Greening an in accessible but highly visible space . . .
December 15, 2007 3:45 PM   Subscribe

Guerilla Gardening: I need a tree/shrub/bush that can survive on low sunglight and be planted via aerial bombardment.

I spend a decent amount of time looking out on a courtyard that, while exposed to the elements, is completely inaccessible. It was built a LONG time ago and its lone entrance (a 4'x4' hole) was nailed shut long ago. The windows that look onto it are second story only so no access there. It has a ~15'x30' rectangular footprint and is surrounded by ~20' rock walls. Despite these conditions, healthy Ivy blankets it like wild so I'm assuming it could support something at least slightly larger.

I'm looking for a plant('s seeds) that I could 'toss' from a second story window into this courtyard that could (possibly) take root and eventually grow tall in an east coast zone 6 environment. Early growing years would be tough given the height of the surrounding walls, but a tall enough plant would have unfettered access to sunlight and rain as well as rich soil which probably hasn't been touched in a few centuries. Any ideas? Locations to acquire seeds are a plus!
posted by anonymous to Home & Garden (24 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You might look into seed balls as a dispersal method (more if you google, of course).
posted by pullayup at 4:02 PM on December 15, 2007

It might be tough for most plants to grow on soil that is blanketed by ivy. I think your best bet is to go with wildflowers. The Vermont Flower Farm has several seed mixes available. You should probably try the "Partial Shade" mix.
posted by sotalia at 4:12 PM on December 15, 2007

Oops...It's actually called the "Vermont Wildflower Farm".
posted by sotalia at 4:14 PM on December 15, 2007

For a tree, you need something like these but I don't think they're publicly available.
posted by Gucky at 4:42 PM on December 15, 2007

You could let the ivy work for you and throw some wicker topiary frames down there. Simple cubes, spheres, and triangles might make the ivy do something a little more interesting.
posted by cowbellemoo at 5:02 PM on December 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

I've seen potted trees , left on their own , send roots down through the hole in the bottom of the plastic liners and take up residence in the soil around them. You might find a sapling at a garden center, perhaps a 2-3 gallon Japanese Maple ( one of my favorite trees) would be 3-4 foot whip , slice the edge of the container, and make a sisal (biodegradable twine) reinforcement for the container, then lower it down to your chosen spot by rope. twine rots away as the tree grow. Doesn't sound like flowers will compete with the ivy.
posted by Agamenticus at 5:15 PM on December 15, 2007

Propagating from a distance isn't your problem -- growing something that can compete with the ivy is. You'll have to plant something as aggressive and invasive as the ivy, and that's a tall order. Moreover, you'll need to plant something that can establish itself when surrounded by the ivy.

I'd suggest morning glory. They grow well from seed and spread like mad. They also reseed every year (whether you want them to or not), which is a plus since the plant would most likely die during a Zone 6 winter. Blooms are pretty and attract hummingbirds.
posted by mudpuppie at 6:01 PM on December 15, 2007

I like cowbellemoo's suggestion, though I don't know how you'd get the topiaries in there. Anything that actually manages to grow in the ivy will be covered in ivy. Morning glories will grow fast enough to out compete ivy and bloom, but then you'll have to be OK with looking at dead morning glory in the off season, since it sounds like there's no way to get in and do maintenance. Can you install a window box on your own window instead?
posted by oneirodynia at 6:14 PM on December 15, 2007

I would get a few large bags of soil, and maybe a couple of steer manure, and dump them down there first, so they can pile up higher than the top of the ivy where you decide to try and plant. I love the idea of buying a tree and lowering it down, but I'd definitely get a cheap, very large container with wildflower seeds. Scatter them overall, and the ones that are best adapted to that area will probably survive and reproduce. Most likely California poppies, regular poppies and lupines will thrive and re-seed. I'd keep dumping a bag or two of fertilizer every year, though, since the ivy can take a lot of nutrients out of the soil.

If you get a tree, look at Paulownia (Empress tree). They grow very fast and have beautiful flowers.

I'd really love to see a photo of the area - especially a before-and-after if you do plant something!
posted by TochterAusElysium at 6:29 PM on December 15, 2007

Ivy is a weed, and morning glory is a worse one.

Maybe you could just keep throwing your leftover avocado seeds down there. Avocados are a rainforest tree, and will happily sprout under ground covers like ivy. The cold will probably be an issue, but the fact that it's a completely enclosed courtyard surrounded by rock walls with ivy ground cover might create a microclimate you can just get away with. Cost you nothing to try, anyway.
posted by flabdablet at 6:32 PM on December 15, 2007

If the ivy's been there for lots of years, it will be putting back as much into the soil as it's taking out. I'd expect there's lots of leaf litter under there, and avocados will like that.
posted by flabdablet at 6:34 PM on December 15, 2007

I suggest that you spend $35 on an escape ladder, so as to be able to climb down into that courtyard, machete-back the ivy, dig a hole, amend the soil, generally landscape and plant a nice hearty sapling. Without the need for aerial bombardment. Would your neighbors be likely to look out the window and tattle? Good lord, you asked this anonymously, so I guess so. Well, wear a balaclava and do it at night. Just remember that in case of fire, using your escape ladder to flee to the inaccessible interior courtyard would be a bad idea.
posted by mumkin at 7:05 PM on December 15, 2007 [4 favorites]

Conifers would be another thing worth trying, since if they do manage to get up, they will smother the ground with needles, acidify it, and knock back the ivy. Find some growing nearby, and hurl heaps of their pinecones down there.
posted by flabdablet at 7:15 PM on December 15, 2007

Paulownia is invasive as well. Anything you plant down there will eventually be covered by the ivy without regular maintenance. The avocados might work though.
posted by buttercup at 8:26 PM on December 15, 2007

Coast Redwood
posted by spork at 12:54 AM on December 16, 2007

What about collecting a bunch of the helicopter seeds from a maple tree and throwing them in by the handful?
posted by electroboy at 9:40 AM on December 16, 2007

I like the escape ladder idea for the ivy-warfare. Then again, I don't think I'd personally have much trouble with the ivy in the first place.
posted by craven_morhead at 10:54 AM on December 16, 2007

To really have a good chance of success, I think you will want to get down there and clear out some ivy as others have suggested. Otherwise you can toss down seeds and hope for the best, as others have suggested.

The problem with getting rid of ivy is that it usually takes at least three years to get rid of it completely. The first year you go down and tear out as much of the top growth and roots as you can. The second year it starts to grow back from whatever you missed, and you do it all over again. This time around it takes about 10% of the effort it took the first year. You then have to do it again a third year, and this time it will take about 1% of the effort it took the first year. That first year is a bitch though.

You're going to want to learn which native plants are the first to colonize a disturbed site in your area. They will be the ones with the best chance to compete with invasive exotics like ivy. You mentioned "East Coast" and "Zone 6", so I'm looking at a study based in central New York state.

The study mentions two trees: red maple (Acer rubrum) and white ash (Fraxinus americana), and two shrubs: gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa) and northern arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum). I don't know how much room you have, but the red maple gets 40' to 60' tall, and the white ash gets 70' tall and 70' wide. The dogwood is 10' to 15' tall and wide. The dogwood is about 9' tall and wide. Both of the shrubs have pretty flowers.

A disturbed site (an abandoned field, an area cleared by forest fire, your courtyard) is first colonized by fast-growing, short-lived weed-type plants, then herbaceous perennials, then short-lived shrubs and trees (the ones listed above). If you want perennials instead of or in addition to your shrubs and trees, and if you don't live in Central New York, I would suggest doing a Google search for the native colonizing plants in your specific area. Try searching for combinations of "succession", "colonization", "colonize", "disturbed site", and the name of your area.

Figure out the native primary colonizers, clear some ivy, and sow some seeds. Or just sow the seeds and hope for the best. You can probably buy some seeds or post on one of the gardening web sites and ask if someone will give you seeds. (,
posted by agropyron at 11:09 AM on December 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

Then again, I don't think I'd personally have much trouble with the ivy in the first place.

Ivy is a big problem in many areas because it's choking out the native plants and reducing the diversity of the biosphere, removing the habitats of many native animals. In this case specifically it would definitely hamper any efforts to grow non-ivy plants there. Even if the poster got some tough shrubs growing in there, the ivy would probably swarm all over them and kill them. But you never know.
posted by agropyron at 11:11 AM on December 16, 2007

agropyron, I understand the biosphere bit, but this is an enclosed courtyard. And I get that the ivy won't allow other things to live there, but I'd be fine with the aesthetics of the ivy itself.
posted by craven_morhead at 2:52 PM on December 16, 2007

Yeah, I knew that's what you meant, I just wanted to be sure the asker was clear on what ivy meant in this situation.
posted by agropyron at 4:51 PM on December 16, 2007

Also, birds eat the fruit and spread the seeds, one of the major ways ivy spreads into wild areas.
posted by agropyron at 4:51 PM on December 16, 2007

I'd be careful about planting anything in the courtyard that will grow to a significant size. You don't know what the (presumably very old) foundation around the inside of your courtyard looks like. Tree roots can do bad things to foundations, so I'd stick with plants more in the small shrub category.
posted by ssg at 5:08 PM on December 16, 2007

Coast Redwood

I have to say that this is one of the worst possible trees to grow near unmaintained ivy. Ivy grows up the bark like it's growing in felt.
posted by oneirodynia at 9:08 PM on December 17, 2007

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