Today, I weeded poison ivy. Again. Every time I do this, I hope it’s the last time for the season. It’s bad this year because honestly it’s the first time in two years I’ve done a full-scale ivy patrol, and the ivy doesn’t sleep. Or creep. It only leaps.
Still, I am always fighting poison ivy. It’s inevitable, being so close to the woods. But I’m not without my resources in the battle! Here’s how I fight it…and win.
- I look for mother plants. All poison ivy comes either from runners from the main plant or else from berries, often transported by bird poop. If you have a high concentration of poison ivy seedlings, there’s a good chance that you’re very close to the source. Find it. Kill it. Poison ivy, pokeberry, and greenbrier are my three big “I don’t care how native it is” plants. I see them, they go.
- Mowing works great for keeping poison ivy out of the lawn. It really can’t survive where you regularly mow. Same with string trimming. Just wear protective clothes if you’re working in an area with poison ivy. Don’t do this to places where you have a lot of poison ivy—you need everything to break down fast. But for areas where occasional bird poop pops up a seedling, hit it young and it will be gone immediately.
- Hand pulling works very well, too. Wear disposable gloves and take them off by turning them inside out and dropping them straight into the trash. Then scrub up with Tecnu, which is deodorized mineral oil with a couple of other things that dissolves poison ivy much better than soap, and then add soap and finally water. You can use Tecnu on tools, too. I don’t bother with cleaning my loppers. I just never touch the head of the loppers unless it’s going to be sharpened or needs to be disinfected, and then I immediately treat it with Tecnu right before sharpening.
- Around trees, sometimes loppers or an ax are the only sensible options. You can cut the stem, pull the roots or treat the stump with brush killer, and leave the leaves to rot off the tree. The vine relies on the roots in the ground for water. Without them, it will die, and you don’t have to worry about having to carefully pull the vines down without touching yourself. Mulch near but not touching tree trunks really cuts down on the number of poison ivy seedlings that pop up each year. I should totally listen to my own advice here…. Trees are often the last thing to get mulched in my yard, though. Which often means it just doesn’t happen.
- Round-up works. When I can’t pull a vine easily, I’ll cut it with loppers and paint the end with Round-up. Sometimes, it takes a couple of rounds (ahah), but this will kill it. In circumstances where you have woods that are just strangled by vines, sometimes a one-time heavy attack by Round-up is the best way, if you can’t get ahold of goats! By the way, in case you’re wondering how much Round-up I go though, since I mention it pretty often here, I bought one of the big pump-and-point containers when we moved in ten years ago. I’m still on the same container. The container doesn’t really work well anymore, as the pump mechanism’s air seal has degraded with age, but I’ll move what remains to a spray bottle when it’s entirely useless. I recommend Round-up because all the various home remedies for killing plants, while well-intentioned, are either not terribly effective on tougher plants or are insanely toxic, to the point that they can be deadly. You can drink a glass of regular concentration Round-up and not die. Not that it’s recommended. It’s really not. But the mere residue from some “organic” home remedies can kill you dead permanently, as my uncle’s physics teacher used to say, if you eat vegetables that have some on them. When the stakes are high, sticking with things with MSDS sheets and EPA approval are a wise idea. Round-up is less toxic to amphibians than even things like concentrated vinegar, too, as well as being more effective. Just because it’s “natural” doesn’t mean it’s safe, much less that it works!
- Rent goats. For heavy infestations of woods, this is one of the best ways. Poison ivy is goat candy. I haven’t done this, but I know people who have!
Remember, though, that even the dead leaves and stems will have a good deal of urushiol, the toxin that causes an allergic reaction, in them for a long time. This is why I hand-pull most of my poison ivy even though that means that I often end up with a little spot somewhere on my body where it “bites” me and I don’t get it clean enough. I don’t put them in my compost, and neither should you! (I toss it onto a wooded slope that no one ever walks on, if you’re wondering—if it had berries, I’d throw it away.) Absolutely under no circumstances should you burn poison ivy, even old, dried-out poison ivy. The smoke can be fatal.
I found a lot of sources declaring that urushiol can last for five years. I’d say, basically, that if the leaf and vine are still intact, it’s a danger. Once it rots all the way down, it’s not, but you still don’t want to get poison ivy from turning compost or using compost that hasn’t rotted down or hot enough. On metal objects like tools, it will last longer than in rotting matter.
I decided the local native plant society was a bit deranged when it went into a local park and removed all the invasive garlic mustard (yay!) to then give more air, light, and nutrients to the native poison ivy, which they left (the heck…?). I’d put it in the same category as the Guinea worm: 100% natural and native, and something that we’d be 100% better off without. Birds may live the fall berries, but I’d be happy to plant a native holly for every poison ivy stand I take out.