Boston ivy is a hardy vine that just loves to climb. Plant it outdoors close to virtually any vertical surface and it will readily take a grip and meander skyward. A brick wall is a beautiful showcase for its fiery fall and spring colors, as well as vibrant summer greens. The display will give you that stately Ivy League look. Boston ivy makes a great ground cover, too. It’s low-maintenance and thrives in a wide range of soils and climates. Another bonus: this plant attracts birds, who just love to eat its dark blue berries.
Boston ivy is often confused with the similar Virginia creeper (a relative) and English ivy (not a relative). Identify the real thing by its leaves; three pointed lobes up to 9 inches long, mid-summer blooms of a greenish-white flower, and clusters of small, blue berries. The leaves are green in summer, transform to shades of bronze, orange and red in fall, and come back reddish again, in spring. Some cultivars have distinctive hues and smaller or larger leaves. The plant climbs as well as it does thanks to tendrils that end with sticky sucker discs, kind of like lizard feet. These possess a powerful grasp, enabling the plant to climb vertically – or horizontally – as high as 50 feet.
Plant Boston ivy transplants in spring, watering well and adding a layer of mulch during the first growing season. The plant will take around 5 years to fully mature. Choose a location wisely. If you intend for them to climb a structure, such as a wall, fence, arbor, pergola, or trellis, place plants approximately one foot away from the base. Leave one and a half to two feet between plants for full coverage. Once Boston ivy has climbed a vertical surface, it is very difficult to remove, and doing so improperly can damage the surface. This means planting it is a long-term decision! If you want the plant to spread horizontally as ground cover, keep it at least 15 feet away from any climbable surfaces.
Newly planted Boston ivy needs to be watered deeply and regularly only during its first growing season. After that, it’s drought-tolerant, requiring watering weekly, on average. Its water needs are typically met by adequate rainfall. However, when conditions are especially hot and dry, you should water once a week. Only extreme drought conditions would warrant watering twice a week.
Boston ivy thrives in a wide range of temperatures, making it a viable choice across much of North America. It is suitable to plant in USDA hardiness zones 4 through 8 and can withstand temperatures as low as -10 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s also adaptable to various light conditions, doing well in full sun and partial shade. As a general rule, as long as it gets at least some natural light, the plant should be fine.
Another asset of Boston ivy: it isn’t fussy about soil and can grow well in many different types, including chalky and clay. However, it does have some preferences. You'll see the best results in a loamy soil with a pH between 5 and 7.5. Whatever type of soil you have, make sure it’s moist and well-drained to help your vine grow well and stay as healthy as possible.
After it’s established, Boston ivy grows vigorously and rapidly. While it doesn’t need much in the way of pruning for its health, most gardeners find it necessary to remove excess growth and keep it somewhat tamed. When planted as a wall-climber, keep it off gutters, roofs and windows, and prevent it from growing up tree trunks, as it can damage the tree. Pruning should be done once a year, later in winter or early spring, while the vines are free of leaves. Simply cut stems off at their base wherever you need to hold back your Boston ivy’s growth.
When you’re first planting Boston ivy, it benefits from an all-purpose or high-phosphorus fertilizer. After it’s established, though, the plant rarely needs fertilizer. If you want it to grow as quickly as possible – if you’re eager for full wall or fence coverage, for example – apply an all-purpose fertilizer occasionally, following the manufacturer’s instructions.
Take cuttings only in spring if you want to successfully propagate Boston ivy. Identify some strong, healthy-looking stems and cut off approximately five nodes. Pull off all but two leaves and apply rooting hormone to the cut end of the stem. Choose a cactus mix for planting propagated stems, and water them from the bottom. Once some decent roots have developed, transplant the stem to a standard soil mix.
The main pests seen on Boston ivy are leafhoppers, small yellow insects with a distinctive wedge shape to their bodies. You might spot them running, hopping, and flying around the underside of the plant’s leaves, where they feed in spring. Leafhoppers also damage leaves by laying eggs in the tissue. Visual clues to a leafhopper problem are white speckles, and, in more serious cases, leaves turning brown and dropping off. Tackle these pests with an insecticide spray intended for their species.
A couple of diseases caused by fungi – leaf spot and powdery mildew – affect Boston ivy. Leaf spot causes problems in spring and summer, revealed by tan spots that turn black. In serious cases, whole branches can die. Pick off infected leaves when you see them, and during fall, rake up and destroy fallen leaves. Powdery mildew, identified by gray or white powdery patches and discolored leaves, usually happens in late summer, especially when humidity is high. It’s usually mild and solves itself in time.