An ivy that's in a league of its own

If you think all ivy looks much the same, you're not alone.

About 30 years ago, Suzanne Warner Pierot was of the same opinion - until she discovered she was laboring under a misconception.

Thinking that a stone wall beside a stream that ran through her Connecticut property looked a bit stark, Pierot decided to cover it with ivy. But not just any ivy. "I thought I'd get a collection of ivy," she says. "But when I went to nurseries, there were no names on the [ivy] plants."

It took Pierot a year to amass a collection of 30 to 40 different cultivars of ivy. In the process, she became an expert on the subject, wrote a book on ivy, founded the American Ivy Society, and became its first president.

She also developed a system that classifies ivy into eight categories by the shape, size, veins, and color of the leaves.

Whichever type of ivy you choose, it's simple to grow indoors: Use a potting mix that drains well, and fertilize green-leaved ivies once or twice a month with a balanced fertilizer (20-20-20, for example).

Don't feed variegated ivies more than a couple of times a year, since infrequent fertilizing helps keep variegated types from reverting to green.

To fertilize ivy topiaries, Pierot suggests mixing the plant food with water in a spray bottle and spraying the leaves, as well as fertilizing the soil.

Too many people think ivy likes wet soil, she laments. Think moist, not soggy. Water thoroughly, then don't water again till the top of the soil is almost dry.

But most important of all are high humidity and avoiding spider mites, which develop in a dry atmosphere. Pierot's solution? "I take my ivy to the kitchen sink once a week and spray it with cold water," she says.

When growing ivy outdoors, plant it in spring in the East and in fall in the West, she advises. While ivy tolerates sun or shade, it prefers shade in late afternoon.

For best results - especially in cold climates - plant ivy deep, she recommends. Remove the bottom four leaves and place the plant in a hole up to the bottom of the lowest leaves that remain on the vine. This allows the plant to develop deep roots that withstand drought and cold, she has discovered.

Making ivy news this year is the 2001 Ivy of the Year, Lady Frances, which can be grown indoors as well as outside (to Zone 5). Not only is it attractive (see photo above), it's noninvasive and is bushy rather than straggly.

Pierot suggests pairing it with impatiens and variegated hostas.

Lady Frances also forms a beautiful, full hanging basket.

For more information on ivy, see the American Ivy Society's website, www.ivy.org, or send $15 to American Ivy Society, PO Box 2123, Naples, FL 34106 for a copy of Pierot's "The Ivy Book," which tells you everything you need to know about this interesting plant, including mail-order sources.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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