How to grow ivy

Val Bourne

Find out which varieties of ivy are best for your garden and how to grow them, plus find out the answers to some frequently asked questions.

There are rich greens that glow in winter light and look splendid set against reds and oranges. You might be consider a winter-warming pot of red cyclamen with a backdrop of plain-green ivy.

Golden ivies can light up corners as effectively as a bolt of sunshine and they mix best with blue, yellow and white, but their golden leaves only keep their brash colour in bright positions, they fade in shade. The cooler cream and green foliage varieties add a moonlit shimmer that can show up pinks and purples to perfection.

Where to plant

Hedera helix (English Ivy) is very hardy and easy but prefers limy soil. To avoid damage it is best not to plant them by trees and houses. These cooly variegated varieties are excellent in shade.

How to plant

Add a sprinkling of lime when you plant - to the base of the planting hole - and be patient. Ivies tend to take time to get going. But, once away, they are long lived.

Two stages of growth

Unusually ivies have two distinct stages of growth. They produce soft juvenile foliage when young - which gardeners appreciate. This is followed by woody, adult growth which bears flowers and berries. Leaving a mature ivy to flower will provide a precious source of nectar in late-autumn - followed by late-spring berries. Birds and bees both appreciate this.

Does ivy kill trees?

Problems occur when a juvenile ivy climbs a tree trunk and then produces a heavy knot of adult foliage among the overhead branches. This top-heavy growth can bring the tree down in strong winds. Therefore, it’s best not to encourage ivy to climb into trees for that reason.

If you already have a problem, cutting the stems at ground level will stop the growth on those stems. The trick is to wait for two or three months before peeling away the severed ivy stems - rather than trying to tug them away straight after cutting.

Is ivy poisonous?

There is also another misconception; that ivies are poisonous. They’re not; the term 'poison ivy' refers to an American plant called Rhus radicans. It causes severe blistering when touched.

Will ivy damage my house?

Most named ivies are descended from Hedera helix, commonly known as English Ivy. These ivies have tiny clinging, or adventitious roots. Although these won’t damage sound mortar and brickwork, the tendrils can climb into eaves and gutters so it’s best not to use them on house walls.

However, there are several ivies that don’t have clinging roots. They twine through wire supports. The most handsome of these is the hardy Hedera colchica ‘Dentata Variegata’, a variegated grey-green and pale yellow form of Persian ivy.

Grow with…

This depends on your ivy. Many stand alone on a fence or tripod. Smaller ivies mix well with other evergreens particularly hardy ferns. More rampant varieties could colonise a bank with periwinkles, pulmonarias and ground cover roses like ‘Kent’.

Ground cover ivies are excellent with miniature bulbs including larger snowdrops like G. plicatus. ‘S. Arnott’ and ‘Atkinsii’. The glossy ivy foliage sets of the pristine white flowers, but also helps to hide the browning leaves.

Ivy varieties

There are hundreds to choose from because ivies have a habit of sporting - producing an unusual shoot differing from the parent. So leaf size can vary enormously from the tiny green thumbnails of ‘Minima’ (also known as ‘Spetchley’) to the large palm-sized leaves of Hedera colchica. Generally, the smaller the leaf the more compact the plant.

Others have evocative names that conjure up their individual shapes like ‘Maple Leaf’, ‘Angularis’, ‘Parsley Crested’, ‘Curvaceous’ and ‘Duckfoot’. The crisp-edged ivies (like ‘Parley Crested’) look extra special in frost with their tinsel-like frills.

Finding the right ivy for your garden

Though some ivies will happily scale a wall, trellis, fence or pillar, others are only ground huggers. These can vary from those that barely cover a square foot to rampant carpeters. Others trail seductively and are perfect for hanging baskets or winter containers.

Many hardy ivies are also used as house plants and it’s been proved that they remove pollutants in the air more efficiently than any other plant. But this ability to absorb chemicals eventually kills them and they will not survive in heavily polluted air.

Vigorous all rounders for climbing, screening and ground cover

Green leaves

Hedera helix ‘Parsley Crested’ ( syn. ‘Cristata’)
Self-clinging, pale-green leaves, each with a parsley-like margin (1950).

Hedera helix ‘Lalla Rookh’
Deeply-cut, pointed mid-green leaves (1974).

Hedera helix ‘Green Ripple’
Vigorous rich-green leaves with narrow, pointed lobes (1939).

Hedera hibernica (syn. Irish Ivy)
A very vigorous, shiny, green-leaved ivy with five-lobed leaves (1815).

Variegated leaves

Hedera helix ‘Ceridwen’
A fast-growing, variegated gold, green and grey-green ivy (1980).

Hedera helix ‘Luzzii’
Dark-green leaves marbled and freckled with pale-green (1951).

Hedera helix ‘Glacier’
Grey -green leaves with silver blotches edged in white (1943).

Hedera colchica ‘Dentata Variegata’
A non-clinging ivy with large, rounded grey-green leaves, each with a broad cream-yellow margin(1907).

Restrained ground cover

Hedera helix ‘Ivalace’
A shiny, green five-lobed ivy with dished leaves and crinkled edges (1955).

Hedera helix ‘Spetchley’ ( syn ‘Minima’)
A tiny rockery-sized ivy with small three-lobed green leaves prominently veined (1962)

Where to buy

Fibrex Nurseries (holders of the NCCPG Collection of 354 different ivies):

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.