Save $25 When You Buy $50 Or More! May Sale Ends Soon!

You Bet Your Garden
Question of the Week © 2015 Mike McGrath

Note: Hundreds of Mike's informative articles are available (in alphabetical order!) right here at the Gardens Alive website. To find Mike's answers to your specific garden problem, Click here and find your topic (like Weeds, Worms, Rhododendrons...) in our complete alphabetical archive of Questions of the Week.


Poison Ivy Problems? Pulling is the way to go; dangerous chemical herbicides are NOT!

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?

---Gwen in Newtown, PA

What is the easiest and safest way to clear poison ivy plants from my yard? Should I try it myself or find a lawn care company to do it for 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 you probably heard it on our show!): Back in 2005, Dr. Rick Relyea, then of the University of Pittsburgh, found that over-the-counter preparations of Roundup (the exact bottles of stuff that people foolishly pick up from store shelves) was deadly to developing frogs, toads and other amphibians. (Here's a link to that research as originally published in the journal Ecological Applications.

Dr. Relyea recently moved (in 2014) to continue his fine work at the beautiful Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. Here's a link to his brand new website, which details his ongoing and published research on the important topic of amphibians in our environment.

And in perhaps even bigger news, in March of this year (2015), The World Health Organization classified glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, as a probable human carcinogen. And 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 also been linked to non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a common form of cancer.

And herbicides in general are essentially useless in poison ivy control, because the dead curled up remains of these dangerous plants will still give you a nasty rash after being 'killed' by the herbicide. All parts of the plant—roots, leaves, stalk and stems, dead or alive—contain the oil that triggers the reaction, even in winter and even after being sprayed. People often assume that herbicide-sprayed poison ivy remains are safe to handle, and get nailed with a bad rash after 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.

(Note: if, like Kim in Oklahoma, contact with poison ivy can send you to the hospital, hire a professional to remove it. Umar Mycka, "the Poison Ivy Horticulturist", has a company that performs physical removal in the greater Philadelphia area; and he can guide other professionals through the process. His unforgettable website is "I don't want poison ivy dot com".)

OK—now here's the plan.

Get yourself a helper, a big rolling trashcan, and get ready to do The Plastic Bag Dance. Wait until 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) touch ANYTHING but the inside of the bags. When it's all out, fold the bag that's been covering your other hand over the bagged hand holding the pulled ivy, and drop the vine and both bags into the trashcan (or a bigger, heavy trash bag).

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 undiluted vinegar you can find to kill the root, or mulch it with several inches of something thick and impenetrable (like shredded radio show host) to smother it. If new growth appears, attack it immediately with a vinegar, soap-based or Iron-based herbicide. It's 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 thru 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; no washcloth. Cool water alone will remove all of 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!)

That's cool water; NOT hot. Hot water can add to any inflammatory effect.

Don't do this without a helper! You'll be certain to get some of that nasty oil on a doorknob, faucet or other surface, where it will keep giving you—and lots of other people—a nasty rash for many months. (If you can't get a helper, make sure to wash down any surfaces you touched with a wet rag and throw that in the washer with your clothes.)

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 on your hand. (Scratch your nose in between bags!)

Now: We realize that 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 jewelweed 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, has assured 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 bottled water or ordinary rubbing alcohol does the same job at a fraction of the price. (Those of you who just can't get yourselves to believe in the power of water alone, can wash with rubbing alcohol and then rinse with cool water after a pulling party. Just be sure to wipe down the alcohol bottle afterwards.)

If you're not exactly sure what poison ivy, oak and sumac look like, go to http://www.poison-ivy.org/ 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 our poison ivy advice that includes tips on handling this situation.