Berkshire Garden Journal: Up a tree with poison ivy


Money may not grow on trees, but poison ivy does. Many years ago, I was doing some work in a woodlot in Columbia County when I encountered a thick-stemmed vine wrapped around the trunk of a tree. The stem was easily four inches in diameter. I was only able to recognize the vine as poison ivy from the leaves growing on its lateral branches farther up into the host tree. Still, I was not certain a vine that thick could really be poison ivy.

My initial diagnosis was confirmed a short time later when I met a chap whose hobby was collecting wood from species found round the world. Among the pieces of wood he showed me was a small bowl made from ... you guessed it ... poison ivy.

I've never since seen poison ivy stems as large, but do frequently see thinner vines of poison ivy climbing trees. Bittersweet and Boston ivy are other vines that climb trees, but a poison ivy stem can be distinguished from these by its hairy rootlets along the woody portion.

Right now, poison ivy is still easy to recognize by its brilliant reddish yellow leaves. That won't be the case once the leaves have fallen. Anyone trekking through woods or cutting firewood this fall may overlook the leafless vine.

Unfortunately, toxicity of poison ivy is just as potent in winter as at any other time of year. So, learn to recognize the leafless stems of poison ivy and avoid contact when cutting logs for firewood; most of all, never burn poison ivy.


Untangle yourself from poison ivy vines and get on with these activities:

n Lower cutting height of the mower to two-and-one-half inches if it is currently at three inches. In late October, lower the cutting height to two inches for final mowings.

n Spread a one quarter-inch layer of compost over lawns. No compost? Well, start a compost pile in some corner of the back yard or right in the middle of the vegetable garden. Compost piles have big appetites, so feed the pile with fallen leaves, spent plants from flower and vegetable gardens, non-meat table scraps, and manure if you can find a source. Compost is the life blood of successful lawns and gardens.

n Buy a supply of either long-stranded sphagnum moss (not to be confused with sphagnum peat moss) or milled sphagnum moss. I mix sphagnum moss with coarse sand and screened compost to make potting soil for houseplants. The sphagnum has fungicidal properties that protect plants from root rot diseases.

n Weed strawberry beds. Since their fruit buds form in September and October, strawberry plants don't want competition from weeds for water and nutrients. Such competition may lead to fewer fruit buds.

n Rake up and bury or otherwise dispose of leaves beneath fruit trees to help prevent disease problems next year.

n Inventory garden tools and see what needs to be repaired or replaced. This is a good time to shop for replacement tools since sales typically abound in early fall.

n Stop by the Berkshire Botanical Garden this weekend. It is hosting its annual Harvest Festival. Also, tomorrow morning at 10, the Western Massachusetts Master Gardeners will hold their last gardening class of the year at Springside Park in Pittsfield. To register for "Putting Your Garden to Bed," contact Kathy DeVylder, 413-637-1769,


With spring flowering bulb planting season in full swing, here's a tip from Martha King of South Egremont on keeping squirrels and other rodents from eating your bulbs. Start by placing about an inch of crushed oyster shells (available at feed stores as chicken scratch) in the bottom of planting holes. After setting in the bulbs, cover them with another layer of crushed shells. Then, finish by filling in the holes with soil.


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