Gardening resources > Life-long learning > Master gardener program > Favorite Plants of Master Gardeners > English ivy
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Hedera helix

English ivy ground coverVersatility is important to Barbara van Hanegen, Master Gardener from Clifton Springs, Ontario County, New York, when it comes to choosing her favorite plants. That's why Hedera helix, or English ivy, is at the top of her list.

Barbara grows ivy both an indoor and outdoor plant. It's evergreen and easy to mold into shapes. And Barbara enjoys creating crafts with plants as much as she enjoys growing them.

Outdoors, Barbara grows English ivy as a ground cover under a tree. She says it's classic in the way that it "sleeps, creeps and leaps" -- an expression that often describes the first three years of growth of perennial plants. The first year it sleeps (growth is not particularly noticeable), the second year it creeps (you know it is growing, but oh, so slowly) and the third year it leaps (grows noticeably well). Once established, she cuts it back twice a year.

English ivy sets off white birch barkIn her observation, Hedera helix 'Baltica' is likely to climb up a tree and grows strongly from its tips, while H. hibernica 'Hibernica' is less likely to climb and has a self-branching pattern. She especially likes it as a carpet to white birch trees, because the green ground cover sets off the white birch bark beautifully.

She was influenced by reading The Ivy Book, by Susanne Warner Pierot (1995, The American Ivy Society), where she learned that there are four hundred cultivars of English ivy. The cultivars with smaller and variegated foliage are excellent candidates for doing topiary in containers. Indoor topiary creations allow Barbara to work with her favorite plant year-round.

English ivy topiaryBarbara has taught classes on creating indoor topiary. She has noticed that it appeals to people who like garden art, people who have traveled and appreciate it, people who like challenges, and people who are both creative and patient. It can sometimes take three or more years for the ivy to grow to fill in the design. With topiary horticultural art, cultivars like 'Needlepoint', 'Gold Dust', and 'Teardrop' or some of the new miniatures like 'Iberia' are delicate enough to retain the design on a small-scale in a portable container.

Barbara does caution growers to watch for spider mite, indoors and out. Container plants can easily be showered to remove the mites and their webs. Another way to keep the spider mite from getting too rampant is to "swish" the top of the plant in a water solution and detergent once a month. For a small plant, a couple of drops of detergent in a quart of water will do, while 4 or 5 drops might be needed to thoroughly cover all the nooks and crannies along the stems and leaf surfaces. Barbara says that scale can sometimes attack English ivy, but she has never had a problem with scale.

For routine care of English ivy, she takes off dead or diseased leaves, and pinches off unwanted growth that distracts from the design. She grows ivy in pots with 50% Pro-Mix (peat moss and vermiculite) and 50% potting soil. She uses a tablespoon of slow release fertilizer annually to keep plants in tip-top condition. She supplements indoors with water-soluble fertilizer every few weeks and keeps the soil moist, never letting it dry out completely. The National Park Service advises us to keep an eye on Hedera helix, as it has been reported to be an escapee in the wild in many states. See:

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