Why Ivy should be in every garden

PUBLISHED: 11:10 14 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:33 20 February 2013

Managed properly, it won't damage your trees and walls and it isn't poisonous, says Sir Roddy.

The other day I went on a quest to find a particular variety of ivy with small golden leaves (Hedera helix Buttercup). My reason for wanting this variety is because it is so useful for covering bare tree trunks. Yes, it is quite slow-growing, but the appearance of a tree is easily metamorphosed with the help of this plant: a smart yellow sock instead of a stark, bare trunk. All you have to do is to trim it every year in August to a height of, say two metres (six foot) once it has grown to its intended height, a painless job that takes no time to complete.

I have used this plant in this way to clothe an avenue of poplars lining a private drive in Oxfordshire. There are countless different ivies with varying shape, colour and size of leaf with all sorts of uses including topiary when it is trained within a chicken wire framework. It also comes in very useful as groundcover where little else will glow and acts as an excellent foil for other climbers.

My search for this plant proved fruitless, however. None of the four major garden centres in my area stocked it. They all told me ivy is unpopular because of its reputation for strangling trees and for being messy. Well, that is true of the majority of climbers that are allowed to grow unchecked. It is a great shame that ivies do not have a glamorous image and that they are dismissed out of hand because of erroneous tittle-tattle. Ivy leaves are NOT poisonous to cattle and horses. The notion that they are is because the Hedera genus is confused with Rhus radicans known as Poison Ivy, a native to North America and Mexico.

Another point to be made is that ivy will NOT harm a wall so long as the mortar is sound. If you want to remove established ivy growing up an old, crumbly stone or brick wall it is best to cut it at ground level and allow it to die slowly. When it comes to trees, ivy will not necessarily damage a tree unless it is old, diseased or weak.

However, it is a mistake to leave ivy to grow right to the top of a tree as it is then that it takes on its arborescent form. Its leaves change shape, it produces flowers and seed heads and takes on the appearance of a shrub rather than a climber. There is a danger that this bushy growth will grow so large that it will deprive light to the upper branches of the host tree resulting in die-back. It can also make a tree so top-heavy that it can be blown over in strong winds. Judicious pruning from time to time will prevent the ivy from forming this arborescent growth.

Ivy provides a valuable food and shelter for many birds, butterflies and insects. Its flowers provide a valuable source of nectar and pollen and bees as late as November. The Holly Blue butterfly lays its eggs on the flowers in October and many other butterflies hibernate in ivy. About 15 different birds use ivys dense foliage for roosting and nesting. If only for that reason alone we should all have ivy in our gardens, not forgetting the contribution it gives to the winter landscape.

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