Q: I have a sweet gum tree that is a nuisance. I love how the tree looks but it drops these sharp spiny spiky balls all over the grass and clean up is a huge problem every year. Any suggestions of what to do with this problem would be very much appreciated.
A: Some homeowners have given up and are removing the tree to eliminate the problem. Often they resist doing this because a sweet gum tree is very attractive with glossy deep green leaves in summer that turn to yellow, purple, and red tones in the fall. The problem is the seedpods. Due to their extreme hard spiny makeup, and the fact that there are usually a great many of them, cleanup is very difficult. So, here are a few suggestions of things to try before getting out the chainsaw:
• Liquidambar styraciflua is Latin for the American Sweet Gum tree which is hardy in our zone 5 gardens and has been the most planted tree for many years. Some of our area has been rezoned 6 — so if you are in zone 6 or have micro-climate areas around your home that are 6 you could purchase a fruitless sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Rotundiloba’). (Examples of nurseries that could help with this decision are Arbor Farms and Blue Rive Nurseries.)
• Here is a link to our hardiness map: http://www.plantmaps.com/interactive-indiana-2012-usda-plant-zone-hardiness-map.php.
• Purchase FlorelŪ Fruit Eliminator which really works and spray the tree according to directions on the label or contract an arborist to do it for you.
• Purchase light weight netting that will allow sun and rain through, spread it around under the tree when you see the seed pods turning. (The seedpods fall to the ground from December through April.) This will allow you to collect the majority of the pods all at once without killing the grass.
• Lay down a tarp and with your leaf blower move them onto the tarp.
• Collect them and use them as mulch around shrubs, in flower beds, etc., to deter rabbits and other small critters that aren’t fans of the spines on the balls either. These pods compost at a slower rate than wood mulch and they will look attractive and cost you nothing but a bit of exercise.
• When planting the tree, or if you already have one, remove the sod in a circle as wide as the canopy of the tree; add seedpod mulch up to within 5 or 6 inches of the trunk of the tree (mulch should never touch a tree trunk). This will help avoid most of the pods becoming tangled in the grass. Also you can rake what falls outside the circle onto the mulch bed.
• Mix with pine needles and pinecones and make the mulch even more attractive - plus this will add nutrients to the soil around your other plants, smother weeds, and help hold moisture at the root zone.
• Because they decompose slowly run the mower back and forth over them which will cut many of them into pieces so you can add them to the compost pile — or use as mulch.
• Save them, toss them in cinnamon scented essential oils and use in the fireplace and in potpourri.
• Make a family project out of cleanup and if you have an outdoor fire pit, burn them which will stimulate the kids helping with this task.
• Be a good neighbor and clean up any pods that stray outside your property.
Jane Ford is an Advanced Master Gardener. Email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. This column is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of The News-Sentinel.