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Humble Beginnings : Used Imaginatively, Ivy Can Grow Into an Elegant Shrub

November 08, 1987|ROBERT SMAUS | Robert Smaus is an associate editor of the Los Angeles Times Magazine.

AS DISTASTEFUL AN IDEA as it might sound to those who have struggled to pull it from trees or who have wrestled with its wiry stems trying to remove a ground covering of the stuff, there is a place for ivy in the garden.

Algerian ivy has given all ivies a bad name. And now that it's common knowledge that rats live in ground-cover plantings, it is a very bad name indeed. Algerian ivy-- Hedera canariensis , the ivy with the large, often cream-splashed leaves--is also a haven for snails, and more than a few plantings have been removed just to get at the pests. Algerian ivy needs lots of water (which is not common knowledge), and the leaves are often scorched by mid-summer from lack of enough. It does have its uses, however--many a chain-link fence has been made presentable in a short time with Algerian ivy, although this is a most permanent solution because later on it is nearly impossible to disentangle fence and ivy.

English ivies, on the other hand, are much more controllable. They might be painfully slow getting started, but they need less water once they become established and are easy to mow or otherwise get into shape. They also grow under conditions where little else will--in the shade, in competition with tree roots, in containers that are not attended as often as they should be and into unusual shapes.

English ivy has much smaller leaves than has Algerian ivy, and there are hundreds of varieties with leaves marked or carved into a great variety of shades and shapes. So beloved is it by some that there is a society devoted to it, the American Ivy Society, that keeps track of all the different kinds. (Send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to P.O. Box 520, West Carrollton, Ohio 45449-0520.)

If you still doubt ivy's usefulness, consider that in one garden--a classic 50-year-old Pasadena garden originally laid out by Florence Yoch, one of California's early landscape designers--ivy has been used elegantly. An antique urn sits at the very end of a wide, decomposed-gravel path, the mounded, water-shedding shape of the path pointing directly to it. In the urn is a shrub of ivy that is kept neat and tidy by pruning, all that is needed as a point of focus in the garden.

Shrub ivies come from cuttings taken from the very tips of flowering growth. At nurseries they might be labeled as such or be sold under the name Arborescens . Cuttings from the growth that produces the ivy flowers and fruit have simpler leaves, a phenomenon you might have noticed at the tops of walls planted with ivy old enough to have flowered.

In another garden on the east side of town, a wall that never sees even an hour of sun holds an easily controlled and not-too-demanding collection of some of the various ivy varieties gracefully cascading from their containers. It is easy to picture many a shady wall so treated, especially in gardens that are small and in need of interest.

A most imaginative example is of a variety of English ivy named 'Manda's Crest' that has been painfully trained to cover an old beach umbrella. Grown in a whisky barrel on casters, it can be moved around the patio to provide a sense of protection for the people sitting underneath it. Although it doesn't grow in hot blazing sun, it is in a sunnier spot than the other plantings (until it filled in, it did get a little burned). It is pruned often, so it does not become too dense, and, surprisingly, it took only two years to cover the umbrella. It frames the garden in the near distance, cropping the top and sides of the view out the back window so a toolshed and a neighbor's house do not distract.

Who would suspect such sophistication from the humble ivy?

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