Getting rid of poison oak

Poison ivy, oak, and sumac: How to treat the rash

Tips for treating poison ivy

A rash from poison ivy, poison oak or poison sumac is caused by an oil found in these plants called urushiol. When this oil touches your skin, it often causes an itchy, blistering rash. Most people can safely treat the rash at home.

Caution

If you have any of the following, go to the emergency room immediately:

  • Difficulty breathing or swallowing

  • A rash around one or both eyes, your mouth, or on your genitals

  • Swelling on your face, especially if an eye swells shut

  • Itching that worsens or makes it impossible to sleep

  • Rashes on most of your body

  • A fever

These are signs of a severe reaction that require immediate medical care.

You can treat the rash at home if you:

  • Have a mild rash

  • Developed a rash on a small section of skin

  • Are certain that the rash is due to poison ivy, oak, or sumac

To treat a mild rash and help stop the itch, dermatologists recommend the following:

To treat the rash

  • Immediately rinse your skin with lukewarm, soapy water. If you can rinse your skin immediately after touching poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac, you may be able to rinse off some of the oil. If not washed off, the oil can spread from person to person and to other areas of your body.

  • Wash your clothing. Thoroughly wash all of the clothes you were wearing when you came into contact with the poisonous plant. The oil can stick to clothing, and if it touches your skin, it can cause another rash.

    To avoid getting oil from the plant on your skin, wear gloves while touching your clothes, even when taking off your clothes.

  • Wash everything that may have the oil on its surface. Besides clothing, the oil from poison ivy, oak, and sumac can stick to many surfaces, including gardening tools, golf clubs, leashes and even a pet’s fur. Be sure to rinse your pet’s fur, and wash tools and other objects with warm, soapy water.

    To avoid getting any oil from the plant on your skin, wear gloves while touching or washing anything that may have oil on it. This includes your pet. If you need to wash your pet, wear gloves.

  • Do not scratch, as scratching can cause an infection.

  • Leave blisters alone. If blisters open, do not remove the overlying skin, as the skin can protect the raw wound underneath and prevent infection.

What can relieve the itch?

  • Take short, lukewarm baths. To ease the itch, take short, lukewarm baths in a colloidal oatmeal preparation, which you can buy at your local drugstore. You can also draw a bath and add one cup of baking soda to the running water. Taking short, cool showers may also help.

  • Use calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream. Calamine lotion can reduce the itch. If you have a mild case, a hydrocortisone cream or lotion is another treatment that can alleviate the itch.

  • Apply cool compresses to the itchy skin. You can make a cool compress by wetting a clean washcloth with cold water and wringing it out so that it does not drip. Then, apply the cool cloth to the itchy skin.

  • Consider taking antihistamine pills. These pills can help reduce itching. You should not apply an antihistamine to your skin, as doing so can worsen the rash and the itch.

If your rash is not improving after 7 to 10 days, or you think your rash may be infected, see a board-certified dermatologist. A dermatologist can treat your rash and any infection and help relieve the itch.

Dermatologists emphasize that you only treat the rash if you’re absolutely certain that poison ivy, oak, or sumac caused it. If you’ve never had a poison ivy rash, see a doctor for a diagnosis.

You’ll find pictures of what the rash can look like at: Poison ivy, oak, or sumac: What does the rash looks like?

8 Tips for Getting Rid of Poison Ivy on Your Property

1. Know the Enemy

Poison ivy is a green (or often red) three-leafed plant that generally grows low to the ground, unless it is climbing a tree or other structure. The leaves may be either toothed or smooth-edged and either shiny or dull, and the middle leaflet is slightly longer than the other two. In spring the plant may have tiny buds or flowers, which become white or grayish berries later in the season.

The toxic resin that causes a poison ivy rash is called urushiol, and it is present in every part of the plant: the leaves, stems, flowers, berries, and roots.

In other words, no part of the plant is safe to touch.

2. Shoot for Ideal Removal Conditions

“Poison ivy is slightly easier to manage in the winter, when it’s leafless, though there are still irritants present in the stems and branches,” says Michael Cook, owner of TruGreen Midsouth, a lawn care company with offices in several Southern states. Windy days can also make it more difficult to remove poison ivy without brushing against it.

Also, if you’re using an herbicide, the wind can blow that onto your other plants — or onto you.

3. Assemble Your Tools

A sharp trowel or a shovel should work well for removing poison ivy roots. You can also use shears or pruners to remove the vines or branches first.

4. Dress Appropriately

This is critical and the only way to prevent your skin from coming in contact with the plant. Wear long pants, long sleeves, work boots, and heavy-duty rubber gloves. To be extra-safe, seal the space between your pants and boots with duct tape.

5. Attack Thoroughly but Carefully

Poison ivy has a complex root system, so if you remove the plants above ground but don’t get rid of the roots, it will continue to grow.

Use shears or pruners to remove the stems. (Do not tear or rip the vines, as this may disperse the urushiol into the air.) Then dig out the roots about eight inches below the plant.

“To make sure the roots are dead, you can douse them with boiling water, suffocate them with mulch, or spray them with a commercial herbicide,” says Cook.

6. Choose the Right Herbicide

If you are comfortable using an herbicide, use one containing glyphosate.

“Glyphosate will penetrate the ivy and kill it from the inside out,” says Gena Lorainne, a horticulturist and planting expert at Fantastic Services, in London. “You may have to use a higher concentration than usual.”

Cook explains that herbicides are typically sprayed on the leaves, which kills the plants from the top down. It’s less labor-intensive than pulling the plants out by hand, but it can also leave healthy roots behind in the soil, and there’s potential that your poison ivy will return.

You should not use an herbicide and then attempt to remove the poison ivy by hand, because then you’ll be at risk of skin contact with the poison ivy itself, as well as chemicals in the herbicide.

It’s also not advisable to remove the poison ivy by hand and then use herbicides on top of that to make sure you got the roots, because that introduces chemicals into healthy soil and can potentially impact other plants in the area.

Remember to use extreme care when handling these herbicides, as the spray will kill all other garden plants it touches. Always follow the directions on the label for safest use.

7. Bag It

Put all the poison ivy leaves and branches in heavy-duty plastic bags to dispose of it. Don’t burn it, as that will release urushiol into the air, potentially causing severe irritation to your eyes and lungs. It’s also risky to put poison ivy into your compost bin, says Cook, because you may end up tossing it back into your garden later.

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First comes the itching, then a red rash, and then blisters. These symptoms of poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac can emerge any time from a few hours to several days after exposure to the plant oil found in the sap of these poisonous plants. The culprit: the urushiol oil. Here are some tips to avoid it.

Recognizing Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, and Poison Sumac

  • Poison Ivy: Found throughout the United States except Alaska, Hawaii, and parts of the West Coast. Can grow as a vine or small shrub trailing along the ground or climbing on low plants, trees and poles. Each leaf has three glossy leaflets, with smooth or toothed edges. Leaves are reddish in spring, green in summer, and yellow, orange, or red in fall. May have greenish-white flowers and whitish-yellow berries.
  • Poison Oak: Grows as a low shrub in the Eastern and Southern United States, and in tall clumps or long vines on the Pacific Coast. Fuzzy green leaves in clusters of three are lobed or deeply toothed with rounded tips. May have yellow-white berries.
  • Poison Sumac: Grows as a tall shrub or small tree in bogs or swamps in the Northeast, Midwest, and parts of the Southeast. Each leaf has clusters of seven to 13 smooth-edged leaflets. Leaves are orange in spring, green in summer, and yellow, orange, or red in fall. May have yellow-greenish flowers and whitish-green fruits hang in loose clusters.

Poison Plant Rashes Aren’t Contagious

Poison ivy and other poison plant rashes can’t be spread from person to person. But it is possible to pick up the rash from plant oil that may have stuck to clothing, pets, garden tools, and other items that have come in contact with these plants. The plant oil lingers (sometimes for years) on virtually any surface until it’s washed off with water or rubbing alcohol.

The rash will occur only where the plant oil has touched the skin, so a person with poison ivy can’t spread it on the body by scratching. It may seem like the rash is spreading if it appears over time instead of all at once. But this is either because the plant oil is absorbed at different rates on different parts of the body or because of repeated exposure to contaminated objects or plant oil trapped under the fingernails. Even if blisters break, the fluid in the blisters is not plant oil and cannot further spread the rash.

Tips for Prevention

  • Learn what poison ivy, oak, and sumac plants look like so you can avoid them (watch our video).
  • Wash your garden tools and gloves regularly. If you think you may be working around poison ivy, wear long sleeves, long pants tucked into boots, and impermeable gloves.
  • Wash your pet if it may have brushed up against poison ivy, oak, or sumac. Use pet shampoo and water while wearing rubber gloves, such as dishwashing gloves. Most pets are not sensitive to poison ivy, but the oil can stick to their fur and cause a reaction in someone who pets them.
  • Wash your skin in soap and cool water as soon as possible if you come in contact with a poisonous plant. The sooner you cleanse the skin, the greater the chance that you can remove the plant oil or help prevent further spread.

Tips for Treatment

Don’t scratch the blisters. Bacteria from under your fingernails can get into them and cause an infection. The rash, blisters, and itch normally disappear in several weeks without any treatment.

You can relieve the itch by:

  • Using wet compresses or soaking in cool water.
  • Applying over-the-counter (OTC) topical corticosteroid preparations or taking prescription oral corticosteroids.
  • Applying topical OTC skin protectants, such as zinc acetate, zinc carbonate, zinc oxide, and calamine dry the oozing and weeping of poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac. Protectants such as baking soda or colloidal oatmeal relieve minor irritation and itching. Aluminum acetate is an astringent that relieves rash.

See a doctor if:

  • You have a temperature over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • There is pus, soft yellow scabs, or tenderness on the rash.
  • The itching gets worse or keeps you awake at night.
  • The rash spreads to your eyes, mouth, genital area, or covers more than one-fourth of your skin area.
  • The rash is not improving within a few weeks.
  • The rash is widespread and severe.
  • You have difficulty breathing.

Have a scratch-free summer!

Poison Oak Removal: Learn How To Get Rid Of Poison Oak Plants

The term “poison” in the common name of the shrub Toxicodendron diversilobum says it all. Poison oak leaves look rather like the leaves from the spreading oak, but the effects are very different. Your skin will itch, sting and burn if you come into contact with the foliage of poison oak.

When you have poison oak growing near your house, your thoughts turn to poison oak removal. Unfortunately, getting rid of poison oak is not an easy matter. The plant is an American native beloved by birds. They eat the berries then spread the seeds far and wide. Complete eradication is impossible, so you’ll have to consider your poison oak control options.

What Does Poison Oak Look Like?

In order to start poison oak removal, you have to be able to identify the plant. Given the pain it causes humans, you might imagine that it is lethal-looking, but it’s not. It is green and lush, growing a either a shrub or a vine.

Poison oak leaves are solid, with a little of the scalloped oak shape. They hang from the stems in groups of three. If you are wondering about poison oak vs. poison ivy, the latter’s leaves also hang in groups of three and cause the same stinging itch on contact. However, poison ivy’s leaf edges are smooth and slightly pointed, not scalloped.

Both plants are deciduous and their looks change with the seasons. Both turn yellow or other fall colors in autumn, lose their leaves in winter and develop small flowers in spring.

How to Get Rid of Poison Oak

If you want to learn how to get rid of poison oak, first realize that total poison oak removal is not possible. Gardeners with a large poison oak “crop” cannot count on simply getting rid of poison oak plants.

First, it is difficult to remove the standing poison oak, given your skin’s reaction to it. Secondly, even as you chop the plants down with a hoe or pull them up by hand, birds are sowing more seeds for next year.

Instead, consider poison oak control options. You can mechanically remove enough poison oak to be able to walk in and out of your house safely. Use a hoe or a mower for best results.

If you are using mechanical means, or pulling up the plants by hand, wear thick protective clothing, footwear and gloves to protect your skin. Never burn poison oak since the fumes can be lethal.

Other poison oak control options include inviting goats into your backyard. Goats love to snack on poison oak leaves, but you’ll need a lot of goats for a big crop.

You can also use herbicides to kill the plants. Glyphosate is one of the most effective. Apply it after the fruit has formed but before the leaves have changed color. Remember, however, that gyphosate is a nonselective compound and it will kill all plants, not just poison oak.

Note: Chemical control should only be used as a last resort, as organic approaches are safer and much more environmentally friendly.

Pick Your Poison

Above: Photograph by Bmerva via Wikimedia.

You have two choices when it comes to killing poison ivy: a natural method or a chemical poison. Both will work, but chemicals may work faster. For more on the pros and cons of a DIY natural weed killer versus a chemical herbicide such as Roundup, see Landscaping 101: Homemade Weed Killer.

Natural Born Killers

Above: Photograph by Justine Hand. For more, see Landscaping 101: The Pros and Cons of Homemade Weed Killers.

If you want to avoid chemicals, you have a few choices:

Manual Labor: Put on long sleeves and pants, tape your pants and shirt cuffs to prevent skin exposure, pull on a pair of heavy gloves, and dig out as much poison ivy as you can. The trick is to get the roots, which means digging down a few inches—at least six—beneath roots and then reaching in to pull them out. This job is easier if the ground is soft; try it after a rainy spell. Be warned that you inevitably will overlook a few little roots. Watch for new growth and pull it out as soon as possible to weaken the plant, or at least to try to break its spirit.

Boiling Water: I am a big fan of pouring a kettle of boiling water onto weeds to kill them. This works best if the plant you want to kill is growing in a crack in a path or next to the driveway or somewhere other than a garden bed full of desirable plants. Boiling water will kill anything it touches. Caveat: When it comes to poison ivy, the underground roots will survive a dousing. After the boiled leaves and stems die back, new growth will emerge. As soon as you see it, pour on more boiling water. Over time, the rate of new growth will slow.

Above: Photograph byEsculapiovia Wikimedia.

Smothering: You can cover a patch of poison ivy with a plastic tarp or big piece of cardboard to kill it. Afterward, check the perimeter of the treated area for new growth; underground roots that were outside the jurisdiction of the tarp may send up shoots.

Potions: The main ingredients in DIY homemade weed killer are salt, vinegar, water, and dish soap (which helps to broadcast the spray farther). Justine investigated the pros and cons of homemade weed killers—some of which are not as “natural” as you might think—and offers a comprehensive report at Gardening 101: Pros and Cons of Homemade Weed Killers.

Chemical Warfare

The two most commonly used chemical herbicides in the war against poison ivy are Roundup and Brush-B-Gone, whose respective active ingredients are glyphosate or triclopyr. These are chemicals I don’t use in my garden, but if I had a backyard overrun by poison ivy and small children tromping through it, I might want a speedy solution to the problem. If you spray chemical herbicides on poison ivy, it will die fast. As with other methods, watch for new growth and spray again immediately.

Above: Photograph by Katya Schulz via Flickr.

Dispose of the Body

After you cut, pull out, or dig up poison ivy, do not put it in your compost pile. Do not touch it with bare hands. Do not burn it (it can release harmful, irritating fumes). Instead, bag it in plastic and dispose of it as trash (unless you live in a municipality that offers an alternate plan).

After you finish killing poison ivy, strip off your gardening clothes—gloves too—and put them into the clothes washer on a hot setting. Hose down or clean off your shoes or boots before wearing them again (urushiol can remain active on the surface of clothing and shoes for as long as five years).

Weed warriors, unite. For more suggestions, see:

  • 5 Favorites: Digging Tools.
  • 10 Easy Pieces: Garden Gloves.
  • The Claw: A Tool Weeds Will Fear.

Finally, get more ideas on how to plant, grow, and care for various vines and climbers with our Vines & Climbers: A Field Guide.

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Poison ivy is no fun. If you’re wondering how to get rid of poison ivy, this article outlines an eco-friendly, 5-step process for eradicating it.

This article may contain affiliate links. Please read my disclosure for more info.

A Poison Ivy…Community Garden?

For five years, I managed a community garden that was surrounded by woods on three sides. Poison ivy formed a barrier at the edge of the forest and caused more than a few irritating itches. It constricted child’s play, delayed garden development, and keeping it at bay was beginning to be a losing battle.

We needed a solution that would allow us to build an edible garden instead of spending our volunteer days risking exposure to poison ivy.

Several people on forums stated that they eat the young leaves in the springtime to build up an immunity. I don’t think I’ll be trying that one!!! 🙂

I developed a five-step removal system based on my understanding of the principles and ethics of permaculture. Permaculture is a design science that helps us solve problems in the landscape by working with nature. You can read more about it in my article What is Permaculture?.

Before we take a look at my poison ivy eradication plan, it’s important to learn about poison ivy’s role in the ecosystem. It is a native plant that actually fills a special niche!

Poison Ivy’s Niche in the Ecosystem

This native plant fills two important ecological roles: (1) It provides food for wildlife, and (2) It helps protect the edges of forest.

#1: Poison Ivy Berries are for the Birds

We might see the poisonous berries of the poison ivy plant and think, “Danger!”. But to songbirds — most notably bluebirds, goldfinches, warblers and woodpeckers — these grayish-white berries are an important food source.

A downy woodpecker eats poison ivy berries.

Photo by Tim Lenz via Flickr

#2: Poison Ivy Protects the Forest

The edge of forest is an especially vulnerable place. It’s where wind can drift in with seeds of potentially dubious plants that could alter the makeup of the forest. The hot sun can threaten to “bake” the soil and change its soil composition to make it less viable for forest.

As such, a healthy forest relies on having a healthy thicket at its edge to capture and buffer threats from the outside.

A healthy forest edge can also make way for forest expansion, which doesn’t happen very often in modern times where humans see forests as commodities and development potential.

In general, poison ivy thrives on the edge of the forest: It loves the full sun in front of it, yet it also loves the moist ground from the forest shade behind it. Thickets, i.e. the edges of the forest, are usually full of brambles and their thorns, too. So brambles and poison ivy are the protectors of the forest — they form a thick wall as if to say, ‘This is a healing forest area: Keep out’.

Poison ivy deters entrance to an area and as a ground cover, it protects the soil to retain nutrients and minimize erosion.

When we eradicate poison ivy, we are both removing a wildlife food source and removing one of nature’s solutions for forest conservation.

The Poison Ivy 5-Step Eradication Plan

Step 1: Define the area afflicted by poison ivy and decide if eradication is necessary.

Look at where the poison ivy is growing and determine if eradication is actually necessary and worthwhile. Since eradicating it will take quite a bit of effort, trying to remove it from a large area is not realistic. If it’s in a forested area, can it be left there?

Stick to the areas that are frequently used by humans.

Is it getting in your way? Only seek to eradicate that which is directly encroaching on a walking path or other well-used area.

If you’re looking to start a new garden and notice poison ivy, ask whether the proposed garden space can be placed elsewhere.

It may take some time to remove the urushiol oil, poison ivy’s rash-causing oil, from the area. The oil can remain long after the plant has been eradicated, so growing food crops might not be a wise choice, at least right away.

If the poison ivy is in an already established garden or tended yard area in which humans will definitely come into contact with it, then it will be wise to eradicate it.

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr

Step 2: Eradicating Poison Ivy

Although I literally do not use chemical herbicide for any other purpose, I do encourage using it on poison ivy that is posing a human threat. That’s because other poison ivy removal strategies aren’t very effective. They require frequent exposure to the plant to keep it at bay. More exposure = greater chance of developing the miserable rash!.

Apply the chemical herbicide (such as glyphosate) directly to the foliage at the highest ‘safe concentration’ directed on the container. This will maximize its effectiveness while minimizing repeat applications.

Do this on a still, dry day. Do not broadcast spray an area or spray on a windy or rainy day.

A one-time strong application is less detrimental on the ecosystem than many light applications over time. The tendency is to be fearful of over-applying, so you apply lightly, the plant doesn’t die back totally, so you hit it again, and again… but this also affects the local flora and fauna.

You want to quickly get rid of poison ivy and get on with the rest of the steps below to restore an area.

If using a chemical herbicide makes you uncomfortable, there are certainly other alternatives. See more of my thoughts on these methods below under the heading, “On Using Chemical Herbicides”.

In permaculture, we seek the most permanent solution that requires the least maintenance and has the largest, long-term positive impact.

You can learn more about permaculture and strategies for ecological food production in my award-winning book, The Suburban Micro-Farm.

Step 3: Sheet Mulch

Sheet mulching after step 2 is a fail-proof way to ensure that the poison ivy doesn’t return. It will also improve the soil and prepare it to be planted with something of our choosing.

Sheet mulching consists of covering an area with a couple layers of cardboard, then topping it with one to two feet of wood chips. Let it sit for a season. This method uses the sun to smother and solarize any remaining live poison ivy roots.

The deep layer of wood chips serves a dual purpose: It helps to smother the poison ivy, but it also helps to rejuvenate the soil after the application of herbicide (chemical or natural) in preparation for planting something desirable.

Wood chips neutralize chemicals and heavy metals, improve soil fungal biomass, reduce erosion, and are thirsty absorbers of water, which means that wood chips replace poison ivy’s role of protecting the soil.

Keeping the area deep in fresh wood chips lessens the possibility of the poison ivy returning. Be sure you have reliable access to wood chips!

If you chose not to use a chemical herbicide, a thicker “sheet” other than cardboard will give you more assurance that the poison ivy will not return.Try laying a piece of plywood or black plastic over the area until you’re sure it is eradicated.

You’ll need something impenetrable, since the plants are probably not dead.

After a year, you can remove the barrier and begin restoring the area. It’s no use planting anything in the area before a year has passed, especially if it’s something you intend to eat, because the poisonous urushiol oil or herbicide may still be active.

Wood chips aid ecological restoration. There is more than one benefit of having a pile of wood chips around the garden. 🙂

Step 4: Place Physical Barriers

If poison ivy creeps into your living spaces from a forest edge, installing a physical barrier between the two will ensure that the poison ivy doesn’t creep back in.

In Edible Forest Gardens, Dave Jacke lists some barrier ideas: Try a pond, section of pavement, or a constant mowed area between the encroaching poison ivy and your yard/garden. Or consider burying a rhizome weed barrier.

Jacke prefers solutions that permanently or semi-permanently get the job done without the need for constant management. After all, the goal in permaculture is to be smart about the work you create for yourself.

For this reason he doesn’t love the mowing option because life happens, and sometimes the mowing doesn’t get done.

Mullein, Sunflowers, Daffodils

It has been suggested that any of these would form a thick root barrier to prevent poison ivy from creeping through. Try this with caution — I didn’t see any definitive examples of it working.

Step 5: Replace Poison Ivy with other plants

Once you’re sure that the poison ivy is dead and that you won’t have to treat the area again, it’s time to replace the poison ivy with more desirable plants.

Remember that poison ivy fills two ecological niches that we know of: Feeding songbirds with fall berries and protecting the soil as a ground cover. We’ll seek out plants that fill these niches.

Identify what you want to plant, whether that’s berry-producing trees and shrubs or a ground cover, or both. You’ll keep the rest of the area thick in wood chips. The wood chips are important!

Once established, the new plants should protect the area and keep poison ivy from creeping back in.

Mulberry Tree. Replace poison ivy (native berries for wildlife) with other berry-producing plants for wildlife.

Photo by Archie via Flickr

Berry-Production for Songbirds

Toby Hemenway gives a nice list of plants in Gaia’s Garden for wildlife fall berry production. Many of these berries are also edible for humans, so you decide how much to share! You’ll have to research whether these plants grow in your area. Here’s is a short list to give you some examples. It isn’t a complete list of all options.

  • American cranberry
  • Crabapple
  • Blackberry or raspberry canes
  • Blueberry
  • Cherry (See how I created a mini-ecosystem with my cherry trees.)
  • Dogwood
  • Hawthorn
  • Holly
  • Mulberry (try a dwarf variety)
  • Serviceberry
  • Spicebush

Ground Covers

Keep the soil covered with one of the following ground covers so the poison ivy doesn’t return.

Creeping Ground Covers

It’s been suggested that since poison ivy is a creeper, it should be replaced by one. Examples would be:

  • Jewelweed (an antidote to poison ivy)
  • Virginia creeper (though native, it is aggressive)
  • Clematis
  • Wild native grape
  • Native wisteria

Perennial Ground Cover

A perennial ground cover such as white clover might provide just as much soil coverage without the risk of aggressive spreading from a creeping ground cover. Clover will reduce erosion, fix nitrogen in the soil, and attract pollinators.

How to install plants

Dig a hole in the wood chips, fill with compost soil, and plant. Water well until established.

On Using Chemical Herbicides

You might be surprised that I support the use of chemical herbicide for poison ivy removal. The reason I do is because it’s part of this larger restoration plan. I wouldn’t support its use otherwise.

Without the five-step plan, you risk a dependence on herbicide as a management tool and the ongoing addition of chemicals to the soil.

I have always been irritated by the use of herbicides by land conservationists. That’s because I don’t believe it’s possible to micro-manage a large tract of land as if it were a backyard garden.

Without an army of volunteers helping to hold back invasive species and a larger plan beyond the chemical application, the use of herbicides becomes “institutionalized and chronic” in the words of Dave Jacke.

I don’t have a problem with chemical herbicides existing, but rather, I have a problem with how they’re generally used. Carpet bombing thousands of acres of Round-Up Ready fields of corn and soybeans is a recipe for ecosystem collapse.

The spot treatment of a few poison ivy plants in a backyard is not cause for concern.

Appropriate Use of Technology

Prior to my community garden project, I would’ve thought natural remedies would work in all settings, regardless of the site. After all, I have standards, and they don’t include using chemicals!

However, a principal component of permaculture design is discerning when an appropriate use of technology (in this case, chemical herbicide) can catapult the design forward rather than hinder land restoration.

It’s true that if we want poison ivy gone forever from our gardens, there’s more to the plan than a one-time fix with herbicide. Restoring soil life and alternative plants that fill the same niches in the ecosystem are an essential part of the solution.

The forest edge looms behind us at the community garden.

Alternatives to Chemical Herbicide

If the use of chemical herbicide still makes you uncomfortable, I’ve provided some suggestions on the best way to safely use alternative solutions.

You can dig it up, or hit it with boiling water, vinegar, or soap solutions. Goats, chickens, or pigs will graze on poison ivy if you have them. The trouble is that they won’t actually get rid of poison ivy roots.

You’ll have to repeatedly pull, mow, graze, spray, and cut it back until the roots are exhausted and die back.

Another solution is to simply cut it back and then sheet mulch, as in Step 3 above (skipping steps 1 and 2).

Dig it up by hand

If you’re brave enough to try this method of poison ivy removal, wear gloves, long sleeves, long pants, and maybe even a handkerchief over your face. Bag it up for garbage if you don’t have a lot of land to throw it somewhere out of the way.

Be aware that any roots left in the ground will regrow, so constant vigilance will be your best bet with this method.

Boiling Water, Vinegar, Soap and Water Solution

These solutions are frequently mentioned as natural solutions for poison ivy removal. Experiment with them on a small spot before trying them on a large area. Keep in mind that these are all herbicides — they’re just natural versions.

They WILL affect the local ecosystem. They will damage soil food webs, mycorrhizal fungi, affect soil pH, and neighboring plants, just like chemical herbicides (just in different ways).

Spot treat to reduce their effects on the surrounding environment.

Boiling water can send up poison ivy vapors that would be toxic to breathe. Cut back the foliage and only apply boiling water to the root crown. Wearing a respirator is a good idea.

Vinegar and soap solutions are fantastic for drying out foliage and can get rid of the shallow roots of poison ivy. However, poison ivy roots are deep and intricate, and are rarely killed by the application. Frequent applications would be necessary to be sure all was killed.

Summary

This five-step plan is a thoughtful and sustainable way to remove poison ivy, keep it from returning, and replace it with desired and useful plants.

This strategy replaces other solutions that rely solely on chemical herbicides, as well as those solutions that risk exposure to the plant or require an extended eradication time.

Need more ideas for growing a permaculture garden?

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Have you transitioned from aggressive or threatening plants to a biologically diverse and productive landscape? If so, what tips can you share?

Help for the Home Gardener from the Help Desk of the
UC Master Gardener Program of Contra Costa County

spring/summer green leaves of poison oak Help Desk Client: I have yet to landscape the hillside in my back garden. It has an extensive stand of poison oak. I’ve sprayed herbicide on it before several years ago, but it has resprouted and returned as extensive as ever. I would like to landscape the hillside sometime soon. What can I do to eradicate the poison oak completely and hopefully easily?
Help Desk Response: Thank you for contacting the UC Master Gardener Program Help Desk with your question about managing poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) on your back yard hillside that has yet to be landscaped. Poison oak thrives in uncultivated areas so it is not surprising that you would have a healthy population of it on your hillside.
Poison oak eradication and control can be a formidable task, especially for a home gardener.
University of California guidance is: “The primary ways of managing poison oak are mechanical removal by hand pulling, which is not recommended for individuals who are sensitive to this plant, and treatment with herbicides. Maintaining a healthy cover of desirable vegetation will reduce potential invasion. This is easiest where you have available irrigation and regularly cultivated soil.”
You mentioned that herbicide had been applied several years ago but that the poison oak has grown back. Unfortunately, one application of herbicide is not expected to control poison oak. It will resprout, and the new growth should be treated again. The timing of herbicide treatment is also important for effectiveness, and different herbicides have different optimal application timing related to the plant growth stage.
Spraying the leaves with herbicide is most effective after leaves are fully developed and when the plant is actively growing. This period is normally from April into June or July, when soil moisture is still adequate.

red leaves of autumn poison oak Herbicides used to control poison oak in California include glyphosate (Roundup, etc.); the auxinic herbicides triclopyr (Garlon, Ortho Brush-B-Gon, etc.); 2,4-D (Brush Buster Woody Plant Herbicide, etc.); a combination of 2,4-D and dicamba (Spectracide Brush Killer Spray Concentrate, Spectracide Poison Ivy & Poison Oak Brush Killer, and Ortho Weed B Gon Max); or a combination of glyphosate and imazapyr (Ortho Groundclear Vegetation Killer).

Glyphosate is one of the most effective herbicides for controlling poison oak. However, effective control depends upon the proper timing of the application. Apply glyphosate late in the growth cycle, after the fruit has formed but before leaves have lost their green color. Be sure to check the product label before you buy: you should apply glyphosate as a 2% solution in water. Products or spray mixtures containing less than 2% glyphosate may not effectively control poison oak.

Auxinic herbicides such as triclopyr, 2,4-D, dicamba, and combinations of these herbicides also control poison oak. You can apply these herbicides earlier than glyphosate when plants are growing rapidly from spring to midsummer.

If you want to begin controlling the poison oak right away, we recommend that you use triclopyr, 2,4-D, dicamba, or combinations of these herbicides, as described above. If you want to wait until later, or if you treat now and then there is resprouting later in the season, a 2% solution of glyphosate would be your best choice.

Be sure to follow all label directions when using a herbicide, and take precautions to avoid endangering yourself, other persons, pets, wildlife, and sensitive plants that you do not wish to kill. A discussion of precautions can be found at this University of California website: http://ipm.ucanr.edu/PMG/PESTNOTES/warning.html.

Additional information about poison oak can also be found here http://ipm.ucanr.edu/PMG/PESTNOTES/pn7431.html.

I hope that this information is helpful.

Help Desk of the UC Master Gardener Program of Contra Costa County (JL)

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