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Garden Q&A: On those pesky sweetgum balls and privacy plants

Prickly sweetgum balls make for a nuisance on sidewalks but excellent food source for birds and insects and fertilizer for yards. - Original Credit: For The Baltimore Sun
Prickly sweetgum balls make for a nuisance on sidewalks but excellent food source for birds and insects and fertilizer for yards. - Original Credit: For The Baltimore Sun(Ellen Nibali / HANDOUT)

The lawn of our new home has a lot of these prickly balls, and more are still on the tree they fell from. I’m worried about them killing the grass. How do I deal with this?

Sweetgum balls, the seed capsules of the American sweetgum tree, are like little birdfeeders. Notice the seeds sprinkled in the photo. A moderate, not-too-fast grower, sweetgum trees make magnificent shade trees 60 to 75 feet in height, with clean deep green star-shaped summer foliage. The red, yellow and purple fall foliage vary yearly, sometimes rivaling sugar maples.

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Though sweetgum balls can be considered ornamental, they definitely make this a tree you don’t want hanging over a sidewalk or rain gutter. In most cases, turf hides the balls, and they can be left on lawns to decompose and feed the soil. Fortunately, their intricate design provides so much surface area that they break down fairly quickly once heat and humidity speed up decomposition.

A surplus of Liquidambar styracifluai gumballs can be dried and used in handicrafts or even as slug-stopping mulch.

What are good plant choices for a privacy screen?

You don’t mention a desired height or whether in sun or shade, so we suggest you peruse the “Plants for Mixed Privacy Screens” list on our Home and Garden Information Center website.

You may be surprised to see that categories include deciduous shrubs, grasses and vines as well as evergreen shrubs and trees. This is because a mixed border can stay healthier than one that is strictly a single species of plant. When a plant or disease gets into a single-species border, there is nothing to stop it.

A mixed border limits the possibility of infestation, since most plant disease and pests are specialists. A mixed border also will nurture a wider range of beneficial insects, plus it looks more natural. As always, we highly recommend natives. By using native plants in home landscapes, we have the potential to create new wildlife corridors.

University of Maryland Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center offers free gardening and pest information at extension.umd.edu/hgic. Click “Ask Maryland’s Gardening Experts” to send questions and photos.

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