenskii) feeding on coast penstemon (Penstemon serrulatus)

The Western region of the Pacific Northwest contains well over 700 native plant species. How many are native to your area? How hard is it to find a place where lots of them grow? How many species did your area historically have? How many are common still? How many are in your garden? Your state’s native plant society or state university horticultural department can help you with answers.