PUBLISHED: 11:34 19 January 2010 | UPDATED: 14:58 20 February 2013
Ignored and misunderstood, ivy deserves better, says one Cotswold nursery. Words and pictures by Mandy Bradshaw
Ivy is the Cinderella of the plant world. Unglamorous and generally overlooked, it is used when all else has failed in those dark corners of the garden that no one much cares about. Yet, like Cinderella, it repays closer attention as in the right situation it can shine out.
Most gardeners regard ivy as at best dull and at worst a thug, responsible for strangling trees and damaging masonry, claims that are strongly refuted by Angela Tandy of Fibrex Nurseries, which holds the National Collection of Hedera. Angela is well used to having to defend ivy in talks to horticultural societies.
"Women like ivy but men hate it," she says. "Usually by the end they are quite surprised by the range."
She points out that ivy growing up a tree is merely using it as a support and not feeding off it, although problems can arise if the ivy is allowed to mature. When it gets to a height where the branches are thinning, the ivy changes to a shrubby form, producing flowers and fruit. At this point it stops growing, or producing new trails, and becomes dense and heavy.
"It can pull a weakened tree over but only if it is weakened."
The answer is to keep the ivy well trimmed to stop it reaching its mature state, although mature plants are loved by wildlife as their autumn flowers provide nectar when few other things are blooming.
"I say it is better than a buddleia."
The glossy black berries in late winter feed the birds and many overwintering insects use ivy.
"Good and bad unfortunately," laughs Angela.
As for dull, the collection has got around 400 different varieties with more arriving every month, often from collectors abroad. Angela grows them on before including them to decide whether they really are different from those already in the collection.
"Barely a mother's love can tell some apart," she admits. "If I think they're the same, I chuck them out."
The resulting group is often far removed from the plain green heart-shaped leaf that most people view as ivy, although some do resemble it.
"There are some dreadfully boring ones. If you are going to plant one, you might as well have a pretty leaf, not necessarily variegated, but a pretty shape."
The range of alternatives is wide, including plain and variegated forms; some that are lime green or splashed with gold, others that have tiny foliage or leaves bigger than a hand.
They also cover a range of planting situations from those that will not climb but make fantastic ground cover to others - usually the bigger leaved varieties - that will quickly cover a vast expanse of fence or wall.
"Choose carefully," warns Angela.
Most are related to the British native Hedera helix which, along with H. colchica varieties from Iran and Russia, is winter hardy. In contrast, H. canariensis varieties from The Canaries can be killed by extreme cold and should not be planted in exposed positions. There are also H. hibernica varieties from Europe, H. rhombea from China and Japan, H. nepalensis from Nepal, some from Cyprus, Madeira and the Azores.
At the nursery near Stratford-upon-Avon, the collection is displayed on specially built pyramid shelves and in a recently replanted ivy garden with chequerboard squares of different varieties.
One of Angela's favourites for ground cover is 'Anita', which has tiny bird's foot-shaped leaves.
"It gives a beautiful mossy effect."
Another good variety is 'Cockleshell', which has small, shell-like leaves that make a dense cover and which will grow in semi-shade.
Golden leaved types often need reasonable light to keep their colour. One example is 'Golden Carpet', which despite its name, is a good climber with yellow leaves that darken to lime green.
Golden Jytee is another popular variety with gold-splashed leaves, and there is 'Sulphur Heart', also known as 'Paddy's Pride', which is popular with flower arrangers.
Some ivies combine green with cream, such as 'Dealbata', which has speckled leaves and climbs well without getting too bushy. 'Clotted Cream' has beautiful foliage that makes a striking specimen in a pot, while 'Caecilia's' has very curly edges giving it a frilled appearance.
Some ivies are barely recognisable as such: 'Perkeo' has cupped leaves with red stems and veins that resemble a lettuce; 'Bill Archer' has narrow, pointed leaves more like rosemary; 'Very Merry' has tiny oval foliage and an upright growth making it easily confused with box.
"When I think they all came from wild ivy, it seems pretty amazing," admits Angela, who runs the nursery with her brother and one of her four sisters.
She is always on the lookout for new varieties, which appear as sports on existing plants.
"If you think it looks different, you have to take it off the plant."
When it comes to planting ivy, Angela advises starting small, as long trails when removed from their supporting cane will not re-cling and have to be tied in.
"If you plant it against a fence, you get a fan shape and bare in between, which is not a good style."
Instead, a young plant should be encouraged to grow along the base of a fence for a season and then to send up vertical shoots, thus ensuring an even coverage.
"You will get 6ft from one small plant and a nice bushy cover without any gaps."
Ivy is generally unfussy about soil, although most do best lime with only colchica types preferring acid. Like all plants, they are better for a helping hand at the beginning and Angela despairs of gardeners who plant ivy and then forget it. Far better, she says, to put some good compost into the planting hole and feed and water in the first year.
"If you can prepare the soil it will go off like a rocket."
Vigorous varieties need to be controlled with a firm hand and cut back hard. Timing is not important, says Angela, who cuts her ivy whenever it starts to annoy her. What is important is not being timid.
"If you grow it against a fence or wall, cut it to within an inch of the wall. If you do it in late winter you get lots of fresh growth in the spring."
As well as keeping plants under control, cutting back stops them reaching maturity when they stop producing new shoots and any chance of propagation is lost, crucial if you are maintaining a National Collection.
Angela pots on her plants every couple of years and tries to renew them every three or four.
She propagates from cuttings, cutting a trailing stem between two leaf joints and putting it in a pot or modules. Plants will even root in water and take about three weeks.
Fibrex's ivy collection was began when Angela's parents, who started the nursery more than 45 years ago, introduced them to complement the existing collection of pelargoniums.
"They wanted something to give height to the pelargoniums."
The ivies are still used as a backdrop to displays of pelargoniums at shows including Chelsea and Hampton Court, although they are exhibited in their own right at the Malvern Autumn Gardening Show.
"It's a really good show for ivy as there's not much else about."
As part of the display, the family have long perfected ways of using ivy as a living backdrop, creating arches and even portable 'walls' and are well known for their eye-catching stands.
"We are probably the only place in the world that grows and displays ivy like this."
Arches are made in two halves with five small plants put in at the base of a metal frame.
"They grew halfway up in one season as we fed and watered them so much," recalls Angela.
The portable 'walls' that enclose show displays are also grown on metal frames in narrow, rectangular containers.
More striking still are the standard ivies - some dating back to the early days of the nursery. With twisted or plaited stems, these mop-headed plants are as useful as any clipped piece of box or yew topiary. Larger-leaved varieties are used, as they produce more vigorous trails, and these are wound around a plastic pipe that has been painted green and set into a pot. An upturned wire hanging basket at the top provides the frame for the mop head and the ivy is twisted into this. It takes a couple of seasons to get a reasonable shape.
Choose a variety with a pretty-shaped or gold-splashed leaf and you will wonder how you ever came to overlook ivy.
Fibrex Nurseries Ltd, Pebworth, is open Monday to Friday, 9am to 4pm, closed the last week of December and first week of January. For more information and directions, call 01789 720788 or visit www.fibrex.co.uk