September 2017

The problem with cattails

Cattails are difficult to control and may require help from a professional. (C) Andalusia/

Cattails add a lot of visual and architectural interest along the shores of ponds and lakes and in ditches. But sometimes they spread beyond the borders. A few people have written lately asking how to get rid of cattails in the wet areas of their landscapes, including reader J.P., who says they are spreading into the tree line.

Of the three species of cattails (Typha spp.) in North America, two are native, the wide-leaf (T. latifolia) and the southern (T. domingensis). Narrow-leaf cattail (T. angustifolia) is not native, but the National Park Service says it is not considered invasive. An invasive plant is frequently defined as one that is not native and has the potential to cause environmental or economic harm to humans, animals or other plants. No one would dispute that cattails can be aggressive, though.

As part of its Great Lakes Research at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, the park service has been monitoring a hybrid (or cross) of at least two of the three cattails to develop T. x glauca, which is considered invasive.

In the residential landscape, there are few options to control cattails, no matter which ones have rooted.

Cattails have vigorous, tenacious roots, which can be dug, but it’s a lot of work, said Ellen Jacquart, an invasive plant expert who retired recently from The Nature Conservancy in Indiana.

Keeping the cattails chopped back to below the soil or water line will eventually weaken the plants, but it may take several years.

There are chemicals that control cattails, but most are not registered for use by the homeowner. We always want to exercise extreme caution when using lawn and garden chemicals around water. Jacquart recommended homeowners and others refer to Purdue University’s list of invasive plant removal contractors.

Select tight-budded mums

Everyone is ready to plant fall mums in their pots or garden beds. Remember to buy plants where the flower buds have just started to show color. Mums at that stage will last much longer than plants with the flowers open. The same advice goes for potted asters, also available this time of year.

Select chryanthemums that still have tight buds for the longest show of flowers. (C) menstatis/

Other items to consider for a fall theme: annual red fountain grass; million bells (Calibrachoa); petunias; Diascia; Nemesia; dusty miller; snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus); Osteospermum; salvia (S. farinacea); pansies or violas; ornamental cabbage or kale; ornamental peppers; Swiss chard; lettuces, especially bronze-leaf types; corn stalks; squash, gourds and pumpkins. Also, snip a few dried seed heads from the garden for another element.








Seeds reward us and fail us, but we don’t know until we try

This past growing season, I tried growing several vegetables from seeds. Like a lot of gardeners, some things worked great and some not so great. I sowed seeds for carrots, corn and celery. Here’s the outcome.

On Deck sweet corn was bred for growing in a container. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Seeds of On Deck sweet corn, bred for growing in containers, were sown in three Smart Pots, about two weeks apart. The instructions were to sow nine seeds in a 24-inch wide container. Nine of the seeds in the first batch germinated, three of the second, and four of the third. I think by the second and third batches, my dog Sadie discovered the pots and ate what she thought was grass. If there was anything about growing the corn it was that the seedlings look just like grass, reminding us that indeed, corn is a grain, not a vegetable.

So far, I’ve harvested four, 6-inch ears of white corn. The first one was gorgeous. Small, but it was filled out well, which means it was well pollinated. On the other three harvested ears, the kernels were few and far apart. I ate the first one and it was sweet, but the kernels were very small.

The ears also had a pretty good infestation of aphids, being defended by tiny ants. There was no damage from the aphids or the ants, and fortunately, I did not have any insect or disease damage. Even the raccoons haven’t found it.

Although production wasn’t great, I can cut the stalks and use them in fall arrangements. Will I grow On Deck again? Probably not. Certainly not with an expectations of a good crop. I’ll stick with the farmers market for my sweet corn.

An even bigger disappointment was the Peppermint Stick celery. Nothing, nada, not a seedling. I direct sowed this in a Smart Pot. I probably will try the celery again next year, only I’ll start the seeds indoors first, then transplant outdoors.

Short Stuff carrots were grown from seed from Renee’s Garden Seed. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

My greatest success was also the easiest. Short Stuff carrots did just what I wanted. These are not long, thin carrots, but rather short, fat ones, an absolutely perfect size for roasting with other root vegetables for winter dishes. These were so easy. I sprinkled seed thickly on the surface of dampened potting mix in a Smart Pot. As the seeds germinated and mini carrots grew, I thinned them out several times before just letting everything grow.

I plan to toss some straw or chopped leaves atop the pot of carrots to protect them from frost and freezes. Everyone tells me carrots get even sweeter once the temperatures cool. I will definitely grow carrots again.

Sure there were disappointments, but the process was fun and it gave me a chance to try something new. After all, that’s how we learn, right?









It’s pickin’ time for veggies


Snip peppers from the plant rather than pull or twist. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

With all the vegetables in high production mode, it’s good to know some of the best ways to bring the harvest to the table. Here are a few tips on the proper way to pick tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables.

  • Harvest the vegetables. Don’t allow ripe vegetables or fruits to remain on the plants. The more you harvest, the more a plant will produce.
  • Twist the tomato from the vine until the fruit breaks free. You can snip it off, too.
  • Snip off peppers close to the stem. Part of the stem should remain on the pepper. The pepper is firmly attached to the vine and pulling the fruit frequently dislodges the whole plant from the ground.
  • Snip off cucumber, squash, pumpkin and eggplant.
  • Pick beans and peas by hand by pinching stems with your thumb and forefinger.
  • Harvest the large head of broccoli by cutting the stem with a sharp, clean knife. Harvest the smaller shoots as they develop along the sides of the plant. Broccoli can take a chill or two, which sweetens its flavor.
  • Cut or pull the center head of a cabbage. Or remove the whole plant and chop out the head with a sharp knife.
  • Break off Brussels sprouts, starting with the largest ones. You don’t have to harvest the sprouts all at once. You can also harvest the whole stem at once if you want to preserve them by freezing or other methods.
  • Pull in a downward motion to twist off ears of corn when the tassels turn brown. You can also test ripeness by pulling back the husk and pressing a kernel with your thumb. If the fluid is milky, it’s time to harvest.

Replanting veggies

Now is a good time to sow seeds for lettuces, spinach, chard, arugula and other greens. These can be harvested as soon as they come up for micro greens. When allowed to grow, they can be harvested whenever their size is just right for a freshly picked salad.

You can protect you late-season crops with a  covering of about 1 foot of straw to keep frosts and freezes from damaging them. Usually a covering of straw keeps them safe from frosts and freezes for several weeks into late fall and early winter.





September Garden Checklist

At the end of the season harvest tomatoes and peppers to finish ripening indoors. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

At the end of the season harvest tomatoes and peppers to finish ripening indoors. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp


  • Dig and repot herbs growing outdoors, or take cuttings to pot up and grow indoors.
  • Bring houseplants that spent the summer outdoors back indoors before night temperatures fall below 55 degrees. Gradually decrease light to acclimate plants and help reduce leaf drop. Check for insects and disease before putting them with other plants.
  • Plants, such as tuberous and waxed begonias, impatiens, fuschia and geraniums, may be dug from the ground or containers and repotted for indoor enjoyment during the winter. Cuttings also may be taken, rooted in a growing medium and repotted for the winter.
  • Thanksgiving or Christmas cactus can be forced into bloom. Provide plants 15 hours of complete darkness each day for about eight weeks. Keep temperature at about 60 to 65 degrees.
  • Poinsettias should be kept in complete darkness for 15 hours daily from about Oct. 1 to about Dec. 10.
  • Begin stocking up gardening supplies before they are removed for the season from retailers’ shelves. Pots, potting mixes, fertilizers and other products may be harder to find later in the season.

General landscape

  • Don’t be alarmed if evergreens, especially white pine and arborvitae, drop needles. All evergreens shed needles at some time, but not all at once like deciduous plants do.
  • Apply high-nitrogen fertilizer to lawns at the rate of 1 pound actual nitrogen per 1,000 square feet. Here’s more info on taking care of established lawns.
  • Plant container-grown or balled-and-burlapped nursery stock. Mulch well and keep newly planted stock well watered until the ground freezes.
  • Reseed bare spots or put in new lawns using a good quality seed mixture. Fall is the best time to do lawn repairs or put in a new one.
  • Early fall is a good time to apply broadleaf weed killers. Follow label directions and spray on a calm day to prevent drift.
  • Continue watering gardens, shrubs and trees if rainfall doesn’t reach an inch or more every week or 10 days. It’s important for plants to go into cold weather with adequate moisture.
  • Prepare new beds now for planting next spring. The soil is usually easier to work in the fall and fall-prepared beds allow for earlier plantings in spring. Beds may be mulched with compost, chopped leaves or other organic material during the winter, if desired. Avoid fall tilling when there’s a chance of soil erosion.
  • Apply a layer of organic materials to garden beds in the fall. This includes rotted or composted manure, compost, chopped leaves or a slow-release organic fertilizer.
  • Plant, transplant or divide peonies, daylilies, poppies, iris, phlox and other perennials.
  • Order spring-flowering bulbs or purchase locally. Begin planting them at the end of the month. Planting too early can cause top growth to sprout before winter; allow four to six weeks for good root formation before ground freezes.
  • Dig tender bulbs, such as cannas, caladiums, tuberous begonias and gladiolus, before frost. Air dry and store in dry peat moss or vermiculite.
  • Cut flowers in the garden for drying and use in everlasting arrangements. Strawflower, statice, baby’s breath, celosia and other plants can be hung upside down in a well-ventilated dry area.

Vegetables and fruits

  • Dig onions and garlic after tops fall over and necks begin to dry.
  • Plant radishes, sets for green onions, lettuce and spinach for fall harvest.
  • Thin fall crops, such as lettuce and carrots, that were planted earlier.
  • Harvest tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, melons and sweet potatoes before frost; cover plants with blankets, newspapers (no plastic) to protect from light frost.
  • Harvest winter squash when mature (skin is tough) with deep, solid color, but before hard frost.
  • Harvest apples, pears, grapes, ever-bearing strawberries and raspberries.
  • Remove raspberry canes after they bear fruit.
  • Keep area around apple (including crabapple) and other fruit trees clean of fallen fruit, twigs and leaves to reduce insects and disease carryover.

A look at the economic impact of garden tours

Seward Johnson’s sculpture of a reclining reader rests by the quilt garden at the Old Bag Factory in Elkhart. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

A couple of friends and I decided it was time to visit Elkhart County for the 10th anniversary of the Quilt Gardens Tour, which featured several statues from Seward Johnson.

The Quilt Gardens Tour’s designs recall patterns well known to quilters, such as Vibrant Blooms in Dresden Plate and A Burst of Joy.

This year, there are 19 quilt gardens, planted with more than a million annuals, and 22 hand-painted murals along Elkhart County’s Heritage Trail. The free exhibition continues through Oct. 1. After we picked up a tour map at the Wellfield Botanical Garden in Elkhart, we visited gardens in that city and in Wakarusa, Nappanee and Goshen (

In celebration of the 10th anniversary, the county has installed 56 fascinating, lifelike sculptures by Seward Johnson, whose work also adorns the scene in Carmel, Indiana. The city of Elkhart has several elk and heart sculptures in public spaces, too, as a play off of the name.

Some of you may remember Elkhart as the American city with the highest unemployment rate of 22 percent in 2009. In 2016, the rate was 3.9 percent, with increased recreational vehicle production, a driving force in Amish Country.

The Quilt Gardens Tour visually contributes to a sense of well being with beautiful gardens, and perhaps as an impetus for communities to hang baskets of flowers from light posts and line the streets with pots of blooming plants.

In last week’s column, I talked about Garden Walk Buffalo ( and how that rust-belt city puts 400 gardens on tours to attract 60,000 visitors, one weekend a year. Like Elkhart County, the Garden Walk Buffalo is free.

If we consider an event like this for Indianapolis, some idea of an economic impact would be helpful.

In Buffalo’s case, data from 2010 and 2011 showed the two-day event has a $4.5 million impact, according to an analysis by Richard Benfield, a garden tourism consultant at Central Connecticut State University.

“We did a survey this year and will probably have results by the end of the year,” said Jim Charlier, one of Garden Walk Buffalo’s organizers and participants. “My guess is that it will be similar, but we’ll probably find that visitors are coming from farther away. That’s just a hunch based on anecdotal input. But the more out-of-towners means more economic impact.”

Officials do not break out the Quilt Gardens Tour, but tourism and hospitality in the Elkhart County was $332.1 million in 2015, up 6.5 percent over 2013, said Terry Mark, director of communications and public relations for the Elkhart County Convention & Visitors Bureau. “So far in 2017, our hotel numbers are running higher compared to 2016, about 2 to 4.5 percent higher.”

It may be just a pipe dream or the notion that gardeners are nothing if not optimistic, but Indianapolis could be ready for organized garden tours. Wonder what economic impact would be for us. Let me know what you think.





Could Indianapolis be a city of garden walks?

Jim Charlier’s gardens were on Garden Walk Buffalo. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

A recent trip to Buffalo, New York, makes me wonder if Indianapolis could embrace the idea of whole neighborhoods opening their gardens for tours.

For the last 24 years, gardeners like you and me have been putting their gardens on tour  in Buffalo, New York, the last weekend in July

This year, about 60,000 people from the U.S., Canada, Japan, Great Britain and other countries donned their walking shoes to tour 400 gardens. Garden Walk Buffalo is billed as the America’s largest garden tour. And it’s free.

For the past two years, Garden Walk Buffalo has teamed with the Buffalo Architecture Foundation and its Building Stories Program, so visitors could learn about the city’s historic architecture, including construction, landscape and planning. Recently, USA Today touted the city’s exceptional examples of residential, commercial and public buildings and landscapes in “Buffalo builds on architecture tourism,” July 28, 2017.

William R. Heath Frank Lloyd Wright home in Buffalo, New York, was in a neighborhood, but not on Garden Walk Buffalo. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Shuttles transport tourists from neighborhood to neighborhood, where they see postage-stamp size gardens. These are not what we call “checkbook gardens,” but rather very personal landscapes planted and accessorized with what the gardeners are enjoy, such as mini hostas or eclectic art.

Gardens reflect the distinct personalities of the gardens on Garden Walk Buffalo. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

This is a community-wide effort, promoted by Visit Buffalo Niagara. This year, GWA: The Association for Garden Communicators had their annual conference and expo in Buffalo, where some events were sponsored by Visit Buffalo Niagara.

When I first heard about Garden Walk Buffalo several years ago, I wondered if Indianapolis could ever do anything like this. After visiting Buffalo earlier this month, I’m more curious than ever.

Indianapolis could start small. For instance, several neighborhoods, such as Irvington, Broad Ripple, Garfield Park, Meridian Kessler, Chatham Arch, already have periodic garden walks or home and garden events. What if they all had their events the same weekend and shuttles or buses carried people from place to place.

Gardeners densely plant their postage stamp-size gardens for Garden Walk Buffalo. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

In Buffalo, garden communicators were let off the buses, walked a couple of blocks, visiting six to eight gardens along the way, in about 30 to 40 minutes, then back on the buses to a different neighborhood. The tours were staggered, so all 350 of us weren’t in the same garden at the same time.

I know a lot of the Indianapolis neighborhoods have these events to raise funds for programs, economic development and other interests. I can’t help but wonder how economic development would be boosted by the visits of dozens, hundreds or thousands of people one weekend a year.

It’s something to think about, how we could enrich our community by celebrating gardening. Of course, there would have to be an overall organizing body. Indianapolis has many buildings of interest that could be part of an architecture program, similar to Buffalo. I’m intersted in know what you think. Next week, we’ll look at an Indiana example of how a community pulled together to enhance it economy and examine the dollar benefits of its effort and Garden Walk Buffalo.









What’s bugging your plants?

The squash vine borer moth lays eggs at the base of plants in the squash family. Photo courtesy John Obermeyer/Purdue University

Sometimes veggies that you’ve grown for several years don’t do as well as you expect. A reader wants to know why her squash, melon and peppers are not doing well, even though they were planted as always. “The fruit begins to set and then plants die,” wrote C.K.B. of Mooresville.

Here are some things to consider when dealing with any vegetable or annual plant that doesn’t seem to be doing well.

  • How many years have the same plants been planted in the same place? Rotate vegetable crops and annuals annually, or at least every two years. Planting the same thing in the same place year after year can lead to a build up of insects or diseases that affect susceptible plants.
  • If the fruit starts to dry up or turn brown or black on the blossom end, it’s likely blossom end rot. This is a condition (not a disease or insect), caused by irregular watering. We’ve had a lot of rain, which could contribute to this problem.
  • If the flowers form but the fruit does not, the plants are not being pollinated. A lack of bees and other pollinators, weather that’s too hot or too wet and other environmental factors are likely causes. Hand pollination, using a paint brush to move pollen from male squash and melon flowers to female flowers, is an option.
  • Squash vine borer could be a culprit on the squash and melon. This larva develops in the stems, causing them to die. Examine stems close to the base of the plant. The adult looks a bit like a wasp and it flies around during the day, making detection a bit easier. It lays eggs at the base of plants in the squash family. The eggs hatch and the borers move into the stems.

The squash vine borer burrows into the plant, disrupting the flow of water and other nutrients. Photo courtesy Cliff Sadof/Purdue University

Once the borer is in the stem, an insecticide is ineffective. The best control is to slit the stem lengthwise and dig out the insect, which looks like a whitish-gray grub. Preventative insecticides can be used, such as spinosad, an organic product. These are usually applied on the stems, especially at the base of the plant. Always read and follow the label directions.

Holey leaves

A lot of people think slugs cause the holes in the leaves of sweet potato vines (Ipomoea batatas) and morning glories (I. purpurea). Instead, the damage is likely the work of golden tortoise beetle, also called gold bug (Charidotella sexpunctata). Whenever I hear that, I think of Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things that Go, which I loved reading with my son, learning the names of objects and  hunting for that elusive gold bug.

This beetle is about ¼ inch long. Usually, no treatment is needed because there are many predatory insects that will do the job for us, including parasitic (nonstinging) wasps, shield bugs, damsel bugs and others. This is a case of allowing Mother Nature to do her job.

A beetle, not slugs or snails, is responsible for the holes in sweet potato vines. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp








New plants to look for next year

Sunfinity sunflower. Photo courtesy Syngenta

As usual, I attended the country’s largest annual horticulture show, Cultivate’17, in Columbus, Ohio, in July. It’s a feast for the eyes for sure, and occasionally taste and scent. Each year, there seems to be a showstopper and an annual sunflower garnered the head turns.

Sunfinity sunflower (Helianthus hybrid) was introduced by Syngenta last year. Its booth at Cultivate’17 was loaded with this sunflower. “It is not your typical one-and-done flowering sunflower,” said Bob Humm, a field representative of Fred C. Gloeckner Company Inc., which sells to wholesale growers.

There are a lot more buds along the stems and more stems. “Obviously, this means longer flowering enjoyment.” The pollen-less sunflower would work as a tabletop arrangement, planted in a garden bed or in a large container, Humm said.

“Another attribute is it can be grown in the heat of summer. Growers can grow this plant when there isn’t much else that can be grown in hot greenhouses or out of doors,” he said. “Homeowners, too, can grow Sunfinity sunflowers during the summer when some garden plants start to fade in the heat.”

Megawatt Red Bronze Leaf Begonia. Photo courtesy PanAmerican Seed

Sunfinity gets up to 4 feet tall and 3 feet wide. Grow this premium annual in full sun. Humm said as usual with new plant intros, quantities were limited this year. This sunflower should be more readily available next year as plants and possibly seeds.

I admit I really like annual begonias and the breeding going on with these plants is just amazing. PanAmerican Seeds introduced Megawatt Bronze Leaf Red begonia this year. “It’s not just ‘Big’, it’s ‘Mega’,” the marketing material boasts.

This premium annual’s flowers are large and showy. Megawatt gets up to 28 inches tall and 24 inches wide. Its size makes it an excellent selection for shade to part shade locations. Look for plants or seeds in garden centers or online merchants next year.

Ribbon Falls sedge.(C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Breeders also are working with new varieties of ornamental sedges, a grass-like plant. New this year is ‘Ribbon Falls’, another in the Carex Censation series of perennial sedges.

‘Ribbon Falls’ has shiny, arching leaves that form a mounded fountain with a slightly cascading habit. Hardy to USDA Zone 5, this sedge can be grown throughout Indiana, in a container, in the ground or along a wall. It would make a good alternative groundcover.




Weigela is ready to bloom and bloom in today’s gardens

Spilled Wine weigela. Photo courtesy

Many of us probably think of weigela as a plant in our grandparents’ yard. The ones on the market today are nothing like their predecessors.

For one thing, plant breeders have scaled down the shrub to a manageable size for smaller landscapes. They’ve jazzed up the foliage on the shrub, introducing plants with purple, almost black leaves, or variegated green leaves. And, the breeders have developed weigela that blooms more than once.

Weigelas (Weigela florida) are fairly long-blooming deciduous shrubs. They do best in full sun, especially for good foliage color and flowering. Weigelas tolerate light shade, but will produce fewer flowers and not have as vibrantly colored leaves. Their trumpet-shaped flowers attract hummingbirds, bees and other pollinating insects. They also are very winter hardy.

Tuxedo weigela. Photo courtesy

One of my current faves is Tuxedo (W. x ‘Velda’), which has almost black leaves and pure white, fragrant flowers. It will get up to 3 feet tall and 4 feet wide. The color combo is as dramatic as the name implies. I also like Ghost, which has red flowers and chartreuse leaves. The leaves turn almost iridescent in summer. It gets about 5 feet tall and wide.

Shine Sensations and other small weigela shrubs do great in pots in the summer. Transplant to the ground in fall to enjoy for years to come. Photo courtesy Bailey Nurseries’

Shining Sensation, one of from Bailey Nurseries’ First Edition plants, has pink blooms in May and June and then occasional flowers through summer. The foliage is shiny burgundy. Shining Sensations gets up to 6 feet tall and 4 feet wide.

In the reblooming category, look for Proven Winners ColorChoice’s Sonic Bloom series of weigela, which have flowers periodically throughout the summer and into fall. Each gets about 5 feet tall and wide. Sonic Blooms come in red, pink and pearl. The latter’s white flowers turn pink as they age.

Reblooming weigelas bloom on current season and year-old growth, so if you need to prune, do say by midsummer. Even better, make sure the mature size of the plant fits the space you have allocated and you may never have to prune, except to remove an occasional dead branch.

Sonic Bloom Red weigela blooms off and one all summer. Photo courtesy

Proven Winners Color/Choice also has the popular wine series of weigela, all of which have pink flowers and purple leaves. Midnight Wine is about 1 foot tall and 2 feet wide; Spilled Wine is 2 feet tall and 3 feet wide; Fine Wine is 3 feet tall and wide; and Wine & Roses is 5 feet tall and wide. These weigelas are deer resistant.

You should still be able to find weigelas at garden centers. Anything growing in a nursery pot can be planted any time. Just be sure to water it regularly if there’s no rain.









Pick your poison, carefully

Green stink bug on poison ivy. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

In the NCIS episode “Viral,” McGee tells Bishop to be careful because the area they are investigating (outside Washington, D.C.) is covered with poison oak. In fact, there have been warnings about poison oak in several “NCIS” episodes.

Those California-based writers probably don’t realize that poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) is rarely found outside the western United States. The leaves of this native plant resemble oak leaves, which accounts for its common name. It can be a vine or a shrub.

Poison oak. Photo courtesy US Forestry Service

There is Atlantic poison oak (T. pubescens), a native vine or shrub-like plant. Although uncommon, it is found in Illinois and states south and east, but not in Indiana.

Much more common in the eastern half of the U.S. is poison ivy (T. radicans). It’s so common that we frequently find this native plant in our yards, whether we live in urban, suburban or rural areas. Poison ivy can take the form of a climbing vine or as a shrub. The most identifying characteristic is “leaves of three, let it be.” It has beautiful fall color and showy berries.

Poison sumac. © Troy Evans /

Poison sumac (T. vernix) also can be found in Indiana, especially along riverbanks or swampy areas, where it grows as a shrub or small tree. Its leaves are opposite each other on slightly arching branches.

Poison ivy, poison sumac and poison oak all contain urushiol, an oil that causes the rash or welts associated with exposure to these plants.

Another native plant, Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) is sometimes mistaken for poison ivy, primarily because the leaves look similar. But Virginia creeper has five leaflets to a leaf and it climbs by tendrils and suction cup-like appendages. It has purple fruit and beautiful fall color. The leaves and stems of this plant contain crystals of calcium oxalate, called raphides, which can cause dermatitis on some people.

Virginia creeper scampers over cheddar pinks. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

What’s a gardener to do? I always wear long sleeves, jeans and gloves when pulling Virginia creeper from my neighbor’s fence or other places in my yard. If I find poison ivy, I cover my arm with several plastic sleeves that newspapers come in. I pull the poison ivy, then pull the plastic sleeve over my hand and toss bag in the trash.

There are products you can apply that provide a barrier to these plants’ irritants. And if skin is exposed, there are specialized products to clean the area. Your pharmacist can make recommendations. Always read and follow the label directions.

Remember to use care when taking off clothes worn when working with these plants. The oil can remain on the material and be transferred to your skin. Consider washing garments that were exposed to the oils twice.