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Ivy or No Ivy

Dear Miss Floribunda,

I used to brag that my garden was at its best in winter. Magnificent red-berried holly shrubs on each side of my entry, well-placed conifers of various sizes and shades of green, and luxuriant ivy instead of withered grass were what backed up my claim. Best of all, my only real job was keeping the ivy from climbing the trees. Summer before last, though, the ivy started getting brown and died back. I put fertilizer on it for the first time, but it hasn't returned. Lots of people eager to get rid of ivy have invited me to come dig theirs up, but I'm afraid something is wrong and that that new ivy wouldn't live, either.

This is particularly sad right now because I have always enjoyed using ivy in my Christmas decorating. A certain joyful carol, once a favorite of mine, has become an ear bug that lowers my spirits even further. What do you recommend?

Holly and No Ivy on Ingraham Street [

Dear Holly and No Ivy,

I've struggled with some ambivalence here, as I am one of those who would gladly invite you to come rid my yard of the common, or "English," ivy I assume was brought by birds. However, I agree this ivy is a lovely plant, in its place, and you seem fully aware that it needs to be kept from strangling other growth. Certainly no one can argue against its yuletide charm. By the way, you've passed on your ear bug to me, but fortunately I, too, love "The Holly and the Ivy" — accompanied by "the playing of the merrie organ and sweet singing in the choir." I hope that by next year not only your holly, but also your ivy will be "both full-grown."

Here's what I've learned from my Uncle Iverson, who also likes a winter garden. He reminded me that the summer before last was as wet as this past one was dry. That excess moisture, the long period of intense heat and the probable overcrowding of your "luxuriant" planting was conducive to bacterial or fungal disease. You can choose from over forty suspects, but to know exactly which, please have your soil tested. You don't want to use a single poisonous chemical because the soil is full of an intricate microbial network containing many beneficial bacteria and fungi that plants need in order to assimilate nutrients. The University of Maryland's Home and Garden Information Center has a list of reputable laboratories that test soil for a reasonable fee, as well as instructions on how to prepare samples for analysis. The site is

Also, have you considered native ground covers? I am assuming you planted your ivy, either English or Irish. These are now hard to find at nurseries, even though they are found over most of the rest of creation and are still easy to purchase online. Obviously, our native poison ivy is out of the question. It isn’t a true ivy, anyway, but a sumac and it isn’t evergreen. However, there are several indigenous evergreen ground covers that are handsome in winter: green and gold, also called goldenstar (Chrysogonum virginianum); common blue violets (Viola soraria), which are especially lovely in spring when they bloom; Allegheny spurge (Pachysandra procumbens); and Virginia ginger (Hexastylis virginica). Unfortunately, none have leaves resembling the ivy you love. The leaves of American wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) are much smaller but have a similar leathery texture and ridged edges. They also have the added attraction of a delicious minty fragrance and are used in making wintergreen oil for flavoring. Wintergreen, which is a heath related to cranberries, produces beautiful scarlet fruit in autumn that lasts through winter. This fruit resembles holly berries, but far from being poisonous like holly, it is harmless, tasty and high in vitamin C. Unfortunately, the fruit loses color soon after being picked, so it isn't useful for decorating.

If only a true Hedera will do, Uncle Iverson tells me there is a sterile heirloom (pre-1870) ivy called Conglomerata. It has the leaf shape you like but forms a shrub. It doesn't make berries. He also mentioned that new efforts are being made to develop sterile varieties of Hedera, but that none are on the market yet. There's no guarantee, however, these would not succumb to native bacteria and fungi.

To gain more information and share holiday cheer, please come to the next meeting and holiday party of the Hyattsville Horticultural Society on Saturday, Dec. 21, at the festive home of Jean and Millard Smith, 3600 Longfellow Street. A brief business meeting at 10 a.m. will be followed by a potluck buffet, hot drinks and good conversation.

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