Photo by Annie Roonie via Flickr
Poison ivy in the garden or a tended living area is a real bummer. In this article, I outline an ecological 5-step permaculture-inspired process for eradicating poison ivy.
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For five years, I managed a community garden that was surrounded by woods. Poison ivy formed a barrier at the edge of the forest on three sides and caused more than a few irritating itches. Child’s play was constricted, garden development was delayed, and trying to keep the poison ivy at bay was beginning to be a losing battle. We needed a solution that would allow us to get back to building an edible garden rather than spending our volunteer days risking exposure to poison ivy.
Several people on forums stated that they eat the young leaves in the springtime to build up an immunity. I don’t think I’ll be trying that one!!! 🙂
Before we take a look at the 5-step eradication plan, it’s important to learn about poison ivy’s role in the ecosystem. It’s a native plant that actually fills a special niche! You can learn more about permaculture on a suburban scale in my book, The Suburban Micro-Farm. Please keep reading below for my approach to dealing with poison ivy specifically.
Poison Ivy’s niche in the ecosystem
Poison ivy fills two roles: it provides food for wildlife and helps protect the edges of forest.
#1: Poison Ivy Berries
The grayish-white berries, while poisonous to humans, are eaten by songbirds—most notably bluebirds, goldfinches, warblers and woodpeckers.
Photo by Tim Lenz via Flickr
#2: Forest Protection
In general, poison ivy thrives on the edge of the forest: It loves the full sun in front of it, yet it also loves the moist ground from the forest shade behind it. Thickets, i.e. the edges of the forest, are usually full of brambles and their thorns, too. So brambles and poison ivy are the protectors of the forest—they form a thick wall as if to say, ‘This is a healing forest area: Keep out’.
Many plant species, called pioneers, heal damaged and disturbed land, to eventually make way for more forest. Read more about pioneer plants here. Some pioneer plants deter entrance to an area, other plants cover and protect soil to minimize erosion, while still other plants fertilize and mulch the damaged ground to build organic matter and make way for forest trees to set seed and grow.
Poison ivy both deters human entrance (the aware ones!) and covers the ground to protect against soil erosion.
When we eradicate poison ivy, we are both removing a wildlife food source and removing one of nature’s solutions for restoring land. By removing it without engaging in a larger restorative plan, nature will simply bring the same plant back again and again to restart it’s version of healing—which means constant work for us!
The Poison Ivy 5-Step Eradication Plan
Step 1: Define the area afflicted by poison ivy and decide if eradication is necessary.
Look at where the poison ivy is growing and determine if eradication is actually necessary and worthwhile. Since eradicating it will take quite a bit of effort, trying to remove it from a large area is probably not realistic. Stick to the areas that are frequently used by humans.
If the area afflicted by poison ivy is forest, can it be left there? Is it getting in your way? Only seek to eradicate that which is directly encroaching on a walking path or other well-used area.
If you’re looking to start a new garden and notice poison ivy, ask whether the proposed garden can be placed elsewhere. It may take some time to remove the urushiol oil, poison ivy’s rash-causing oil, from the area. The oil can remain long after the plant has been eradicated, so growing food crops might not be a wise choice, at least right away.
If the afflicted area is an already established garden or tended yard area in which humans will definitely come into contact with the plant, then it will be wise to eradicate it.
Photo by Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr
Step 2: Eradicate
Although I literally do not use chemical herbicide for any other purpose, I do encourage using it on poison ivy. That’s because other poison ivy removal strategies don’t seem to work very well and require frequent exposure to the plant to keep it at bay (more exposure = more chance of developing the miserable rash!).
Apply the chemical herbicide directly to the foliage at the highest ‘safe concentration’ directed on the container. This will maximize its effectiveness while minimizing repeat applications. Do not broadcast spray an area.
A one-time strong application is less detrimental to a localized area than is frequent light applications. You want to quickly kill the poison ivy and get on with the rest of the steps to restore an area.
See below for more of my thoughts on using chemical herbicide.
If using a chemical herbicide makes you uncomfortable, there are certainly other alternatives. You can dig it up, or hit it with boiling water, vinegar, or soap solutions. Goats, chickens, or pigs will graze on poison ivy if you have them. The trouble is that they won’t actually kill the roots. You’ll have to repeatedly pull, mow, graze, spray, and cut it back until the roots are exhausted and die back. See more thoughts on these methods below.
Another solution is to simply cut it back and then sheet mulch, as in Step 3.
Step 3: Sheet Mulch
Sheet mulching after step 2 is a fail-proof way to ensure that the poison ivy doesn’t return. It will also improve the soil and prepare it to be planted with something of our choosing.
Sheet mulching an area of poison ivy consists of covering the area with a couple layers of cardboard, then topping it with several feet of wood chips. Let it sit for a season. This method uses the sun to solarize any remaining live poison ivy roots. The wood chips serve a dual purpose: They help to smother the poison ivy, but they also help to rejuvenate the soil after the application of herbicide (chemical or natural) in preparation for planting something desirable.
Wood chips neutralize chemicals and heavy metals, improve soil fungal biomass, reduce erosion, and are thirsty absorbers of water, which means that wood chips replace poison ivy’s role of protecting the soil. As long as we keep the area deep in fresh wood chips, the possibility of the poison ivy returning is lessened. Be sure you have a reliable access to wood chips!
If you chose not to use a chemical herbicide, a thicker “sheet” other than cardboard will give you more assurance that the poison ivy will not return. Try laying a piece of plywood or black plastic over the area, covered with mulch. You’ll need something impenetrable, since the plants are probably not dead.
After a year, you can remove the barrier and begin restoring the area. It’s no use planting anything in the area before a year has passed, especially if it’s something you intend to eat, because the poisonous urushiol oil or herbicide may still be active and infect something edible.
Better to give it a year.
Step 4: Place Physical Barriers
If poison ivy creeps into your living spaces from a forest edge, installing a physical barrier between the two will ensure that the poison ivy doesn’t creep back in. In Edible Forest Gardens, Dave Jacke lists some barrier ideas: Try a pond, section of pavement, or a constant mowed area between the encroaching poison ivy and your yard/garden. Or consider burying a rhizome weed barrier.
Jacke prefers solutions that permanently or semi-permanently get the job done without the need for constant management. After all, the goal in permaculture is to do less work. For this reason he doesn’t suggest the mowing option to clients because life happens, and sometimes the mowing doesn’t get done.
Mullein, Sunflowers, Daffodils
It has been suggested that any of these would form a thick root barrier that wouldn’t allow poison ivy to creep through. Try this with caution—I didn’t see any definitive examples of it working.
Step 5: Replace Poison Ivy with other plants
Once you’re sure that the poison ivy is dead and that you won’t have to treat the area again with herbicides or other eradication solutions, you can replace the poison ivy with other, more desired, plants. Remember that poison ivy fills two ecological niches that we know of: Feeding songbirds with fall berries and protecting the soil as a ground cover. We’ll seek out plants that fill these niches.
Identify what you want to plant, whether that’s berry-producing trees and shrubs or a ground cover, or both. You’ll keep the rest of the area thick in wood chips. The wood chips are important!
Once established, the new plants should protect the area and keep poison ivy from creeping back in.
Photo by Archie via Flickr
Berry-Production for Songbirds
Toby Hemenway gives us a nice list of plants in Gaia’s Garden for wildlife fall berry-production. Many of these berries are also edible for humans, so you decide how much to share! You’ll have to do some research to see if these plants will grow in your area. This is just a short list to get you thinking and isn’t a complete list of all options.
- American cranberry
- Blackberry or raspberry canes
- Mulberry (try a dwarf variety)
There are many kinds of ground covers, and you want to make sure the soil is covered so that the poison ivy isn’t tempted to return.
Creeping Ground Covers
It’s been suggested that since poison ivy is a creeper, it should be replaced by one. Examples would be:
- Jewelweed (an antidote to poison ivy)
- Virginia creeper (though native, it is aggressive)
- Wild native grape
- Native wisteria
Perennial Ground Cover
A perennial ground cover such as white clover might provide just as much soil coverage without the risk of aggressive spreading from a creeping ground cover. Clover will reduce erosion, fix nitrogen in the soil, and attract pollinators.
How to install plants
Dig a hole in the wood chips, fill with compost soil, and plant. Water well until established.
On Using Chemical Herbicides
You might be surprised that I support the use of chemical herbicide for poison ivy removal. The reason I do is because it’s part of a larger restoration plan (if you follow this 5-step plan). I wouldn’t support its use otherwise. Without a larger plan, you risk a dependence on herbicide as a management tool and the ongoing addition of chemicals to the soil.
I have always been irritated by the use of herbicides by land conservationists. That’s because I don’t believe it’s possible to micro-manage a large tract of land as if it were a backyard garden. Without an army of volunteers helping to hold back invasive species and a larger plan beyond the chemical application, the use of herbicides becomes “institutionalized and chronic” in the words of Dave Jacke.
I don’t have a problem with chemical herbicides existing, but rather, I have a problem with how they’re generally used. Carpet bombing thousands of acres of Round-Up Ready fields of corn and soybeans is a recipe for ecosystem collapse.
The spot treatment of a few poison ivy plants in a backyard is not cause for concern.
Prior to my community garden project, I would have thought natural remedies would work in all settings, regardless of the site. After all, I have standards, and they don’t include using chemicals!
However, a principal component of permaculture design is discerning when an appropriate use of technology (in this case, chemical herbicide) can catapult the design forward rather than hinder land restoration.
It’s true that if we want poison ivy gone forever from our gardens, there’s more to the plan than a one-time fix with herbicide. Replacing it with other plants that fill the same niches in the ecosystem is an essential part of the solution.
Alternatives to Chemical Herbicide
If the use of chemical herbicide still makes you uncomfortable, I’ve provided some suggestions below on the best way to safely and effectively use alternative solutions.
Dig it up by hand
If you’re brave enough to try this method of poison ivy removal, wear gloves, long sleeves, long pants, and maybe even a handkerchief over your face. Bag it up for garbage if you don’t have a lot of land to throw it somewhere out of the way. Be aware that any roots left in the ground will regrow, so constant vigilance will be your best bet with this method.
Boiling Water, Vinegar, Soap and Water Solution
These solutions are frequently mentioned as natural solutions for poison ivy removal. Experiment with them on a small spot before trying them on a large area. Keep in mind that these are all herbicides—they’re just natural versions—so they will affect the local ecosystem. They will damage soil food webs, mycorrhizal fungi, affect soil pH, and neighboring plants, just like chemical herbicides (just in different ways).
Spot treat to reduce their effects on the surrounding environment.
Boiling water can send up poison ivy vapors that would be toxic to breathe. Cut back the foliage and only apply boiling water to the root crown. Wearing a respirator is a good idea.
Vinegar and soap solutions are fantastic for drying out foliage and can kill shallow roots. However, poison ivy roots are deep and intricate, and are rarely killed by the application. Frequent applications would be necessary to be sure all was killed.
This 5-step plan is a thoughtful and sustainable way to remove poison ivy, keep it from returning, and replace it with desired and useful plants. The 5-step strategy takes the place of other solutions that rely solely on chemical herbicides, as well as those solutions that risk exposure to the plant while cutting it back or spraying natural chemicals.
You’ll find loads of information just like this in my book, The Suburban Micro-Farm.
Need more ideas for growing a permaculture garden?
- 6 Maps to Draw for the Permaculture Designed Homestead
- Implementing Your Dreams on the Permaculture Homestead
- How to Build a Fruit Tree Guild
Do you have poison ivy that needs removed?