English ivy on fence looks dead

(Question)

We have a lot of ivy on our wooden fence in the backyard and growing up a white pine. It has always looked lovely. This year it looks dead–light brown in colour–I’m assuming it has something to do with the tough winter we had. Should I rip it all out or will it come back? There is a little green and a few new green leaves when I go poking around it but for the most part it looks dead.

(Answer)

Yes, it was a difficult winter for certain plants and ivy seems to be one of them.  The most common ivy grown outdoors is Hedera helix.  It is evergreen, is often used as a ground cover, and is also an excellent climber on walls, fences and even up trees.  The ivy plants do this by using little roots to attach to the wall or fence.  If they are left as a ground cover, the roots enter the soil.  According to the American Ivy Society, the ivy on your tree will not damage it, as the rootlets are only attached to the bark and not entering the tree.

Our winter probably is the culprit for the dieback you are seeing, even though ivy is hardy to our climate here in Toronto / Southern Ontario.  The early on-set of winter likely prevented the ivy from taking up adequate water prior to dormancy.  The prolonged harsh temperatures likely dessicated the leaves and any new growth from last year.  That is why the leaves are brown.

As you noted, you can see new growth – which is a good thing.  Scratch with a thumbnail around some of the branches to see if there is green under the brown.  If there is green, it’s alive, and taking the time it needs to grow.   Now is the time to gently rake away the dead leaves and if the vine has gotten a bit out of hand, a good pruning can rejuvenate it.  If you found, with the thumbnail test some dead branches, cut them away to a node where green is evident.

Although we have had some rain, these shocked plants could use a good watering.  A higher nitrogen fertilizer (to aid in greening) applied according to instructions will also help.

The American Ivy Society www.ivy.org/index.html is good source for general ivy information.