Planting Edmonds: Edmonds Ivy League the devoted caretakers of Southwest County Park

Planting Edmonds is a monthly column by and for local gardeners.

Southwest County Park, which straddles Olympic View Avenue, is an amazing 118-acre forest within the Edmonds city limits. From the road, it looks almost primeval. Its towering overstory shades lush undergrowth and dirt walking paths.

Under those trees, a small army of intrepid volunteers appears every Saturday morning — rain, shine or snow — to pull invasive English ivy, blackberry, holly and laurel. They call themselves “Edmonds Ivy League.” KUOW ran this outstanding story about the Ivy League in 2022.

Ivy Leaguers (L-R): Terry Rudensey, Andrew Radant, Lisa Villanueva, Ruth Warnock, Selena Bolotin, Mikael Öhman, Tom Bedner; crouching: Jay Tavarez-Brown.

Instead of packing the ivy out of the forest, the volunteers roll up the vines and place the rolls on top of log “rafts” which then become shelters for small animals and slowly decay into mulch.

The team cuts down smaller holly and laurel trees and digs out the roots by hand, but for the larger trees they use an “extractigator,” a hand-operated tree-pulling device, and they’re about to acquire a “come-along” to pull the larger roots out mechanically.

The Ivy League volunteers work exclusively in Southwest County Park. Their leader, Mikael Öhman. founded the group in 2019 after a successful Earth Day. They have nearly finished clearing invasives in the section south of OVD (approximately 20 acres).

“We hear from many people that it is futile,” Öhman says, “that the invasives will come right back, but we can look at areas that were cleared in 2018, and areas that I cleared as far back as 2013, and they are still free from invasives, so if we do it right and get all the roots out, we will win.”

Mikael Öhman                                                             Selena Bolotin

Volunteer Selena Bolotin says “removing all ivy and holly from the south section of the park … has been a multiyear project and accomplished because Mikael thoughtfully selects work sections and celebrates when the individual sections are completed.”

“Since we started working as a group,” Öhman says, “I wanted to break down the 118 acres into manageable chunks so it’s less overwhelming – kind of along the lines of how to eat an elephant … We expect to finish the cleanup on the south side of OVD in the first half of 2024.”

Jay Tavarez-Brown coordinates the Healthy Forest Project for the county. Jay has a degree in forestry and spends most of every day outdoors hiking the forests.

“Over time, the Healthy Forest Project aims to improve forest health in county parks and make the forest more resilient to natural hazards like climate change by removing invasive weeds and reintroducing species diversity,” Tavarez-Brown said.

Jay Tavarez-Brown

Why bother?

Why bother pulling the ivy and planting those specific trees? Can’t we just trust nature to balance itself? The answer is no. KUOW’s John Ryan called ivy “the English strangler.”

Ivy can climb into treetops, where the added weight and “sail area” of the extra foliage can cause trees to topple in a windstorm. Ivy whackers once removed an estimated 2,100 pounds of ivy leaves, stems, and woody roots from a single tree in Olympic National Park.

Ivy roots. (Photo by John Ryan /KUOW)

Left on its own, ivy will completely strangle a forest. The plants can regenerate from a tiny piece of root and the seeds are spread by birds, so we can never completely eradicate it, but good forest management can keep the ivy under control.

According to Tavarez-Brown, the Ivy League’s work creates “space for the native forest to grow. Fast-growing invasive weeds like English ivy outcompete native species by quickly covering large areas and using up nutrients and water.”

“In large infestations, this takes away wildlife habitat and limits native plants’ ability to reproduce and the forest’s ability to absorb stormwater, carbon dioxide, and release oxygen,” she said. “By removing weeds… and proactively replanting native trees, we are ensuring … wildlife habitat and ecosystem services for generations.”

To that end, the Ivy League spent the morning of Dec. 2 planting about 60 western red cedar, grand fir, Douglas fir and Sitka spruce trees. They plan to plant another 70 or so on Dec. 9. Tavarez-Brown estimates 75-80% of these trees will survive because the league has prepared the site well.

The forests can’t heal themselves because what is killing them is human-caused. Since the early 1700s, American gardeners have planted ivy because it’s evergreen, low maintenance and tolerates shade or sun.

But it’s not just ivy. How Washington Nearly Became the Holly State is a fascinating, well-sourced 2013 article by Al Smith.

Holly trees at the old holly farm on 3rd and Caspers. Notice also the carpet of ivy. (Photo by Larry Vogel)

Holly everywhere was the goal in 1927, when a politically connected do-gooder named Mrs. Alexander (Lillian) McEwan launched a society dedicated to planting holly trees throughout the state. She got students involved, and her efforts culminated in an Arbor Day party in 1930 at which 1,000 children showed up to plant holly trees in Seward Park.

Now, thanks to Mrs. McEwan and her army of holly-planting children, we all are digging the prickly invasive out of our gardens and our forests. See the 2016 article in My Edmonds News about a holly farm in Edmonds.

The dreaded holly.

Mikael Öhman started down the Ivy League path when he tried running the trails in the park in 2005. He eventually ended up clearing the trails personally, illegally bringing in a chainsaw to cut felled trees.

That landed him in trouble with park rangers. Once he showed them his handiwork, however, they made him an official park ambassador.

Snohomish County’s Healthy Forest Project takes a proactive stance on preserving our urban forests.

“Absorbing stormwater runoff, returning oxygen back to the air, sequestering carbon, stabilizing shorelines and steep slopes, reducing flooding and erosion, filtering fine and ultrafine particulates from the air, reducing noise pollution, and more (U.S. Forest Service 2018). Areas with increased vegetation, leaves specifically, capture more particulates in the tree canopy and clean the air; they also have healthier soils, which clean the water by filtering polluted runoff.”

The county oversees “12,000 acres of parks and open space; over 110 park properties; hundreds of miles of trails and access to 34 miles of fresh and saltwater shorelines.”

Unlike man-made solutions to capturing carbon emissions which have mixed results, our huge trees are champions at carbon removal. The large trees in the Pacific Northwest can sequester more carbon than any other source.

Southwest County Park isn’t going anywhere. Snohomish acquired the park in 1971 from the University of Washington, with the proviso that the land be managed forever as a passive woodland open space. It’s a fantastic local resource for hikers and dog walkers and is a marvel of natural wonders, like these fungi.

Lisa Villanueva                                                                              photo by Tom Bedner
Photos by Mikael Öhman

The county does large-scale active maintenance once a year, trimming larger trees, bringing in wood chips, mulch, and plants and clearing trails. But it’s the volunteers like the Ivy League that handle the year-round removal of invasives, planting natives, maintaining new plants, and modifying the landscape.

Want to help? “We welcome any and all to join us on Saturday mornings at the parking lot at Southwest County Park at 9 a.m.,” says Selena Bolotin. “No experience necessary. We will show anyone new how to identify invasive plants [and] remove them … we walk … at our own pace and rest whenever needed.”

Volunteers just need to dress appropriately for the weather and bring gardening gloves. The group can be reached at

— Photos (unless otherwise noted) by Floretum Garden Club member Chris Walton who, in addition to being the club’s photographer, is past Treasurer of the Friends of the Edmonds Library and volunteers several days a week helping to restore the Edmonds Marsh.

— Text by Marty Ronish, curator and editor of “Planting Edmonds.” Marty is an amateur gardener. She is the former Editor of NPR’s Performance Today and producer of the national broadcasts of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

  1. I have been walking this Park for 20+ years and can attest to the valuable work this group has accomplished. What dedication!

  2. Very impressive! Thanks to all the volunteers, who are caring for the park, the animals and the vegetation. We’re looking forward to visiting, and maybe helping sometime.

  3. Also, placing signs for ALL driver to use turn signals when entering or leaving the park. I’ve observed 50% of drivers on OVD do not use their blinkers when turning. Drive SMART!

  4. Yeah it’s tough to see. I haven’t gone to this park much in a few years, but I formerly walked regularly and picked up ivy for about 5 years, I’d try to clear roughly one tree each time I walked, but this is a monumental task. I’ve been seeing these piles for many years, but sadly the problem was growing significantly worse.

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