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Camden Yards loses ivy league status

With less than two weeks to go before Opening Day, the Orioles have already suffered the first loss of the season. The score: Mother Nature 1, the ivy at Camden Yards 0.

The ivy that grows up the wall beyond centerfield at Oriole Park, and contributes to its widely imitated retro feel, was attacked by a soil-borne pathogen and had to be pulled out earlier this month, said Nicole Sherry, the head groundskeeper.

"It broke my heart to tear it down," Sherry said Tuesday. "I know how much it means to the fans, and it was sad to see it go."

Sherry hopes to replant this spring or fall, but for now, the "batter's eye" — the wall behind the pitcher in the hitter's line of sight — will instead bear a fresh coat of the park's signature "Camden Green" paint.

The park isn't completely bereft of ivy. Groundskeepers kept the vines that climb up the wall of the bleachers, perpendicular to the batter's eye façade — which, because it faces to the northwest, has the cooler, shadier conditions that make for healthier ivy.

Sherry said she first noticed the ivy on the left side of the batters-eye wall looking a little sickly and faded towards the end of July. She took some cuttings to the University of Maryland Extension service, which after a series of tests diagnosed the problem as a species of Phytophthora, a pathogen that can rot the roots and damage the stems and leaves of ivy and other plants.

Sherry said Phytophthora can exist in the soil without any problems, but last summer's intense heat and humidity helped create the perfect conditions for the pathogen to wreak its havoc. To protect and cool the ivy as it grew up the concrete wall, which sometimes got as hot as 120 degrees, crews sprayed it with lots of water, she said. But with the wall in something of a boxed-in location, there isn't much air flow, making for the kind of humid conditions that Phytophthora likes, Sherry said.

"Unfortunately, when you notice the symptoms, it's already too late," she said.

The grounds crew treated the soil with chemicals to get the ivy through the rest of the season. To prevent the Phytophthora from spreading to the rest of the 100-foot-wide wall, crews pulled up the ivy and will be replacing all of the soil in the 100-foot by 7-foot planting area. The area lies on the other side of a sod farm from the centerfield wall.

The ivy at Camden Yards, planted a week before the park's 1992 opening, has had something of a tortured history. A 10-foot high mesh screen had to be installed in front of the concrete wall to give the vines something to grab on to as they climbed, but some of the ivy grew behind it, got trapped and, as one groundskeeper in 2004 told The Baltimore Sun, started "strangling itself." Crews cut the vines down to about a foot tall and erected a chain-link fence to replace the mesh support.

As any gardener who has tried to eradicate it knows, English ivy is a prodigious grower, and the vines at Camden Yards have been known to grow as fast as 5 or 6 feet a year — about twice the normal rate. But keeping it alive has not been easy, given that the batter's eye is bathed in sun during the summer.

"We had struggled from year one to get it to grow in that area of the park," said Paul Zwaska, the Orioles' former head groundskeeper.

Zwaska is something like the father of Camden Yards' ivy, having suggested it as a tip of the hat to Wrigley Field in Chicago, a childhood haunt of the Madison, Wis., native.

But he didn't want to plant Boston ivy, which grows up the outfield walls of the Cubs' park, because it is deciduous — it's scraggly in the spring and loses its leaves in the fall. So he decided to use English ivy, which proved to be something of a troublesome child, he said.

"It gets too much sunlight and heat," Zwaska said. "It never really worked well."

Zwaska, who now works for Beacon Athletics, a fields maintenance and equipment company back in Wisconsin, wasn't entirely sad when he learned the ivy would have to be pulled up.

"It was probably best they did what they did," he said. "You hate to see it happen, but if people knew the struggles we've had, they'd know why. I hate to see the bare wall there, but with everything I've gone through, and everyone after me, the test has sort of worked its way through the system."

While English ivy might not be ideal for the spot, Sherry said, she isn't considering other plants at the moment.

"I need something uniform and the same color," she said, citing the requirements laid down by Major League Baseball. "The other ivy loses leaves in the fall. Some get bright flowers. English ivy's been the best for covering a batter's eye wall."

Sherry is hoping for a cooler summer, after the heat last season made upkeep of both the ivy and the grass a challenge. But she realizes that's under someone else's control.

"Mother Nature always wins in the end," she said.

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