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Poison Ivy Problems? Pulling is the way to go

Q. Dear Mike: I heard somewhere recently that Roundup kills frogs and toads. Is this true? I have poison ivy (or maybe it's poison oak) on our property. If it's just one little sprig I pull it out, but for a larger area I had been using Roundup, which I will stop using if it really does harm frogs and toads. But then what do I do?
                        ---Gwenin Newtown, PA

What is the easiest and safest way to clear poison ivy plants from myyard?  Should I try it myself or find a lawn care company to do itfor me?
                                                ---Joanna in Sterling, VA
We are building a house on a ten-acre tract. There is a LOT of poison ivy around. My wife is sensitive to the stuff and I'm *extremely*sensitive -- a significant exposure can lead to a hospital trip. We also have two small children that love to explore in the woods. We're teaching them how to identify poison ivy, but we'd like to keep easily accessible areas clear of it. Can anything besides herbicides beat this stuff back?
           ---Kim at the University of Oklahoma Institute for Meteorological Studies ("All weather is divided into three parts: Yes, No, and Maybe. The greatest of these is Maybe".)
A.   Yes, Gwen—you heard right (and probably on this show!): Roundupis deadly to frogs and toads. (Here's a link to that research:; and to the website of the researcher himself, Dr. Rick Relyea: If you search a bit, you'll find lots of other scientific concerns about the safety of Roundup. And the other most common weed killer in America (2,4-D) has been linked to non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

And herbicides in general are essentially useless in this situation to begin with, because the dead curled up remains of these dermatologicaly dangerous plants will still give you a nasty rash. All parts of the plant—roots, leaves, stalk and stems, dead or alive—contain the oil that triggers the reaction, even in winter! People often assume that herbicide-sprayed poison ivy remains are safe and get nailed when they clean up the ugly—and now doubly-toxic—debris left behind.

Instead, follow my surprisingly effective—and super safe—pulling plan.This isn't 'theory'; my property was covered with poison ivy when we bought it, and I developed the specialized technique I'm about to detail while clearing it. Follow these instructions and you'll get rid of it all—without leaving any dead but still dangerous foliage behind,with no risk to yourself, in a surprisingly short period of time.

First, protect your hands, face, and other exposed areas with "IvyBlock". This clay-based lotion forms a protective barrier against the plant's allergenic oil; it's available at most drug stores, and there's a list of retailers and places to buy it online at

Then get yourself a helper, a big rolling trashcan, and get ready to do The Plastic Bag Dance. Wait till the ground is soaking wet (or drench it yourself), and gather up lots of heavy plastic mall shopping bags;not the thinner supermarket variety. Slip a bag over each hand, locate where each vine enters the soil and pull s-l-o-o-o-o-w-l-y with one of your bagged hands; the vine should come right up for you, root and all.If it resists, have your helper soak the soil around the base of the vine with a garden hose. Don't YOU (the puller) be touchin' ANYTHING but the inside of them bags. Then fold the bag that's been covering your other hand over the pulled ivy, and drop the vine and both bags into the trashcan. NEVER re-use any of your 'hand bags'; start with fresh ones every time.

If the vine snaps with the root still in the soil, have your helper put a little stake into that spot to mark it, then come back the next day and drench the area with the strongest vinegar you can find to kill the root, or mulch with several inches of something thick and impenetrable(like shredded radio show host) to smother it. Or wait till new growth appears and attack it immediately with a vinegar or soap-basednon-toxic herbicide; its easier to kill the root with such an attack when the above ground growth is stressed and small. (Then bag up any above-ground remains, of course.)

When you're finished, have your helper open all doors for you. Go straight to the washer, put all your clothes in and have your helper run them through a cold water cycle. Then you get in the shower, have your helper turn it on and wash yourself well with cool water. No soap; now ash cloth. Water alone will remove the allergenic oil; soap and cloth can spread it to other, perhaps more sensitive, areas. Yes, exactly the areas you're thinking about right now!

Don't do this without a helper! You'll be certain to get some of that nasty oil on a door knob, faucet or other surface, where it will keep giving you—and lots of other people—a nasty rash for many months. And don't even think about trying this with gloves instead of bags. I guarantee your mind will wander at some point and you'll scratch your nose or rub your eye, and then….well, you know. There's a lot less chance you'll do that with a plastic bag—and by using new bags every time, you take the chance of you doing it with any of that nasty active ingredient oil attached pretty much down to zero.
But some people simply refuse to believe that water alone can rinse all of the dangerous oil off their skin, so they use Fell's Naptha soap or jewel weed or some other home remedy, often with very painful results.One of the world's leading experts on these rash-inducing plants, Dr.William Epstein, professor emeritus of dermatology at the University of California at San Francisco, assures me that plain old water is all you need. The real issue is timing. You have about 20 minutes to wash the oil off your skin after you touch poison ivy and not suffer any reaction.

Out in the wild, far away from reliable running water, hikers often depend on commercial products like Tecnu—a combination of soap and mineral spirits—to get the oil off their skin before a rash can appear.Dr. Epstein says that ordinary rubbing alcohol does the same job at a fraction of the price. (And those of you who just can't get yourselves to believe in the power of water alone can wash the area well with rubbing alcohol and then rinse with cool water after a pulling party.)

If you're not sure what poison ivy, oak and sumac look like, go to for great photos of the nasty stuff in all of its guises.

And finally, if your specific problem is poison ivy vines climbing up a tree, click {HERE}for last year's poison ivy advice, which included tips on handling this situation.

You Bet Your Garden   Question of the Week  ©2005Mike McGrath