The Virtues of Ivy

I gave up growing box, Buxus, following the devastation caused by the Asian box tree caterpillar, Diaphania perspectalis, when it arrived in Saint Montan. The sight of both cultivated box, clipped into attractive shapes, and wild box bushes that were growing freely on the hillside, reduced to dry, shrivelled skeletons was sad and ugly.

So I moved to working with a plant that is rarely attacked by any disease – trailing ivy, Hedera helix. This ancient plant was described by Pliny the Elder in the first century of the Christian era when ivy had already developed variegated leaves. As in Britain, ivy thrives in Saint Montan  – clothing houses, covering walls, and climbing trees. The smaller-leaved, slower-growing varieties prosper in outdoor pots and they grow well as companion plants for flowering  plants of all kinds.

My conversion to ivy as an attractive foliage plant was a visit to Vaison-la-Romaine in Vaucluse where I noticed a series of metal arches leading to an entrance door were covered by neatly-clipped ivy which softened the harsh lines of the rigid frames and also provided a natural home for insects and birds. The gardener had used common ground ivy for the project – it’s hardy, often freely available, and evergreen.

Though easy to grow, ivy requires attention. Too often I’ve delayed clipping and trimming  the plant to keep it under control. Left to its own devices ivy can destroy brick and stone work by dislodging the mortar which falls away as you cut the tiny, octopus-like tentacles that enable the plant to cling to a vertical surface. But careful training of ivy into a shape with regular trimming using secateurs can produce a handsome result.

An unusual variety of ivy planted in the right location is a beautiful sight. Fibrex Nurseries of Petworth grow a vast choice of ivies. The nursery is also home to the National Collection of Hedera. There are ivies with different-sized leaves from floppy handkerchiefs to those with miniature foliage suited to a doll’s house. Variegated varieties might be splashed with yellow or white, and the leaves themselves might be pointed like a witch’s hat or so rounded they are almost heart-shape. Some ivies prefer a light, sunny position, others benefit from shade. And then there is the growing position to consider, some varieties prefer a dry site others thrive where the ground stays damp. Matching an ivy plant to your requirement can be a pleasurable and worthwhile excercise.

I began to train ivy in the Jardin du Curé by placing an antique stone sink in the centre of one of the small open spaces. I positioned a long metal stake in the draining hole and hammered it into the ground to keep the sink in place. At the top I used several strands of green plastic-covered wire to make 4 circles to represent a globe attaching them securely to the pole.

I filled the sink with potting compost and planted six seedling ivies that were growing on the hillside. This is the most common European ivy that grows fast, can be trained into a shape, and held in place where necessary with more green wire. If allowed to grow freely each winter, the ivy flowers produce attractive black berries that birds feed on and sprays of the plants are perfect for using in Christmas decorations.

Another simple way of growing ivy that is popular with my granchildren is to use a wire frame. They gave me a frame meant to represent a cat – at least, I believe it is, judging by its bushy tail. Young ivy plants have been planted in the centre of a flower pot with the wire frame pushed firmly into the compost to hold it in place. Ivy leaves soon begin to push through the wire network and are clipped into shape. If this works well I may acquire a few more ivy-covered animals!