Master Gardener Paul James shares his strategies for removing clinging vines from walls.
Master gardener Paul James confronts a gardening challenge with endless twists and turns — removing overgrown Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata) from a wall. The wall has both a brick and wood portion.
"I planted the vines to soften the harshness of the brick wall, and they've certainly done that," says James, "but the vines have grown far taller than expected, and they've created a bridge on which all types of insects such as spiders and termites can crawl into an attic vent at the top. Also, near the end of the growing season they develop a nasty fungus that turns the leaves prematurely brown, and I'm not big on growing anything that requires routine spraying to look good."
Initially, James tears the vines off the wall with his hands. "This part of the process isn't all that bad, except that there's a chance that I might encounter a wasp nest or large spiders along the way, which is why I'm wearing gloves as well as a long-sleeved shirt, long pants and closed-toe shoes."
Occasionally, you may find a main section of vine to which several smaller vines are attached, so when you pull on it, you remove a large portion all at once. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen all the time, and very often you end up having to remove small pieces of vine, a time-consuming process. And in this case, there are areas where removing the vines is even more tedious because the vines have grown around a gutter spout and into a pond.
Now it's time to pull or dig up the roots of the vines, which are embedded deep into the soft soil. James won't be able to remove all the roots from the bed, so a lot of them are going to return next spring. "This process is anything but fun," he says, "unless I happen to come across the mother of all the roots, which sadly doesn't happen often. I'll just be on guard for them, and pull them whenever I see them so they don't get a chance to re-grow." This too can be a tedious task, especially since the roots of these vines extend all the way out to the edges of the bed.
What about using an herbicide in a situation like this? "I suppose you could use one, but you'd have to be very careful when applying the spray so you didn't hit any of the surrounding plants," says James. "Personally, I think this is a situation where mechanical control is a much better technique than chemical control. Besides, in the process of pulling a few vines and roots, I burn more than a few calories."
And now, even though the vines and roots are gone, what's left are the remains of the little adhesive discs that were at the end of each tendril — the discs that the vines used to attach themselves to the wall. The discs stick pretty solidly to both brick and wood surfaces.
"To tell you the truth, I wasn't sure how I was going to get these things off the wall, especially the wooden portion of the wall because it's painted, and in the process of removing all the sticky little discs, I don't want to remove the paint, as well." James first sprays the wall with water to soften the discs. Then he uses a stiff nylon brush and a lot of elbow grease to remove the discs from the wooden section wall, applying more water along the way if necessary. Chances are you won't get all the discs, but at least you'll get most of them.
For the brick portion of the wall, James finds that a stiff wire brush works best, especially one with a scraper on the end. The combination of scraping and scrubbing works well. In this case, scraping the discs dry works better than soaking them first with water. When he determined that the job would take a long time, he uses a drill with a wire brush attachment for a faster and less demanding method.
Still another option is to rent a power washer. This gas-powered gizmo delivers a stream of water at a whopping 2400 psi. Not only does it clean the brick, it also does a pretty good job of removing the remaining discs on the brick. But be careful when using these things, they can damage nearby plants and take the paint off wooden surfaces.
After all that work, the vines are finally gone. The lesson learned: Don't plant really aggressive plants on a wall unless you plan on their being permanent plantings.