Sunday, 23 November 2014

Removing Ivy from walls.

Ah, this old chestnut again.

I can't tell you how many times I am asked about removing ivy, and I'm afraid to say that it's a horrible job, and there is no shortcut.

Firstly, why remove ivy from walls?

Oh, shall I count thee the ways?

1) It's hideous.

2) It hides bugs and creepy crawlies, including slugs and snails.

3) It damages the wall. Yes, I know that traditionally, this was meant to apply only to old walls with old flaky mortar, which ivy can completely destroy: modern houses are supposed to be ivy-proof. Well, they may be, but the clinging aerial roots leave marks which are very nearly permanent, so once you remove the ivy, your wall is marked for many years to come. I call that damage.

4) It damages the wall - if we are talking about garden walls, which are often only a single layer of bricks. The stems can find their way through small crevices or damaged areas, then they thicken up, and can push bricks or stones apart.

5) It hides the wall - so you can't see any problems at the early stages, such as cracks, damp patches, etc, not to mention the way it gets carried away and inveigles itself under gutters, behind downpipes etc.

6) It may look ok while it's young, but as it matures you get a mass of ugly brown stems down here at eye height, and a top-heavy mass of foliage up there *waves hand upwards* where you can't reach it without ladders, or without paying someone to get up and chop it.

7) It looks hideous.

Yes, I know I repeated that one, but honestly, ivy is not pretty. If you have an eyesore to be covered quickly, go for Russian Vine (Fallopia baldschuanica) but only if you appreciate why it's called "mile a minute vine": or Passion Flower (Passiflora caerulea) which grows nearly as fast, but has the benefit of beautiful exotic flowers and strange orange fruits - alas, not edible, but interesting right through the autumn.

Much better would be to attach some trellis to the offending wall and grow something pretty up it - a rose, a clematis, something with berries like Pyracantha, or you could even espalier some fruit along it, depending on which way it faces.

If you really, really have to have ivy, at least get a variegated one, which will have the dual benefit of being a) slightly prettier and b) slightly slower-growing.

Anyway, back to the point of this post - once the ivy has colonised, how do you get the wretched stuff off? There is no weedkiller around that will have any effect on it, sadly, as the leaves are very glossy, meaning that any weedkiller will slide straight off. The only way to get rid of it is to heave it off manually, cut the root - which is often wrist-thick by the time you get around to doing it - as low as you can, and apply something like SBK or a specialist stump-killer to it.


Right, here is Exhibit A, an ivy covered wall.

As you can see, it has flowered - those round spiky-looking things - which means it is mature ivy.

People might try to tell you that it's important to leave some mature ivy, as the flowers are an important source of nectar for the bees late in the year (it's late October), but I would propose as a counter-argument the suggestion that whoever thinks that bees need more ivy should go for a walk along the footpaths, back alleys, canal towpaths, council land etc wherever they live, and just look at the sheer astonishing volume of ivy, often underplanted with nettles, to be found in your local neighbourhood.

Trust me, there is plenty for them, they don't need the extra few square yards in your garden.

First job, then, is to clear away a space at the foot of the wall: or to spread out sheeting, otherwise you will find it impossible to clear up the mess this is going to make. And trust me, it IS going to make a mess! Ivy is full of dead stems, dust, and dirt, and it is usually fairly unpleasant to do this job: I have known people wear goggles and a face mask, and although I don't go that far, I do take care not to get it in my eyes, and I usually end up sneezing in an utterly unladylike manner.

(Actually,  I do most things in an unladylike manner: it always makes me laugh when some of my ladies describe me as "my lady gardener" as I stand there in battered boots, scruffy shorts, mud up my legs and often across my face, bleeding from various scratches and with my hair on end and full of bits!)

Approach the wall, secateurs in hand, and tentatively take hold of a stem of ivy. It doesn't matter where  you start - I usually start at a convenient waist height. Cut the stem, as far back as you can reach without getting a faceful of dust. Repeat.

After a short while, you will be able to pull the loose stems away from the wall: this is good, but be careful about pulling dirt and dust onto yourself. It works best if you can stand about 2' out from the wall, such that the dead stuff falls down to the ground, rather than falling on you.

Repeat for the next half an hour or so, pulling down any that are loose, and cutting everything back as closely to the wall as you can.  It is sometimes possible to use hedgetrimmers for this, but they will only get through the newest, thinnest growth, so in many ways you might just as well start with the secateurs.

Any that are too thick to cut with ease, use loppers: you might even need to use a pruning saw, although it's often awkward to use one, when you are working so close to a wall. 

It makes the job easier if you have a wheelbarrow by your side, and you can fill it as you go.

Once you have cleared a working space, it suddenly gets easier. Continue chopping until you get this sort of effect:

Revealing the stems
As you can see, lots of ivy on the left, a patch of bare brown stems, and then some brickwork is becoming visible.

Once you can see the brickwork, you can exchange the secateurs for a stout metal tool, which you use to lever the stems away from the wall.

(Drat, I should have taken a photo of that stage.)

I use my dear old daisy grubber, of course, but any metal tool will do - an old flat-blade screwdriver, a small crowbar, anything that's slender enough to get under the stems, and strong enough to break them.

Sometimes you need to cut through the stems by snipping repeatedly with the secateurs before you can get it away from the wall, and often the stems will snap off. Don't worry, just keep working away at it.

Here we are, after about ten minutes hard work: I've cut the loose stuff back to reveal stems, and I've levered off a section from ground height up to almost the top of the wall.

At this point I started attacking the stems going over the top of the wall, and was able to get a huge bundle of loose stuff off, in one go, which was very satisfying.

Typically, some of the stems were on the far side of the wall, so I had to go round the other side in order to cut them as well.
"Good god, there's a perforated wall under there!"

Finally, after three barrow-loads of bits went off to the bonfire pile, the end pillar was revealed.

And to my astonishment, a genuine old 1970s style perforated concrete block wall!!

When the Client came out to see how I was doing, I drew this to her attention, much excited, rather as though I had made an archaeological "find".

Once I have cleared the whole wall, apparently a large panel of these perforated panels will be revealed, which will allow a huge amount of extra light into the veg garden.

There is a catch, though: apparently there is a matching panel on the other wall, to the other side of the house, which is currently completely smothered in climbing Hydrangea and Jasmine.

Ah well, that will be a job for another week...

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  1. Thanks, most of my back wall is covered with ocean glory. It took off like a weed when renters were here for 25 years and grew across my patio and up another fence and almost to the front yard. It overwhelmed a dark green leafed ivy-type plant that needs more sun. I haven't heard of secateurs yet, so will look it up.

    1. Hi Jeff,

      I'm afraid I have no idea what ocean glory is: presumably some kind of trailing, climbing, plant? Sounds awful, whatever it is.

      Secateurs are the standard gardeners' tool, they're basically scissors on steroids. Bigger ones are called Loppers, they usually have long handles for extra leverage, but secateurs are hand-held.

      I'd love to know what Ocean Glory is, though!

  2. Just cleared one of the walls on our house due to an extension. Not a nice job. Pulled the guttering mounts out of a brick wall by getting behind it and contouring to grow and it has ruined the render so may need to redo that. Love it on the other sides of the house though. But it’s a pain to keep in check throughout the summer! The wife would have me cut in ALL down tomorrow. Not a chance!

    1. It is evil stuff, isn't it? My best suggestion for keeping the other side of the house in check, would be to get it down to a height where you can reach it more easily, to do the regular pruning.....


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