A Question of Ivy


Yesterday was the last day of September and, as with most of September, it was a lovely sunny day. I made a point of sitting out in the garden to feel the warmth of the sun on my face.

A Pied Wagtail sat on a nearby chimney and called.

A Peacock butterfly whizzed past but with no whizzing sound.

House Martins, just a few, were still overhead.

But the main wildlife sensation to caress the senses was the hum of insects on the ivy.  If I closed my eyes and let myself drift with the sound it was easy to doze for a while.

There were some flies but the hum came mostly from what I believe were Honey Bees.  Scores of them.

It’s always like this on early autumn days when the ivy is in flower and the sun is out.  I like these moments. I like the ivy. I like the bees. At times like this – I like the whole world.

But there is a question that I must pose to you all-round naturalists, please.  When is the best time to cut back my ivy – it is overdue, I think. I realise that there may be hibernating butterflies (Brimstones?) that use the ivy later in the season (or might they be there now, already?), and that there will be pupae of Holly Blues there too (is that right?).  And, there are probably all sorts of other interesting invertebrates snuggling away within the ivy’s shelter.

I’m not cutting it all down, heaven forefend!, but I do need to get it a bit under control.  So the question is, ‘When is the best time to cut back my ivy to do the least damage to the ivy and the wildlife that may be using it?’.


PS I really don’t mind if you tell me to leave it for 11 months – I’m not that keen – but you would have to make up a convincing reason as well please.

PPS While dozing I realised that it was exactly a year since I submitted the manuscript, on time and on length, of A Message from Martha to my publisher.


13 Replies to “A Question of Ivy”

  1. Mark

    Your honeybees (Apis mellifera) may include the ivy bee (Colletes hederae). BWARS has a wonderful website and information on this species. See http://www.bwars.com/index.php?q=content/colletes-hederae-mapping-project.
    As for when the best time to cut ivy back, my suggestion would be to phase it; say 50% of what needs doing now and 50% in early March. That way, there’ll always be some habitat available over 2014/ 2015 winter for whatever is hibernating/ will hibernate.


  2. I agree with Richard – don’t cut it all back at one time. If it were mine I’d experiment a bit. Cut back, say a fifth of it this winter and see what happens to the fresh spring growth from that part of the plant. (By a fifth I don’t mean cut back each stem by a fifth I mean a fifth of the bulk of the mass of the ivy). You see, when you do cut it back, the parts you have cut may start to produce the non-flowering juvenile type of growth that clinging ivy plants have, and that won’t produce flowers next year – or maybe even for a few years. I think for maximum benefit for wildlife you want to keep quite a lot of the existing bulky growth for shelter for overwintering invertebrates – this is also the mature part of the plant that produces flowers. If the cut back part does not produce flowering shoots next year you may have to wait for several years until it does, and so if this is what happens then you could cut back a fifth or so of your plant on a five (or so) year rotation (a bit like managing a red grouse moor!). I write this with some experience as I have been waiting for more than nine years for my ivy plants to produce mature flowering shoots like yours have, but mine still just grow juvenile form. Regardless of its lack of flowers my ivy is still good for wildlife – provides nest sites for wrens, blackbirds and shelter for small mammals.

  3. An interesting dilemma. I’d go along with RW’s suggestion and also hope for cooler weather. Pruning advice on the www is to do it all in very early spring, on the ground that pruning now might stimulate new growth, especially in a warm autumn, that might be susceptible to frosts. Lots of “mights” there. Leaving it be for the winter also keeps the berries available for berry hawks.

    I have never pruned adult ivy and have no idea what form the regrowth takes. Do the new shoots revert to the juvenile form or is the whole plant permanently adult? Anyone know?

    We leave some ivy alone because it screens ugly things like the leccy pole and it’s where wrens nest, but as a rule dearly beloved Mrs C ruthlessly takes the Very Expensive Swedish Pruning Saw to it and removes two inch sections to kill the tops – reason for this is the weight of the ivy pulls limbs off perfectly good trees especially when burdened with snow.

    Regarding the pollinators: I was trying to get a pic of a couple of hummingbird hawk moths on buddleias recently and there was a large number of red admirals, peacocks, brimstones in the garden but on the flowering ivy there were only assorted flies, hoverflies and hornets – no Lepidoptera at all. Wrong kind of nectar?

    1. Butterflies certainly do feed on ivy and at this time of year when there are fewer available sources of nectar it is common to see Red Admiral and other vanessids on it.

  4. An observation from our farm is that ivy seems to flourish in the roadside hedges which are cut annually, but this may be due to the hawthorn being cut back allowing the ivy to grow through. Ivy seems to perform well in August cut hedges too, allowing it to flower well into autumn. Pity we won’t be allowed to cut a proportion of our hedges in August anymore.

  5. It will stay in flowering mode. It wont turn into creeping growth. I have a pure ivy hedge with some bramble and nettles. It gets trimmed and lopped back and comes back as flowering growth but takes a couple of years to look like yours again. However i guess you will be felling more seriously if that picture is the target so it will take longer to settle down to flowering. It has to burst buds from mature stems and then they have to grow up.
    So for your own pleasure at seeing the insects do half. On the other hand there is more flowering ivy in the world for the insects to go to.

  6. First of all -‘What a picture’. Must be an sssi on its own right. If that is your picture how could you think of pruning at all! We have no say in our Ivy being pruned as the Roe Deer just love eating the stuff. Fortunately some has escaped above their reach and is holding the house together!!

    1. John – thank you. Our ivy is encroaching into our neighbour’s rather a lot. And it is spreading across the roof of a shed and I’m a little worried about the weight if we don’t do something! It is spectacular though.

  7. HI Mark

    I cut ours in summer -it is now flowering like mad again. I cut the entirety of our side of the hedge after the Robin has used it for her first brood nest……. almost as soon as I can after the young leave. This means that I get young growth of Ivy, which gets chance to flower, and the fruit are available end of winter for the local greedy Mistle thrush, then robin uses it…. time to cut. This year, that was in May, I think. Still enough space for a second brood robin if she decides, but often picks a different bit of her territory.

    Do look out for Ivy Bees – apparently very distinctive, but I haven’t found one here yet, west of Cambridge, although I know some to be present 10 miles to the east.

    Does that help?

  8. Apparently Ivy is also great for roosting/hibernating bats. So perhaps best to wait until hibernation period is over?

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