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Replacing Ivy & Vinca with Natives

On a warm winter day when your garden beckons, one of the best tasks you can undertake is removing any ivy (Hedera helix) or vinca (Vinca minor) you may have.  The ideal time to do this is after a soaking rain.  During winter, ivy and vinca roots and runners are easy to spot, and easier to pull. The internet abounds with advice on different ways to remove these two invasive plants.

Invasive English ivy and vinca in winter
Invasive English ivy and vinca in winter

In my experience, the easiest is to tackle it with gloved hands when the ground is soaked as it is in many places right now.  During winter, any part of the plant remaining is less likely to grow back quickly, giving you more of a chance to get it out on your second effort.  A stiff rake or hoe can be used to loosen the runners. Some advise running over a bed of ivy with a lawn mower to expose roots. I have not tried that. Usually, once you get a hold of a runner, if you pull firmly but slowly, you can get quite a stretch out. It’s worth one’s time to go more slowly and get all the roots out rather than going more quickly and leaving roots behind.  Make sure to put pulled plants in the trash, not your compost or elsewhere where the plants can re-establish and grow.

If you remove ivy and vinca now, check back on your work once the weather warms in spring to pull any stragglers and then again twice more over the summer.  You will be amazed at how much progress you can make.  Ivy or vinca growing up a tree?  Just cut all of the roots at the base of the tree and let the foliage on the tree die naturally.  You may need a small pruning saw to cut larger roots.  Also, will have to remove the roots at the base of the tree as well.  If the roots are quite thick, repeated cutting over time will eventually wear them down.

Ivy and vinca are invasive throughout the Chesapeake watershed.  At their worst, these plants literally strangle trees.  Even neat and tidy beds pose problems.

English ivy, neat and trimmed
English ivy, neat and trimmed

Birds readily eat berries you barely notice and spread ivy further and further.  Typically, ivy and vinca were planted as groundcover because they are evergreen and grow vigorously with no maintenance.

If you have tackled removing either of these, you already know the job it can be.  If you have a lot of it, work in smaller manageable areas … over time, you will eventually get it all! This work also brings lots of satisfaction and new ground for planting.  Once you have cleared out an area, there are numerous native evergreen and semi-evergreen plants to substitute that will not spread aggressively and are low maintenance.

These photos of alternative plants were all taken this week to show you exactly what they look like in the middle of winter.  In summer, they are all more robust and far more colorful.

pachysandra allegheny spurge winter

Native pachysandra (Pachysandra procumbens) is a great replacement for partial or full shade areas.  The photo above is of a 2″ plug that was planted just over a year ago. Eventually the plugs planted a foot part should form a blue tinted carpet throughout winter. This plants blooms with a short white flower spike in spring. This pachysandra is not the same as the Japanese pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis) which is a more agressive grower.

Seersucker sedge (Carex plantaginea) above left is a favorite.  It is easy to grow in part sun, dappled sun or part shade and keeps its shape and color all winter. It is a clump forming perennial and can be divided over time, much like a hosta. Creeping sedge (Carex laxiculmis), above right, also is evergreen with more of a blue color for part to full shade.

Gold and green (Chrysogonum virginianum), also called goldenstar, is a strong plant. It stays green all winter and flushes with yellow blooms in spring and then blooms sporadically through summer and fall. It tolerates heavy shade.  These were planted as plugs just over a year ago in dappled sun and have already begun to form a thick mat.

heuchera 'autumn bride'

Heuchera ‘autumn bride’ (Heuchera villosa “Autumn Bride’) is not often thought of as an evergreen ground cover but in the mid-Atlantic, even during cold winters, it maintains its shape. Seen here, during a mild winter, it is also holding much of its color.  I mention this plant all of the time because it is so versatile, begins growing in early spring, blooms with white flower wands in late July or August and holds on through fall.  It’s easy care and grows in all but straight up full sun conditions.  In full sun, the leaves will burn.  It also grows fairly quickly and can be easily divided.

christmas fern winter

Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) is a terrific, albeit taller, substitute for ivy and vinca in full and part shade. During mild winters they will retain their height and color. In cold winters, the fronds will lie flat. Nevertheless, they rovide year round ground cover and add a lot of texture.

All of these native plants provide far more variety in color, shape and texture than ivy and vinca.  Replacing ivy and vinca with any of these, or some combination, will add more interest to your garden!

For more info:

The Piedmont Master Gardeners have a great overview of the many native sedges that work so well as groundcovers.


We want you to be as excited about planting Chesapeake natives as we are. “Plant This or That” gives you a native alternative to popular plants. Other posts highlight really fabulous fauna native to the Chesapeake.

Nuts for Natives, avid gardener, Baltimore City admirer, Chesapeake Bay Watershed restoration enthusiast, and public service fan.

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