English Ivy

spiritual_gardnerDecember 26, 2007

Out of extreme desperation, I am considering planting English Ivy in place of grass in my back yard.

My desperation is due to planting grass for the past 4 years and watching it do wonderfully when it starts out, then slowly die as the season progresses. Last year, out of the same desperation, I planted Dutch White Clover, because it was said to be very hardy, I had the same experience. The die back is due to:

Very poor soil, not easily tilled and amended due to millions of small stones throughout (previous owner did it, long story). The soil compacts severely and the grass just can't breath and water makes the problem worse. I have considered bringing in new top soil, but this is going to be a huge challenge because of the distance between the front of my house and back.

I also have a shade issue, which I believe is not the main one, but still one to be dealt with. After the past four years of disaster, I'm not sure any type of grass will work even if I do all of the back breaking work of bringing in new soil.

I live in a neighborhood where there is lots of English Ivy growing, it is doing very well in areas where I really don't want it, and I do keep it under control. I know that control is an issue, and I do plan on keeping it confined as long as I own the house.

I have beautiful border gardens that do not look their best with all of the grass/bare dirt areas where the lawn should be.

Any suggestions or thoughts would be appreciated. I am concerned about planting E.I., because it is so evasive.



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It's a good thing to be concerned because in zone 7, English ivy will be invasive. I'd urge you to reconsider this choice for any number of reasons. Ivy harbors rodents, especially in any sort of urban/suburban environment - they find the dense network of vines and stems extremely suitable housing and cover and I have yet to be involved in any kind of ivy eradication project that didn't turn up scores of rats. Aside from having these undesirables residing so close to you, there are other environmental and health issues arising from their excrement and dust accumulating. And while you may be able to control it successfully - do you really want to take on that much unnecessary maintenance?? - there is no guarantee others that may come after you will do the same. And control of a large area of ivy is not always as easy as one might think - any flowering or fruiting must be eliminated as birds will spread the stuff despite whatever methods you may employ to restrain it.

Ivy is really not a great accompaniment to a mixed border planting - it is difficult to walk on, so pathways or other means of access will need to be planned and maintained free of the plant. It grows and spreads rapidly and will easily choke out other, more desirable plantings so you will also need to maintain a clear border between it and the more ornamental planted areas.

Improving soil conditions to encourage a lawn is not all that hard - any soil can be improved and a soil that has a high percentage of small rocks and stones (3" diameter or less) is no more harder to till and improve than one that is heavy clay. The rocks should actually help to reduce compaction once you have added some additional organic matter, as they encourage spaces between the soil particles that allow for water and oxygen penetration. Adding a quantity of coarsely textured compost will help immeasurably. Compaction will occur anywhere there is much foot traffic and as lawns are regularly travelled by feet, lawn mowers, kid's play, etc., compaction is ongoing and will need to be addressed regularly with core aeration.

But even in adequately improved soils turf grasses will not flourish in much shade and you may want to find an alternative for these areas. There are any number of shade tolerant and even evergreen groundcovers other than ivy that could work - pachysandra, vinca, lamium or liriope or dwarf mondo grass just to name a few.

Finally, it might make sense to think outside the box and reconsider the design of this area. Is a planted covering the best solution or would hardscape work better? A wide paved area in front of your planted areas would allow for easy access and provide for a better display. Crushed stone/gravel or pavers can be used or even a coarse mulch like wood chips. You could consider a larger paved seating area or terrace in the shadier locations as well to provide a destination. Or expand your planted areas and reduce the amount of ground cover of any type that may be required.

But back off from the ivy. It is not a good choice.

    Bookmark   December 28, 2007 at 1:51PM
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Thank you for the detailed well thought reply!

Everything you said makes sense. And yes, there is a rat issue in the neighborhood. When the area was first established, people put in the ivy (plus lots of other things like tulip trees) that are nice to look at, but require tons of work an money to maintain.

Trees that were very small 55 years ago, are now extremely large, causing a shade issue in many yards.

I do have one area that I hardscaped with stone (a swail area) that would be a nice start for extending the same design.

Next year will be my sixth growing season at this property which I completely transformed. The back yard problem area is the last major thing to be done (I had hoped that I would not have to tackle it), and something I'm tired of pouring time and money into only to experience failure.

It seems my only two options are amending the soil and planting grass, or extending the hardscaping. I am thinking of trying to amend the soil and planting new grass in just one area to see how it works. I will also research hardscaping and see what options that provides.

Thanks again!


    Bookmark   December 29, 2007 at 8:00AM
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