What do I need to know about growing ivy on a house?
August 14, 2011 12:10 PM   Subscribe

I am buying a house that has full English ivy covering the stucco on the house. I want to hear from folks that have ivy on your house or have had ivy on your house what it takes to care for it and if there's anything you wish you had known about it before you got it. The house is in Southern California, so there will be year round growth I assume.

I am in escrow on an English style cottage that I have fallen in love with. It is fully covered in ivy on the stucco facade. The ivy appears to have been maintained properly and it is isolated to just the stucco, not any wood trim or roof. It looks like some English Grandmarm might just be whipping up tea and crumpets inside.

I am wondering about:
-cost of maintaining
-keeping it alive so it won't look like a sad dead plant is hanging off my house
-preventing damage to house
-will I have a crazy water bill?
posted by dottiechang to Home & Garden (21 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
English ivy is highly invasive and nearly impossible to kill. I suspect your major ivy-related issue will be pruning it back so it doesn't completely envelop your house and kill every other plant on your property.
posted by juliapangolin at 12:43 PM on August 14, 2011 [7 favorites]

Depending on how long you live there, you can anticipate having to re-stucco the house. Ivy takes root into the stucco and ultimately breaks it down.
posted by Old Geezer at 12:48 PM on August 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Agreed, you will eventually have to re-stucco the house. However until then the ivy will requre no maintenance, at least not to keep it alive. We have a stucco house in so cal too, we repainted it about 6 months ago and basically chopped off the ivy at ground level and ripped it all off the ivy is back in full force and looks like we never cut it down. You will have to be careful to keep it out of your chimney and stop it from getting in the house through windows.
posted by boobjob at 12:59 PM on August 14, 2011

Oh man, I know what you're saying. Ivy is so pretty. But that shit will fuck your house right up. Mr. M and I are looking at possibly having to rebuild a chimney because of that devil weed. Proceed with caution!
posted by Maisie at 1:00 PM on August 14, 2011

Yeah, ivy is the devils plant. I have spent the summer helping my mom removed it from a neglected house she bought. It was choking out and killing BIG trees. Any vegetation growing against a house will hold moisture and decaying matter agaisnt the building a drasticilly shorten the lifespan of the exterior of the house if not the whole structure. Not recommended at all. About the best way to achieve this look is with something less vigourous like wysteria that is on a lattice that is set well off the house, and even then it will require at least yearly pruning and cleaning to keep it away from the structure. That being said Ivy is very tough plant and tolerant of a wide variety of conditions. Not much of a water bill and all your costs will be house related for this romantic looking scourge.
posted by bartonlong at 1:00 PM on August 14, 2011

Best answer: Well, I kind of wish I hadn't bought the house, to be honest. It's a constant source of vexation and it takes everything in my power not to deliver a hard right cross to well-meaning people who say "Oh, but it's so pretty!".

It doesn't require any special watering, at least not here in Minnesota so your mileage may vary.

It will fuck your stucco up, but long before it does that, it will fuck up any wood trim you've got, so you will need to take care to keep it trimmed back from any window frames, eaves, etc, and of course if you have a wooden deck or steps, keep it trimmed away from that as well. Keep it from twining around your gutters, because it will pull them right out of whack. Keep it off any brickwork you've got because it will basically eat your masonry. You really don't want it near any non-wood trim either, as it worms its way through seams between pieces and then eventually shifts them out of place.

Birds and squirrels will nest in it and anything behind where they nest will end up covered in shit.

It will choke trees to death (we're going to have to pull out some lovely old lilacs that have just been battered by the ivy and cannot be saved).

Our warm season is short, but the ivy was already coming back to life before the snow had melted and by June was fully covering the house again. We have been trying to stay one step ahead of it all summer long. If I didn't know it was all going to die back in a couple of months and give me a reprieve, I would probably run away from home.

The upside to ivy is that it's, well, "so pretty" and that it does not require any effort whatsoever on your part to keep it alive. Your effort will be funneled into keeping it under control. The only way to get rid of it for good is to burn your house down, something I have considered pretty much every day this summer.

Good luck.
posted by padraigin at 1:36 PM on August 14, 2011 [4 favorites]

it might be worth it to have a licenced contractor come out and have a look at the house, just to be on the safe side...could be whatever is under the ivy is just fine...could be it requires many thousands of dollars in repair...this should def. be a factor in negotiating the price. on the plus side, it will keep your house cooler in the summer, so you could save quite a bit on the electric bill...
posted by sexyrobot at 1:57 PM on August 14, 2011

Because of the waxy coating on its leaves, and its phenomenal resistance to most toxins and plant growth hormones, ivy is mostly impervious to even broadband weed control herbicides like RoundUp. You may have some luck with herbicidal control, if you are willing to make fresh cuts in the stems, and manually apply herbicides with swabs. But unless you're willing and able to conduct weekly warfare against the stems, annihilate all the berries in season, and dig the roots regularly, in the long run, ivy will win the war, even if you win a few battles along the way.

If I had to choose between controlling kudzu or ivy, I'd choose kudzu every time. At least kudzu can still be tamed with the proper use of herbicides.
posted by paulsc at 2:06 PM on August 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Where we live, English Ivy is a non-native scourge.

We bought a house in the suburbs and suspect a decades-before owner planted ivy. It has established a bastion in the side yard and claimed several trees, one of which recently fell on the house (causation not directly ascribable to the ivy, but I have my suspicions). We are committed to driving it back but are currently marshaling our forces: several small skirmishes have resulted in cuts and bruises.

And unfortunately, I know from the city I work in that yes, rats love ivy.
posted by Morrigan at 4:13 PM on August 14, 2011

Ivy also climbs in the windows and, if you mistakenly let it stay for a few weeks because you think that's charming, the vine will latch onto the wall and wreck the paint job. ...I still love it.
posted by roger ackroyd at 6:09 PM on August 14, 2011

In 5 years of living in our 150-year-old neighborhood, we have witnessed intentionally planted ivy strangle (and kill) no less than 4 150-year-old white oaks.

It will ruin your stucco, then worm its way beneath the stucco finish and ruin the underlying structure; it will destroy chimneys, trim, and woodwork; it will weasel its way into your home through your windows, if you let it; it will vex you by sprouting from every corner of your garden no matter how many sprigs you pull; it will turn neighbor against neighbor. (Truly. Just ask anyone who has lived next to a house with ivy.) Here in the Midwest, it swallows 100" tall trees in just a few years. And it will never stop growing - not in times of drought or in times of plenty. Cut it back and it will grow even faster. It will cost you probably nothing to maintain, unless you're counting the cost of home repair or psychotherapy should you ever try to get rid of it.

It's pretty much the devil's handwork; it's a wonder Hitchcock never made a movie about this stuff.

Definitely get a thorough home inspection before you purchase this house. It is entirely probably that the ivy has already damaged the stucco.
posted by muirne81 at 6:24 PM on August 14, 2011

I suspect it helps naturally cool the house in summer because the leaves transpire water. Otherwise, I've heard it's a charming menace.
posted by theora55 at 6:35 PM on August 14, 2011

Response by poster: Yikes! Thanks for sharing your ivy horror stories. I do plan on having a thorough home inspection and plan on hiring a gardener to help me with the pruning on a regular schedule if I do buy the house. It is good to know about the berries, because that sounds like a nightmare!

I can attest to the fact that it does seem to provide insulation. There are two other houses for sale in the same neighborhood that I toured on the same day. Both were MUCH hotter than the ivy covered one.
posted by dottiechang at 8:06 PM on August 14, 2011

Ratsss, my precious, lots and lots of ratsss in the ivy, especially in LA. Beware.
posted by Lynsey at 9:20 PM on August 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

We have some creeping ivy in the backyard, that we hacked back, covered over with heavy, black garden fabric, and put decorative rocks over. It is the only way we've been able to (temporarily) stop it from growing, and other than a little bit of trimming, it currently offers no problems. So, I suggest that you also cut it back/cover it up/spray the places you don't want the ivy (say in the garden).
posted by anitanita at 2:08 AM on August 15, 2011

Best answer: Just as counterpoint, ivy is considered a "green wall" option and seems to generally work better on masonry versus wood fa├žades -- though brick is still vulnerable, according to the industry, and thus large cut-stone masonry is still a much better base. Stucco would appear to be one where the advantages may be outweighed by the disadvantages, unless you are aggressive about cutting it back, even if it's one of the types where the appearance is preferred.

I will reproduce here what "Brooklyn Greene" said on the Brownstoner forum:
Hedera helix ("English" ivy) from Europe does do damage. It roots along the vines so actually roots into mortar and grooves in cement.

In natural setting, this ability allows it to get some very sheer stone faces and make it in rather tough growing conditions where other plants might not succeed. The roots slowly adhere into even tiny fissures and help break up the stone face and create opening that allow other plant species to set up shop.

It also roots into tree bark so people take it off trees when it's young since it can slow tree growth, especially of concern on managed tree lots.

Parthenocissus comes from Asia and North America (although there may be natives species from other places...too tired to bother looking it up). The one we call "Boston" ivy is from East Asia and has solid, maple-like or grape-like leaves.

"Virginia creeper" really is a touch more aptly named and is our native "ivy". It is preferable to plant/encourage self-seeded plants of this variety with its "palmate" leaves. Sometimes the leave shape is more solid but it usually will have the palmate leaves.

Both parthenocissus climb with pads that set down on surfaces and stick. The pads do not root into mortar or cause particular or major damage like English ivy does. When taken down after years of growth, the pads tend to stick to hard surfaces which some people find unsightly. Once the vines are gone and the adhered pads have a couple of years of weathering, they usually breakdown.

If Boston ivy is growing up a stuccoed wall where the stucco surface is no longer well attached to the underlying masonry (or wood), the stucco may come down in pieces if someone pulls well-grown Boston ivy down in a rough many. It's best in this kind of situation to cut it down carefully and then work on small left over stems connected to the pads instead of yanking vines down wholesale.

Boston ivy seems to cover walls more thoroughly and aggressively than Virginia creeper which seems a bit shyer (but can be very large in certain settings). Put head to head, I would imagine Boston ivy will manage to cover a wall or structure in much less time than our native Virginia creeper.

No matter what, they don't damage walls particularly and have other important plusses:

1) shade sunny walls and overhang windows to reduce summer overheating while looking cute when viewed from indoors

2) feed birds with their berries and offer shelter from spring and summer storms and sometimes offer nesting locations...and as a roosting area, walls covered in Boston ivy or Virginia creeper offer a great bird socialising spot which can protect them from predators and heat while helping to create wildlife friendly backyards. A wall of ivy can act a bit like a tree for birds who are flying down to a feeder, birdbath or ground foraging.

3) AND often turns a blazing red/orange in fall, drops leaves and allows full sun to penetrate during winter.

Now, despite some of the problems with English ivy, it can be considered an asset once in a great while. Apparently, on heavy masonry (certain kinds of stone in particular) it can help reduce frost damage on sunny walls since it keeps its leaves throughout the winter and prevents sunny walls from going through the frost/warmth/frost cycle which causes damage and can speed up spalding and the like.

I like the English ivy on the ground as a general groundcover and growing a little bit up a tree we have because it gives us wintertime greenery to look out at and some cover for the soil and birds when there is no snow.

And I like the native "ivy" for walls.

One thing, on wooden buildings, you do have to watch out with the parthenocissus varieties because they can sometimes send delicate shoots between battens and boards so it ends up growing in places it may not be intended to grow.

You'd never want English ivy growing on most wood varieties because it does, indeed, break it down over a short period of time. It's good at rooting into and helping break up fallen trees in the forest so it is just as good on lumber!

posted by dhartung at 6:41 AM on August 15, 2011

Best answer: The wasps love ours, especially the berries. The squirrels, mice, and chipmunks use it as an express elevator into our attic. Doves build their nests in it, and that's actually nice, except when they shit on your head while you're trying to find your keys.

On Long Island, I have it cut back every fall, late, like in October or November. Usually that would be a bad time to prune, because with winter soon approaching, the cold weather can cause damage if the plant hasn't yet recovered from your pruning. But that is exactly why I do it then. The few times I've pruned it back in April versus late fall/early winter, the regrowth that summer was much faster and more vigorous. I'm not sure about California seasons, though. You'll want to time it so that you're cutting it back right before the most stressful season for plants -- maybe a dry season? I think I remember fall actually being the rainy season so I'd avoid cutting it right then.

I cut it down about three feet below the "line," usually the gutter, and that gives me enough breathing room. Especially in sections where the ivy has matured, it fills those three feet in no time.

(Mature ivy is pretty much like a different plant, or consider the normal ivy that grows flat against your wall as the roots and the mature ivy at the top as the actual plant--it turns mature when it has a lot of full sun, and starts growing berries and grows perpendicularly straight out. Once it turns mature, those mature parts tell the rest of the plant "Hey boys, we made it!" and it starts growing twice as fast.)
posted by thebazilist at 9:22 AM on August 15, 2011

In addition to all the above, here in the Midwest, our ornamental ivy is laced with a nice side of poison ivy. I would watch out for noxious understory plants sheltering in your ornamentals.
posted by KAWC at 9:39 AM on August 15, 2011

Response by poster: I made an offer on the ivy house and my offer was accepted! Suddenly I feel both elated and like I will have a nervous breakdown!

After following your suggestions, I have an appointment with a professional arborist and plant specialist AND a master home inspector this week. Depending on the initial inspection, I may bring in a chimney specialist also.

Jamaro, after reading your reply I think I might have Boston Ivy and not English Ivy. (Sorry, I tried to figure that out through a Google Image search before I posted this question but I think my pre-house purchase stress made it hard for me to think.) They have little flat suckers that are sort of shaped like gecko fingertips.

I really appreciate all of your answers and personal stories so much, I will let you know what the inspectors have to say.
posted by dottiechang at 10:40 AM on August 16, 2011

Response by poster: The arborist came by today and confirmed that it is indeed BOSTON ivy and not English Ivy. Sorry guys, I am new to this whole world of ivies. I am learning quickly! Apparently there is some creeping fig on one garden wall also.

So I would love to hear the advice or need to know tidbits from anyone with Boston Ivy or Creeping Fig on their house.

(Unrelated but have to share, I also found out that all the bushes that I thought were ficus are actually camellias and gardenias! There's also a japanese maple, avocado, pine and citrus trees. I need to learn how to keep these things alive.)
posted by dottiechang at 8:15 PM on August 18, 2011

Congrats on the house!

And more relevantly, congrats on the Boston ivy! I believe that's a pretty different and better story than English. I think that Boston doesn't secrete (as much of?) the toxins that break down solid mortar/stone/brick/stucco as English, it doesn't grow as quickly, it's deciduous so things are less likely to make homes in it (although maybe it's evergreen in California?)... But I don't have any personal experience with it. You should go over to the Gardenweb forums and search around and ask questions about your vines and other plants. I've learned a lot there and have even been able to show up some "professionals."
posted by thebazilist at 8:01 PM on August 24, 2011

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