We were delighted that our new yard was bordered by a fence row of trees and understory shrubs. We were less thrilled to find the area was filled with poison ivy in all its forms: vines, groundcover, and armpit-high shrubby plants. I'm extremely allergic, so I was reluctant to even approach the problem. But when I had a baby girl to protect, something had to be done.

Chemical Warfare

While some recommend pulling poison ivy repeatedly - dozens of times, as it'll sprout from a scrap of root - we had such a plague of it that chemical warfare seemed like my best bet. After unsuccessful attempts to kill only the poison ivy, I declared the line of trees to be a "burning zone," sacrificing other understory plants in order to attack my foe. I discovered I could walk along both sides of my fence row and reach most of the undergrowth with my pressure tank sprayer. Not having to enter the danger zone was a definite bonus, although I still took all possible precautions.

With an established stand of poison ivy, even the "burning zone" approach may take several years. Once the plants have been thinned out, walking in the area becomes possible. Spraying can then be better directed, so no sprout is missed. If the neighbors also have a lot of poison ivy, ask about spraying their infested areas also. Otherwise, spraying bird-planted seedlings every year becomes a losing battle. Your neighbors might be cooperative enough to do their own spraying or to pay for the chemicals you use, but taking care of it regardless is worth your while.

Roundup Poison Ivy and Brush KillerTM worked well for me, although established patches needed repeated spraying over several years. The spray takes 2 weeks or so to show its effect. Once the chemicals reach the root, the leaves start yellowing. With poison ivy, this is the time to put on your hazmat suit and pull up the dying plants, carefully bagging every bit for trash pickup. Roundup directions say spraying is more effective during rapid growth in spring and early summer. Arborist Dan Yates pointed out to me that spraying is actually most effective in late summer, when poison ivy plants are fattening their roots in preparation for winter. (Get out there and do it now!)

He also told me that, if poison ivy is mingled with garden plants or turf grass, spraying is not off-limits. General purpose herbicides contain glyphosphate, which kills turf grass and flowering plants as well as the weeds they're meant for. Roundup Poison Ivy & Brush Killer contains both glyphosphate and triethlyamine salts. It's the latter that helps kill the poison ivy. You can purchase concentrates containing only the poison ivy killer at stores like Tractor Supply or Southern States. Triethylamine on its own it will not harm most flowering plants or turf grasses. (Avoid spraying on shrubs and saplings, and be careful if you have plants not on the "affected" and "unaffected" lists.) Aha! I have a powerful new weapon in my war on poison ivy!

three-leafed vine with fuzzy roots clinging to tree trunk

Hazmat Precautions

When I'm going up against poison ivy, I go all out in taking precautions against skin contact. I'm allergic enough that a reaction could send me to the hospital, but everybody should be cautious around poison ivy. Even a mild reaction is itchy beyond reason, and those who think they are immune can find their "immunity" has suddenly ended.

Protective clothing is the first line of defense. Cover up with long pants, long-sleeved shirt, and socks. Gloves are a must, and a hat is important if poison ivy vines are around. Shoes that can be laundered are important, too. For working in areas where poison ivy is possible but not a given, some swear by products like Ivy BlockTM that go on like sunblock to provide a protective barrier. I like to use a barrier product on my face, just in case I take leave of my senses and reach up to slap a mosquito.

Clothing and other items that even might have touched poison ivy should be treated as toxic until cleansed. Don't open doors with a gloved hand, and remove shoes before entering the house. Turn gloves, pants, and shirts inside out as you remove them, taking care to touch only "safe" inner surfaces. When I've been spraying or pulling poison ivy, I take the extra precaution of undressing before actually going in the house.

If I so much as see a sprig of poison ivy where I've been gardening, I take full post-contact precautions as soon as possible. Poison ivy oil spreads -- touching something that has touched something that has touched something can result in a nasty rash. Wash everything that might possibly have come in contact with leaf, stem, or root. Clothing, gloves, and shoes go straight into the washer, set to warm/hot and steam if possible. Tools and shovels (handles, too!) should be washed with dish soap: those "tough on grease" formulas work on plant oils, too!

On skin, use a strong" soap like DialTM or Fehl's NapthaTM. Even better, use a specialty scrub like Tecnu ExtremeTM. Electrical linemen and construction workers swear by it, and the word is gradually getting around to gardeners. Within an hour or so of possible contact, apply this gritty paste, scrub scrub scrub with it, then rinse. Together with wearing and laundering protective clothing, a good post-garden scrub can prevent poison ivy reactions on even the most sensitive skin.

Most people know never to mow or burn poison ivy, as fumes can cause extreme allergic reactionsEvergreen infested base to tip with poison ivy. But did you know, the oil can persist for ten years in the soil?!? Keep poison ivy out of both compost piles and yard waste bags (you don't want it in anybody's mulch). The stubborn nature of the oil necessitates taking precautions with any soil contact in the area for a decade after the actual plants are gone. I'm no longer concerned about walking in my tree-line, but if I disturb the ground by digging or by pulling weeds, I take hazmat precautions.

The War against Poison Ivy can be won. I hope the tips in this article will encourage you to persist until Victory Is Yours!

A huge thank you to Arborist Dan Yates of Bartlett Tree Experts!

Angela Carson wrote an excellent article on identifying and dealing with poison ivy.

Photos by Jill M. Nicolaus. Hover cursor over images and links for more information.