Gardening in Hampton Roads: The disliked sweetgum tree is actually a good tree to grow

Sweetgum, a tree most people dislike because the spiny fruits drop and hurt your feet when you walk on them, is a valuable food source for songbirds and squirrels that eat the plant's seeds.

A large tree with a straight trunk, sweetgum is a fast-growing ornamental tree that's native to Virginia's eastern and central counties, according to Helen Hamilton, president of the John Clayton Chapter, Virginia Native Plant Society. It grows from the Connecticut coast to Guatemala's highlands. In early spring, its inconspicuous greenish flowers appear in ball-like clusters, both sexes on the same tree. Then, shiny green leaves appear, arranged alternately on branches with five to seven star-like lobes. Its leaves are aromatic when crushed, and turn scarlet, orange or purple in fall.

Sweetgum, botanically called Liquidambar styraciflua, needs to be planted in the right spot — a large mulched or wooded area where mowing is not necessary. Give it full sun to partial shade and enjoy a disease-, pest-free tree that's an important timber tree for furniture, cabinets, veneer and boxes. Easily stained, it's often finished to look like expensive woods.

Even though the seed heads are a nuisance, they can be used in meaningful ways. Incorporate the fruits naturally or sprayed a color into dried wreaths and floral arrangements, or use them to fill the bottoms of plant pots so the containers use less soil and are lighter to move.

Sweetgum grows 50 to 75 feet wide and 60 to 100 feet tall, so never plant it close to a structure.

There is a fruitless variety called Rotundiloba, which is available at local garden centers.

Bluebird basics

In my yard, bluebirds hang around all winter, which is when they need the most help finding food. Bluebirds adore freeze-dried or fresh mealworms, and like chunks of suet and berries.

This month, the male eastern bluebird escorts the female to see potential nesting sites. First babies are often born mid-March, so now is a good time to add new bluebird houses. If you don't put up houses now, don't despair because bluebirds often raise two to three families per year.

Bluebirds also eat berries in winter, opting for the fruit from plants such as holly, dogwood, bayberry, winterberry, service berry, sumac, inkberry and Virginia creeper.

An easy suet for bluebirds requires 1 cup crunchy peanut butter, 1 cup lard, 2 cups quick oats, 2 cups cornmeal, 1 cup flour, 1/3 cup sugar and berries like currants. Mix the dry ingredients. Melt peanut butter and lard together, and mix with dry ingredients. Press into a pan, cool, cut into squares and freeze until needed.

Now through March, get 100 free mealworms when you buy a mealworm feeder at Wild Wings Nature Store in the Hidenwood Shopping Center, Newport News; 595-3060.

Local online shop opens

Countryside Gardens on E. Mercury Boulevard in Hampton launched its new landscape supply and home/garden décor store online at www.countrysidegardens.biz. The site ships anywhere in the United States, and also features garden articles, advice, newsletter, gardening blog and a garden video library. For more details, contact the store at 722-9909.

Things to do

Backyard chickens for beginners. 7 p.m. today. Charlene Martin, the "chicken lady of Norge," discusses the rewards and pitfalls of keeping a small flock of hens during a program at the Williamsburg Library, 515 Scotland St., Williamsburg. Free, no reservations needed. www.wrl.org; 259-4050.

Growing vegetables. 7 p.m. Friday. York extension agent Jim Orband shares tips on how to plant a vegetable garden during a meeting of the Hampton Roads Horticultural Society at the Woman's Club of Newport News, 461 J. Clyde Morris Blvd., across from Riverside Hospital, Newport News. Free. 393-4617.

From the ground up. 10-11 a.m. Saturday. Learn how to organically prep your soil for flowers and vegetables during a workshop at Smithfield Gardens, Route 17, Suffolk. Free, register at 238-2511.

Pruning clinic. 10 a.m.-noon Saturday. Learn how to properly prune during a York extension workshop in the Queens Lake neighborhood. Dress warm, bring a chair and pruning tools. Register and get address at ex199@vt.edu or 890-4940.

Seed starting. 10 a.m. Saturday. Learn about proper soil, temperature, moisture, light and fertilization for starting seeds at Countryside Gardens, 220 E. Mercury Blvd., Hampton. Free. Reserve a seat at 722-9909.

Basic landscape design. 2-4 p.m. Saturday. Learn how to give your new or older home the yard look you want during a workshop at Smithfield Gardens, Route 17, Suffolk. Free, register at 238-2511.

Proper pruning. 2-3:30 p.m. Sunday. Basic pruning techniques are taught during a workshop at Smithfield Gardens, Route 17, Suffolk. Free, register at 238-2511.

Butterfly talk. 2 p.m. Sunday. Steve McCurdy shares how his family created a habitat for butterflies and moths during a meeting of the Butterfly Society of Virginia at Norfolk Botanical Garden in Norfolk. Free for society and garden members; otherwise, garden admission applies. For details, call 486-3056.

Lawn mowing classes. 6:30-8 p.m. Tuesdays in March. Youth ages 10-15 can take a four-class workshop on lawn-mowing safety, maintenance and how to run a lawn-mowing business through the York extension office. Parents must attend classes with students. Free, register. 890-4940.

Get free redbuds. Now-Feb. 26. Join the National Arbor Day Foundation and receive 10 free eastern redbud trees that produce pinkish-purple flowers early spring. To get the 6- to 12-inch-tall trees, send a $10 contribution to Ten Free Eastern Redbud Trees, Arbor Day Foundation, 100 Arbor Ave., Nebraska City, NE 68410, or join online at www.arborday.org/February.

Philadelphia Flower Show. Feb. 28-March 7. www.theflowershow.com.

Orchids galore. Now-April 11. See a collection of more than 5,000 orchid specimens at the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C. Free admission, open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. www.usbg.gov; 202-225-8333.

Get more Hampton Roads gardening and home tips by Kathy Van Mullekom at twitter.com/diggindirt and at Facebook.com/Kathy.vanmullekom. E-mail Kathy at kvanmullekom@dailypress.com or call her at 757-247-4781; gardening and home news is also online at www.dailypress.com.

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