How to kill ivy without herbicides

How to kill English ivy

No offense to the English, but please get out of my yard. Here in the United States, English ivy plants are an unwelcome invasive species. It has been the bane of my existence for the last 12 years while trying to transform our North Carolina yard to native species. I’ve spent many years trying to figure how to kill ivy without herbicides because we don’t want to add poisons to our yard. Some things have worked, some haven’t. Here are some tips on how to kill English ivy infestations in your yard before it kills everything else.

how to kill English ivy growing in your yard
How to kill English ivy before it kills everything else.

Is English ivy invasive?

Why bother removing English ivy? Is English ivy invasive? Yes it is! According to the USDA, English ivy (Hedera helix) is highly invasive outside of its native range, including here in the US. This evergreen vine grows extremely fast, creeping along at ground level and up trees into the canopy. It outcompetes and drowns out native ground cover plants and shades saplings from receiving sunlight. In our yard it creates an impenetrable layer on the forest floor allowing few native plants to survive, even creeping across our pollinator garden. Occasionally, birds use English ivy berries as a food source and spread them further, but keep in mind they are poisonous to humans!

is English ivy invasive? Yes!
Is English ivy invasive? Yep. The only non-woody plants that survives in it in our wooded areas are Christmas ferns.

Will English ivy kill a tree?

Yes! English ivy will kill a tree. It climbs rapidly up a tree trunk, attaching firmly to the tree’s bark. Eventually it will reach the canopy and spread out, blocking sunlight with its evergreen leaves and decreasing the tree’s ability to photosynthesize. It can also cause structural damage by adding excessive weight and making them more likely to blow over in high winds or to break during ice and snow storms. We are always shocked by how high it can climb mature trees in a single year if left unattended.

will English ivy kill a tree?
Will English ivy kill a tree? Yes! Eventually it will cover the canopy. This is only a couple years of growth.

How to kill ivy without the use of herbicide

It may be tempting to dump a systemic herbicide on the green menace in your yard, but keep in mind that weed killers like roundup can cause extensive damage to other plant species with spray drift. It may also pose human health risks, which is why its active ingredient has been banned in many countries. (Read the label directions and warnings and you might get a little nervous yourself.) Sure, you could try a spot treatment with a more natural alternative like a spray bottle of white vinegar. But our goal is to not put plant killers of any kind in our yard. Here’s how to get rid of English ivy, step by step, without a weed killer.

Pick the best time to kill ivy: late winter

February is perfect for English ivy control, and the day after a rain is even better. I always work in late winter for several reasons. First of all, because it is an evergreen plant, it is one of the only green things in the yard, making the ivy leaves easy to spot. Secondly, our yard has a fair amount of poison ivy. Since poison ivy is native here, I don’t control it unless it is in one of our walking paths, but I have strong allergic reactions to it so I have to be careful when removing English ivy. In winter here, poison ivy loses its leaves, so I have less chance of exposure, plus I can wear a long-sleeved shirt or a hoodie and good pair of gloves without sweating to death. Choose a day after a good rain so that the ground has softened and you have a better chance of pulling out the roots. For the same reason, avoid days when the ground is frozen or roots won’t pull at all.

Tools for removing English ivy the natural way

You don’t need many tools to control English ivy. After many years of experimentation I have honed it to three simple tools: 1) a good pair of garden gloves, 2) a pair of garden hand shears or clippers (sometimes called a pruner), and 3) a shovel. You will do 95% of the work with your hands and the shears but every once in a while you’ll need the shovel. If it has rained the previous day (which is ideal) then I tend to wear rubber boots because under the vines will be bare dirt and it can get muddy.

How to kill ivy, tools
How to kill ivy with two simple hand tools, a good pair of gloves, and long sleeves.

De-vine intervention: good news and bad news for the ivy killer

The first thing you have to accept is that killing English ivy is hard work and requires follow-up. That’s the bad news. The good news is that, compared to some other invasive vines that drive me crazy, English ivy is easy to cut through with hand clippers and the root system is relatively shallow and easy to pull out.

How to kill English ivy step-by-step

1. Work downhill and peel like a carpet

If you have a serious mat like we have, the best way to remove English ivy is to peel it back like a carpet. If your yard slopes, start at the highest point. It’s just easier to roll it downhill.

2. Remove logs branches etc from the ground

English ivy grows through and over everything on the ground creating a tangled mess. If there are sticks, branches, logs, lumber, or any trash mixed in, peeling up the ivy becomes impossible. Even worse, it may prevent you from pulling the roots. One of the first things you need to do is take the time to remove sticks, branches, and logs.

3. Work in small patches

English ivy creates a lot of biomass and it gets heavy. I try to select an area about 16 square feet (8 ft by 8 ft) that I can remove in a single mass, and will be light enough for me to carry in a ball to a discard pile for decomposition.

4. Start clipping edges, aim for obstacles

Clip through vines to create the two edges of your peel. Ideally, aim those edges toward obstacles like trees or bushes so you can peel around either side of them. The easiest and fastest method I’ve found for this is to start at the top edge of the patch, face downhill, and dig my boot under the ivy stems along the line I want to cut. Lift up the mass of vines with your gloved hand and clip through them. Repeat. Either kick deep or rake the ground with your fingers because runners are sometimes hiding just under the soil surface.

How to kill English ivy
How to kill English ivy: cut vines next to obstacles like trees and peel downhill like a carpet, pulling roots.

5. Pull roots

Once you’ve clipped the two sides, start peeling from the top downward. As you lift, you’ll start to discover vines rooted to the ground. Grab firmly where it enters the ground and pull upward. If it resists, wrap it once around your hand and pull harder. Most of the time, some or all of the root pops out of the ground with this technique. But if you don’t get the whole thing, don’t despair and keep moving. Just get as many as you can. Also peel vines off of tree bark to make sure your trees are clear.

6. Dig out larger roots

If you find an unusually fat root and it doesn’t pull out by hand, now is the time to grab your shovel and dig it out. These grand-daddy roots may be some of the original plants. At this point I can’t help but think of the person who planted it there so long ago and I curse them for the years of torture they have caused me.

7. Follow up the next year

This step is critical so don’t leave it out. You won’t get every root. But if you keep an eye on the area, any new growth that pops out the following winter is a root that survived. When you spot new leaves, it’s time to get out the shovel and make sure you get that bugger out.

How to kill ivy: what works and what doesn’t work

What doesn’t work? Just clipping the ivy back. English ivy will simply laugh in your face and grow even faster to spite you. If you have English ivy growing around large trees I have some bad news for you. You might not be able to get out all the ivy roots growing under the base of the tree and you may be doomed to a life of repeated control. I have a section of my yard where this happens. I’m getting angry just thinking about it so let’s move on. What does work? We’ve had our best results following the above steps and then visiting the site regularly to catch stragglers. In a period of about two years you may find your yard ivy free! I have successfully achieved this in a patch of open woods in my yard that was once knee deep in ivy. We now refer to it as “the happy place”. Soak it in and revel in your accomplishment my friends.

English ivy removal
Successful English ivy removal: “the happy place” two years after clearing. Ready for some new flowers, shrubs and ground cover!

The aftermath: what’s next?

Once you’ve removed a thick mat of English ivy you’ll find nothing but bare dirt beneath. Not a leaf, plant, twig, insect, or creature: a biological desert. I find shockingly few things sheltering in English ivy. I’ve just spent 4 days in late February pulling ivy and haven’t discovered a single cocoon, larvae, salamander, snake, turtle, small mammal, rabbit or bear sheltering inside it. While it may look like excellent cover, I find that virtually nobody uses it. So now that it’s gone, it’s time to re-mulch this land and protect the soil.

how to kill ivy
Your soil will need a new covering after killing ivy. Time to get some leaves!

In the eastern US we are primarily in a forest habitat so leaves are what you need. Working in late winter, I usually still have piles of dead leaves around from the end of fall so I rake them up from driveways and pathways and redistribute them to the bare earth. I also pile up all the dead ivy vines and let it decompose for several months or years before redistributing all that nice biomass back to the soil. Finally I randomly redistribute twigs, branches and logs across the leaves. This gives funguses a place to grow, gives small creatures a place to shelter, and the rotting matter improves the soil. Now you have a clean slate for planting native ground cover, woodland flowers, shrubs & small trees!

how to get rid of English ivy
How to get rid of English ivy after you’ve pulled it? Stack it in a pile and let it decompose. Then use it as mulch!

You can do it

Don’t despair. You can do this. I know sometimes you want to throw your hands up and poison the hell out of the place with a chemical treatment. But it is possible to control and even get rid of English ivy with a bit of determination. But how do we keep others from suffering the same fate?

Spread the word

In my opinion it should be illegal to sell English ivy in the United States (along with any other dangerously invasive plants). If I could go back in time I would find the person who planted English ivy in my yard and hand them a bill for all the hours of my life wasted removing it and for all the plants they’ve killed in the process. But since that’s not likely to happen, let’s instead gently discourage people from planting this impressively pernicious vine and save future generations from cursing us.

(A note about ivy species)

There are in fact a few species of ivy commonly referred to as English ivy. Hedera helix is probably the most common and the one most correctly termed English ivy, though it is sometimes referred to as Common Ivy. But another closely related species, Hedera hibernica, (common name Atlantic or Irish Ivy) tends to be prevalent in the western US and may be even more aggressively invasive. Each has a slightly different leaf shape and size as well as slightly different habitat preferences. (If you’re interested you can read a bit more about species here.) Boston ivy is a similar looking non-native species (actually native to Asia) but is somewhat less invasive and sheds its leaves in winter. The similar looking Virginia creeper is native and not invasive in the United States, so if you want a decorative climbing vine that won’t destroy everything, check that one out!

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