Sep 1, 2009

The Ivy War

How a Brutal 40-Year Ivy Reign Was Ended
By Jess “Ken Burns” Kolman

Accounts of the precise beginning of the Ivy War differ, but most historians point to the Christmas Light Uprising of 2006. Rumors of a resistance movement had been circulating since the turnover of the yard’s human ownership in 2002, but until late 2006, the brutal Algerian Ivy regime, installed in 1966, had maintained an unchallenged stranglehold on the entire front, corner and south side sectors of the yard. Any object daring to stand in the ivy’s way, such as the house or trees, would be summarily smothered and consumed. However, in December 2006, the ivy’s ruthless repression of the human resident’s attempt to erect a ladder to put up Christmas lights sparked an anti-ivy uprising that gave the resistance courage. During the melee, several ivy strands were severed to make way for the ladder, and this may have made the ivy appear vulnerable. Emboldened, the resistance commenced a barrage of strategic attacks beginning in early 2007, focusing on the northern highlands region of the yard.

The resistance organized three major battalions. The 81st Airborne Hand-Clipper Unit launched repeated raids on the leafy portions of the ivy, with the goal of gaining access to deeper concentrations of woody material. Here the 2nd Infantry Lopper Unit moved in with full scale assaults on thick stems. Finally, the all-important Heavy Armored Pick Division, headed by a $10 pick ax recruited from Big Lots, attempted to root out the underground elements.

By the beginning of 2008, the northern highlands were believed to be mostly clear of ivy, and native settlements of woodland strawberry, snowberry, Ribes sanguineum, irises and heucheras moved in. These settlements were tenacious in the face of insurgent ivy attacks, but some succumbed to drought and insect rebellions; the heuchera settlements came under heavy fire from hostile deer forces taking advantage of the ivy’s absence, and eventually had to pull out and retreat to the back yard demilitarized zone.

In the summer of 2008, the resistance began full scale attacks on the corner quadrant. The clipper and lopper generals were seriously wounded and replaced, and as the underground fighting intensified, a battle-weary Big Lots Pick was honorably discharged, paving the way for the recruitment of General Spod (the name reputedly stood for Swinging Pick of Doom), whose wider, sharper ax blade was seen by some as a means to a swifter victory. Gen. Spod laid out a bold, some would say unrealistic, plan for Full Ivy Removal, or FIR, by November. This would allow for massive native plant migration, coinciding with the beginning of the crucial rainy season. As Operation FIR gained steam over several fronts, allied homes throughout the neighborhood sent medivac teams of green waste bins to clear the battlefields. With as many as seven jam-packed bins going out every two weeks, excess ivy carnage was still accumulating with alarming speed in the driveway region.

In October 2008, the battle front progressed to the south side territories, where the ivy forces proved increasingly ruthless. Ivy that had benefitted from decades of favorable southern conditions lashed out with stems 4 inches or more in diameter, rendering the lopper unit powerless and requiring the creation of the Japanese Chop Saw Task Force. The chop saw was effective, but agonizingly slow. Meanwhile, underground, Gen. Spod’s forces were pushed to the brink by repeated encounters with solid ivy trunks, 8 inches wide, and often only a few feet apart. The ivy also made heavy use of terror tactics, detonating dozens of improvised explosive devices, apparently contributed by generations of littering human jackasses. Glass bottles would explode when struck by Spod, and ancient, unopened aluminum cans would issue geysers of Tab Cola or Schlitz Beer upon contact. The resistance also had to contend with the possibility of collateral damage when the ivy mingled with roots of friendly trees or took hostages, such as lizards, gopher snakes, and potentially dangerous rattlesnakes. And finally, the resistance encountered a challenge that would test its will perhaps more than any other--a huge biological weapons cache concealed in the ivy, slowing the resistance to a crawl by forcing it to manage the risk of a plague outbreak while decommissioning massive quantities of lethal rat poo.

In the end, VS Day (Victory in the South), came three days after Thanksgiving 2008, after an 11 hour battle that raged well into the night. Some saw Spod’s refusal to back down and fight another day as counterproductive, with fatigue and impaired visibility causing unacceptable amounts of ivy roots to be left in place. But Spod apologists point out that by this time, legions of native plant settlers had amassed in camps crowding the driveway region, and were desperate to leave their pot-bound conditions and begin setting down roots in rain-dampened soil.

Over the course of the 2008-09 rainy season, these pioneering natives established several nation-states. Now, in addition to the Woodland Commonwealth, begun in the northern highlands the previous year, two broad new communities were in place. The United Biomes of Chaparral and Scrub was chartered in the corner territory, electing A. manzanita, a cultivar related to the famous Dr. Hurd, as its president. On the south side territory, the Democratic Republic of Grasslands was established, with a bicameral congress of Nassella and Aristida presiding over a constituency of perennials and small shrubs.

The final front, the UBB (Under Bottlebrush) precinct, was allowed to remain under ivy control until the spring of ‘09, owing to the tactical challenges of fighting under the prickly canopy. In the relative détente that followed VS Day, the ivy might have regrouped and fought back in this region, if not for the politically explosive remarks of one of the human resident’s friends. Publicly praising the ivy’s “lush, glossy green leaves”, this person reignited anti-ivy sentiment and Spod’s forces marched under the bottlebrush the following weekend.

Armistice was finally declared in April of 2009, and the green bin armies returned to their distant homes, but a gruesome insurgency rages on. It is now widely agreed that the resistance underestimated the ivy’s resolve, and was not aware of its ability to survive for years underground, in the complete absence of photosynthesis, via the admittedly ingenious tactic of storing energy in rhizomes. The fledgling native nations are continually reminded that any bit of ivy left on the battlefield, even a finger-sized shred of root, can at any time resurrect and produce shoots and leaves. Ivy insurgents have been known to explode through the crowns of peaceful native plants, stirring fears that it may once again control the yard at large. This fear may have paved the way, politically, for the highly controversial decision to use chemical agents when it was discovered that ivy insurgents had camps inside and under a concrete wall, impervious to Spod. A stockpile of Roundup was deployed and though there was evidence of its efficacy, the contract with this supplier was suddenly terminated in light of intel indicating that Monsanto may be evil. An alternative supply of Ortho Brush-B-Gone has therefore been secured and is presently being deployed on all concrete wall-based insurgents.

Over the course of the war, many antiquities were recovered, including children's toys, dog collars, cat collars, golf balls, basketballs and every intermediate ball, and, curiously, aluminum root barriers and a large supply of landscape-ready river rocks. These latter items indicate to historians that the ivy may not have initially been intended to wield control over the entire yard, but was rather a tragic example of absolute power and unchecked rhizomatous invasiveness run amok.

Despite the tenacity of the ivy enemy, the various native communities are bravely thriving. Infrastructure has been restored and improved, with a full irrigation system added in July. However, the almost daily attacks by ivy insurgents has cast doubt on any initial timetables for troop draw-down, and experts acknowledge privately that the peacekeeping forces on all the former ivy fronts may in fact be needed for a hundred years.


  1. You may have a talent for horticulture, but you also have a great talent for writing! Please continue.

  2. It's great to see you have a gardening blog. Very nice start. I recall your botany knowledge from hiking and am excited to hear how the garden grows. I remember the ivy & the joy of success. — Buzz if you want photo shoot company. :-) PS: I absolutely adore the drawings. They're perfect!

  3. Thanks both for the nice comments!! It makes figuring out how create the blog totally worth it! Should be fun to keep it up, and I'm hoping the plants will cooperate by doing interesting things. Interesting good, not interesting bad, I hope, but we'll see!

  4. Hilarious and informative, richly enhanced by the inclusion of the heys and the stories they so sweetly tell! Thanks so much for sharing!

  5. Jess, you are off to a great start! I must admit I'm quite bloodthirsty on the topic of ivy and juniper and applaud anyone who mounts a successful campaign.

    Looking forward to what you have to say, and remember, you are welcome to add a guest post to my blog anytime!

    And (gasp!) it doesn't even have to be on natives!

  6. I'm both shocked and awed! All that was missing was a carrier landing by a complete dud of a plant announcing "Mission Complete".

    No pressure, but the toothpicks are in the eyelids waiting for the next installment.

  7. What a wonderful job you've done - both with the yard itself and with your description of the effort it took! I've been fighting bermudagrass daily for only the past two seasons, and I thought that was plenty bad enough, but it's nothing compared to your extended war with the ivy.

  8. Gosh, thanks all! You're so nice! Dang, I totally dropped the ball by not having a Mission Accomplished banner! Yes, if there is a botanical equivalent to a retarded cowboy, I could have flown it in and wrapped it in a faux flight suit and placed it in a macho stance under the banner. Next time! (I hope those toothpicks aren't hurting--you aren't also listening to Beethoven's 9th, are you?) Susan, I would certainly do guest posts and am still flattered you ask--just slow! Same for Troy. Shoot me topics if you want, otherwise I'll let the plants come up with the ideas. I may not always be able to do a nutty war analogy--I just had to work through the Post Ivy Stress Disorder. I'm glad you share my anti-ivy zeal; I actually saw it for sale it Home Depot (Despot) recently! You'd think people would be on to it by now. Queerbychoice, thanks for visiting--Bermuda Grass is nasty, good luck with it! I had a little of it too, where it had made itself at home around a fire hydrant with a small leak. I have to admit I had a little help from AT&T in delivering its final blow:
    They dug a huge hole, but the upside was that they got those roots out! Invasive Patrol is an ongoing battle, don't lose heart--the good plants will prevail with our help!

  9. Welcome to the world of garden blogs. It is so nice to have another CA native plant unit. Found your entry very entertaining as I recalled my own battle with English ivy (not as strong as its Algerian ally) and Bermuda grass (small but insidious). I often hear why people don't like native plants but rarely do they talk about ivy as rat habitat or the toxicity of oleander. Go figure! Anyway, welcome.

  10. Hi Barbara, thanks for stopping by. Congratulations on your victory over the other two members of the axis of evil. My Mom's yard in Washington State has been occupied by English Ivy, so I may be deployed again. You're right about the rat habitat--my ivy must have been a veritable luxury rat resort and spa for years. And I hear people say they don't want to use natives either because they are "invasive" or "fussy". (Aren't those opposites?) I'll check out your blog!

  11. Great war correspondancy! I laughed myself silly reading this, and I certainly sympathize with the war itself. If I could make one teensy request/suggestion........ I about go blind, trying to read this much tiny blog type in white letters on dark background. A combination of aging eyes and small laptop screen.

    I will be reading your blog in future, and am cheering you on in your ivy resistance from my own native plant garden -- where my own invaders are more mundane (dandelions, knapweed, and &^%%#$# bambi)
    Li'l Ned

  12. Thanks for the nice comments, Ned! I'll try easier-to-read font sizes in future, thanks for the feedback. I see you are in Bend; I'm not so familiar with natives up there but I bet you grow some beautiful things--with any luck, beautiful things that don't taste good to Bambi.

  13. This is one of the best blog posts I've read, both for content and style. Keep up the good fight-against ivy. I helped my friend battle it at his parents' house and we used cardboard mulch. The ivy still finds ways through, but you only have to fight it in specific lines instead of the whole yard.

  14. Hilarious! I remember well my own deployment against a 30-year unchecked English ivy insurgency at my parent's house some years ago. In fact, I'm going to send my dad the link to this post. We eventually found some success by doing the rampaging/chop thing and then snuffing out little camps with a good dosing of newspaper and leaves/grass clippings.

    The new pics look great!

  15. Nice blog with nice picture of garden in front of home. It was nice going through your blog. Keep it up the good work.

  16. Thanks all! The battle continues. The counterinsurgency effort was set back when October rains seemed to give the ivy new resolve. (How does it DO that?? Little sticks of ivy sitting in the dry soil for months just magically--diabolically--spring to life as soon as they get a little water.) I don't know if I'll ever be fully free of ivy, but I'll never surrender, either!

  17. Hilarious.

    I've battled vicious vinca for years.