Ask the Gardener: Pokeweed, weed control, osage orange and more

Posted on: September 30, 2019 | Written By: Doug Oster | Comments

Everybody Gardens editor Doug Oster gets asked a lot of questions. A lot. And he doesn’t mind offering gardening advice. But rather than just limiting those answers to the person who asked, we thought it might be a good idea to share that wealth of knowledge with everybody.

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(The questions may be lightly edited for grammar/clarity/etc.)


Question 1: Pokeweed

Chris: I’ve had these popping up around my house all summer. The stem is very thick and they grow tall, almost like a tree. Will you please identify this plant if you can?

Doug: That’s pokeweed, and it’s only a weed if you don’t like it. It’s actually been a banner year for pokeweed. I have it all through my forest. I let pokeweed run unless it’s crowding trees because, in my opinion, it’s a beauty.

Question 2: Weed control

Vivian: Do you recommend cardboard or fabric barriers when redoing a lawn/garden?

Doug: I’d use cardboard or seven-10 layers of newspaper as weed barriers. They will have to be replaced every season. The downside to fabric is that weeds will eventually grow over the barrier and then it will need to be removed.

Question 3: Osage orange

Judy: I have what I think is a tree growing in my garden. I don’t know what it is and I’m not sure where to look for an answer. It has green leaves, about 4 to 5 inches in length, with very sharp thorns on the bark. It has grown about 4 feet this year alone. I put the big green fruit around my house perimeter, and it keeps those big hairy spiders out all winter.

Doug: It’s ironic that I had to reach out to my friend Laura Schoch, display horticulturist at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens to get an ID on your tree. The irony is that I grew up being pelted with the fruit of an osage orange, which is what your tree is. Back then we called them monkey balls, and they hurt! The tree will eventually get to about 35 feet, so it will need plenty of room. Many people feel the ripe fruit repels spiders, although there’s no science that I know of that agrees.

Question 4: Tomato thief

Keith: My tomato plant took forever to get tomatoes, and they were just starting to ripen. I went to pick some tonight and all of the tomatoes are gone. Red and green alike. Do deer eat tomatoes and will they pick them off of the plant without destroying the plant?

Doug: I wouldn’t guess it’s deer as they would prefer the foliage. If it was deer, you should be able to see signs of where they walked to get tomatoes. They will eat anything when hungry enough.

Another possibility would be squirrels and chipmunks, but usually they will take one or two and sometimes leave a few behind. Groundhogs are also known to go after tomatoes, but usually just take a few bites and move on. I’m wondering if you have seen any of the critters around the garden before the heist. Is there any possibility a person could have come into the garden?

apple of peru

Question 5: Apple of Peru

Lauren: I have a 7-foot large leaf plant with Chinese lantern-style pods only on the top of the plant. The pod are opening up and have a purple and white flower. Any thought what it could be?

Doug: You’ve got an interesting plant there. It’s Nicandra physalodes, sometimes called Apple of Peru. It’s an annual from the nightshade family. I’ve never seen one growing in our area. It’s an uncommon wildflower in the midwest.

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