February 2018

Osage orange fruits can be fun…and hazardous

Osage orange fruits demand creativity. (C) Azazello/

Poison isn’t the only way plants can kill you.

Take the legendary osage orange, aka hedge apple (Maclura pomifera). Orange, apple and pomifera make it sound all fruity doesn’t it? But the 5-inch diameter chartreuse fruit easily weighs a pound, and you don’t want to get beaned by one. Or you don’t want one to fall on your car. Or run over one with your bike.

Used by Native Americans, osage orange’s native range is Oklahoma and Texas, but the species has spread throughout much of the Midwest and New England due to cultivation. The wood of this 50-foot tall tree is prized by archers for arrows – one of its common names is bow wood. Rot resistant, it was used to make wheel rims and mining supports. Like hollies, a male and female plant is needed for fruit production. The fruits are dropping from trees now.

Osage orange “was early introduced into Indiana for use as a fence in the prairie areas,” the state’s first forester Charles C. Deam wrote in 1909 in Trees of Indiana. He found the tree scattered throughout the state, but primarily in southern and central Indiana. The name hedge apple comes from its use as a hedge, in part to define property lines. Inch-long spines along the branches reduced human and animal interference.

Folklore ascribes spider-fighting powers to these chartreuse fruits, prompting some people to put them in their garage or attic to ward off eight- and six-legged critters. The seeds are the only parts edible for humans, but they are mess to get to, fingers in slime and all that. Squirrels, deer, cattle and horses are fond of the fruits.

Although we think of osage orange trees as rural or roadside species, they do show up in urban areas. For instance, there’s one along the edge of a parking lot at the Chase Legacy Building on Indianapolis’ east side, near Tech High School. Remember that part about not wanting an osage orange to hit the car? Of course, I moved mine.

You can sometimes find osage orange fruits at farmers markets or roadside stands. There are a few online sources that sell the tree: in Michigan and in Nebraska. The latter says the tree is out of stock.

Or, you might be able to gather one in the wild and plant it to see what happens.



Whack ’em back or let ’em stand

Hostas are easier to cut back before a hard freeze turns them to mush. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

When it comes to fall tasks with perennials, how and what you do is pretty much up to you.

Unlike the trees and shrubs we talked about last week in this column, perennials are much less picky about whether they get cut back as part of fall cleanup.

First, there are lots of reasons to leave perennials upright: seed heads provide a food source for birds and other wildlife; native bees winter over in hollow stems; and winter interest. Leaving the plants upright also encourages self-sowing, which can be a blessing or a curse.

Second, there are lots of reasons to cut back perennials: it gives the landscape a tidy look; it rids the garden of insect- and disease-ridden plants; and it reduces self-sowing.

Cut back perennials close to the ground, but avoid cutting into the crown of the plants. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Even with that, some perennials just look better cut back and some can become a nuisance. Hostas, for instance, get really mushy and ugly after a hard freeze. It’s easier to cut them back before this happens. Although birds eat the seeds of black-eyed Susans and fall-blooming asters in winter, these plants self sow like crazy, creating too much of a good thing and a maintenance problem.

Given those considerations, go ahead and cut back lilies, daylilies, garden phlox, iris, geranium, monarda, daisies, coreopsis and any other plants that look bad. Cut them back as close to the base of the plant as possible. I usually leave up sedums, astilbe, Japanese anemone, coneflowers (Echinacea) lungwort (Pulmonaria), hellebores, epimedium, clematis and coral bells (Heuchera).

Before cutting back hosta and other perennials, plop in a few bulbs. Next spring, the perennial’s leaves will camouflage the ripening foliage of the bulbs. Photo courtesy Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center

Before whacking back the perennials, plant among them some spring-blooming bulbs, such as tulips and daffodils. As the perennials leaf out next spring, the foliage will camouflage the ripening foliage of the bulbs. Hostas, coral bells, geraniums, lungwort, hellebores and epimedium are good companions with spring bulbs.



What shrubs to cut back and what to leave upright for winter

One of the reasons to leave hydrangeas, such as White Dome, upright is the winter interest. Photo courtesy

The fall hustle has begun… rake leaves, fertilizer the lawn and plant spring bulbs, just to name a few seasonal steps.

People like to prune trees and shrubs now, too, but before you do, make sure you don’t cut off next year’s flowers.

Many spring-blooming trees and shrubs form flower buds on branches or stems that are current year’s growth, or they form on what’s called year-old or previous season’s growth. For instance, the flowers of next spring’s lilacs (Syringa spp.) have already begun developing on the shrub. Big leaf hydrangeas (H. macrophylla), oak leaf hydrangea (H. quercifolia), forsythia, crabapples (Malus spp.), blooming dogwood (Cornus florida) and several types of viburnums are a few examples of other spring-blooming plants that form next year’s flowers on this year’s branches.

If you prune these plants now, you’ll cut off next year’s flowers. If they need to be pruned for shape or size, do so within about a month after they are finished blooming.

Beautyberries, including Pearl Glam, comes into its own in the late-summer, early fall garden. Photo courtesy

Summer and fall blooming trees and shrubs, such as rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus); smooth-leaf hydrangeas (H. arborescens), such as ‘Annabelle’; and panicle hydrangeas (H. paniculata), such as Limelight, can be pruned in early spring before they leaf out. The smooth leaf hydrangeas can be cut back to the ground, but only prune the panicles and hibiscus for shape.

Some shrubs are called die-back plants because although winter kills the top growth, the roots usually survive. Beautyberry (Callicarpus spp.), butterfly bush (Buddleia hybrids) and blue mist spirea (Caryopteris spp.) are popular examples of this type of shrub. Because our area is the northern range for these plants, it’s best to leave these upright through winter. The top growth helps insulate the roots. Cut these plants back to about 6 inches from the ground in late winter or early spring. They will grow and bloom just fine come summer.

If you cut back lilacs now, you’ll cut off next year’s flowers. If necessary, prune lilacs within about a month after blooming. (C) Kevin P/

Shrub roses (Rosa hybrids), such as the Knock Outs, Drifts and Flower Carpets, are best left upright through winter. Cut them back to 6 to 12 inches from the ground in late winter before they leaf out.

Don’t prune evergreens now, such as conifers, boxwoods (Buxus), hollies (Ilex), azaleas and rhododendrons. Pruning may prompt new growth that won’t have a chance to harden off before winter hits.

Recent rainfall relieves drought, but concern remains

The drought prompted digging out the sprinkler. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Of course, when I wrote and filed this column, it had not rained for weeks. See what good luck created?

Not that many weeks ago, I wrote at least three columns on how plants were drowning from the rain.

Now, the topic is this long, dry period at a critical time in the lives of trees, shrubs and perennials. Fall is when these plants bulk up for the long winter. In the case of conifers and evergreens, getting adequate moisture going into winter is critical to their survival.

I have watered my landscape, even the lawn, twice in the last couple of weeks. With the redesign of the front landscape this summer, there was a lot of foot and equipment traffic on the lawn and I wanted to have it aerated. September is the first of two, fall-fertilizer applications and needed to be done after the aeration. It’s best not to fertilizer a lawn that hasn’t been irrigated. The second time to fertilize the lawn is in November.

This practice usually eliminates the early spring application of lawn fertilizer. Heck, it’s spring and the grass is going to grow anyway as the temperatures rise and sun intensifies. Most of the time, that early application just increases mowing duties, anyway.

Plants need roughly 1 inch of water or rainfall every week to 10 days to do well. If you have an automated irrigation system, it should be set to apply that amount either all at once or divided in half for twice-a-week applications.

If you have a sprinkler, spread straight-sided cans on the ground and water until an inch of water accumulates, or one-half inch if watering twice a week.

A watering wand with a showerhead nozzle, such as Dramm, is an efficient way to water plants. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

If you hand water, time how long it takes to fill a 5-gallon bucket. That’s roughly an inch of water when applied around plants. However long it takes to fill that bucket is how long you should water the plants. I actually like hand watering. I find it peaceful and relaxing. Time to think.

Hand watering also all water to be applied at the base of the plant rather than overhead. I prefer Dramm’s One-Touch Shower nozzles on a wand or at the end of a hose. These provide a gentle, concentrated flow of water, reducing the chance you’ll wash away soil or mulch.

We had good rain this past week in Indianapolis. It was a slow and easy rain that soaked into the soil rather than running off. We’re grateful.





Trial peppers yield tasty flavors

Trials of peppers has yielded great results and taste. Pictured: Dragon Roll (red); Mad Hatter (green) and Candy Cane (green and red). (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

So far, it’s been a pretty good year for growing peppers. Fortunately, the breeders and hybridizers are keeping up with our desire to explore pepper flavors and forms.

This summer, I’ve trialed several peppers, from those dubbed hot to mild to sweet. Why, there’s even a stripped one that grows on a plant with variegated foliage. How much more ornamental can a pepper get?

Candy Cane sweet pepper. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Candy Cane pepper is the one that’s green and red striped with green and white variegated foliage. This is a sweet pepper with an elongated shape. It is crispy and is considered a snacking pepper that can be eaten at any time, no matter what color. Doesn’t really need any staking making it an attractive candidate for a container.

Seemingly overnight, my Dragon Roll peppers went from green to red, a color that’s supposed to signal the development of heat. While green, the peppers are sweet. However, even when red, these peppers are still pretty mild. They have a bit of a different taste, very fruity. The plant is a strong producer of peppers that are 3 to 5 inches long and very narrow.

Candy Cane sweet pepper has variegated green and white foliage and green and red fruit. It’s also the perfect size for containers. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Dragon Roll is a shishito pepper, which is favored for Japanese food. A new Burpee introduction, it registers about 200 on the Scoville Scale, which measures the heat units of peppers. To compare, a bell pepper registers zero and an Anaheim’s heat starts at 500 on the Scoville Scale. A pepperoncini is 100 to 500.

Mad Hatter pepper is a 2017 All-America Selection. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

The winner in the cute category is Mad Hatter pepper, a 2017 All-America Selection. The squatty pepper has three lopes, which gives it a hat-like appearance. Mad Hatter is a member of the Capsicum baccatum family, grown in South America and commonly used in Bolivia and Peru. Although a bit of a novelty, the pepper is crisp, tasty and sweet.

This pepper is a high producer and I have it growing in a tomato cage. The fruits will turn red as they mature on the plant. The Mad Hatter peppers look like lanterns dangling from the plant.

I’m going to chalk this up under grow something different each year. It’s been very rewarding. I’ve harvested many peppers and frozen them for use through winter months.








Free tours offer peek at some of Indy’s best landscapes, neighborhoods and public spaces

A pond and waterfall connects two properties that will be on the What’s Out There Weekend Indianapolis. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

What better way to round out the touring season than peeking at some of the best landscapes Indianapolis has to offer.  It’s an opportunity to quell your curiosity about some of Indianapolis’ best neighborhoods, landscapes and public spaces.

On Oct. 7 and 8, our fair city will be celebrated with What’s Out There Weekend Indianapolis, a nationally promoted program of The Cultural Landscape Foundation. Nearly 30 sites have been selected for tours behind garden gates, in select city parks, along public thoroughfares and our greenspaces. And it’s all free and open to the public.

Info box:

What’s Out There Weekend Indianapolis

When: Oct. 6, 7 and 8, 2017

Where: tours of about 30 sites through the city

Free, but tour registration is required


Charles Birnbaum, president of The Cultural Landscape Foundation,

“What’s Out There Weekends, which have been held in dozens of cities in the U.S. and Canada, reveal stories about places many people see daily, but may not know,” said Charles A. Birnbaum, president and CEO of The Cultural Landscape Foundation. “The Weekends also make visible the landscape architects and allied professionals who were instrumental in shaping our cities and our shared civic realm.”

TCLF is a nonprofit that connects people and places by educating the public about landscapes, their value and history. A local volunteer group under the auspices of the Cultural Landscapes Committee of Indiana Landmarks has partnered with TCLF for this event, and I’ve been pleased be involved.

Although the tours, receptions and other events that weekend are free, registration is required. Different tours are offered on each day. Most tours last about an hour. Among the highlights: a golf-cart tour of Brendonwood, the Indianapolis northeast side neighborhood on the National Register of Historic Places; a walking tour of the Sloan garden on North Meridian Street, a landscape by Jens Jensen (1860-1951), a well-known designer who also created Riverview, which includes Allison Mansion at Marian University and also on tour; Orchard House, home of Raymond Leppard, retired maestro of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra; Westerley, the former home of Alan Whitehill Clowes in Golden Hill, which now serves as the residence for the head of the Indianapolis Museum of Art; and Sky Farm, the rooftop garden at Eskenazi Health.

Westerley’s vegetable garden in Golden Hill. The gardens will be on the What’s Out There Weekend Indianapolis, Oct 6, 7 and 8.

The public is invited to a tour and reception, 4:30 to 7:30 p.m., Friday, Oct. 6, at Christian Theological Seminary, where Birnbaum is expected to make remarks about the weekend. Another reception, presentation and self-guided tour will be 4 to 6 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 7, at Crown Hill Cemetery. And, the weekend wraps up with a presentation about Indianapolis’ Historic Park and Boulevard System by Meg Storrow of Storrow Kinsella Associates and co-chair of the local organizing committee, 5 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 8, at The Platform at the City Market. You can select which tours you’d like to take when you register.





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.





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.