I took this photo of sweet gum balls that had fallen on a sidewalk.
The fruits are spiky green balls that eventually turn brown. The prickly points open to let two winged seeds come out that are spread by the wind. Each fruit can have up to 50 seeds which birds, chipmunks and squirrels like to eat.
Not everyone likes sweet gum trees because of their seed pods. The pods don't decay quickly and can cause you to turn your ankle when you walk on them. However, the pods are useful for organic gardeners and crafters.
USE SWEET GUM BALLS TO REPEL SLUGS AND SNAILS
New crops of brown seed pods fall to the ground in early winter. Older pods from the previous season won't be as spiky since they've been exposed to the weather.
Rake up the sweet gum balls and store them in a container that will keep our moisture and rodents. Keep them for the spring planting season and use them around new seedlings. The spikes on the seed ball will deter slugs and snails. Sweet gum balls last all summer and are nontoxic.
USE SWEET GUM BALLS AS MULCH
They're quite pretty and will add interest to your garden. Some gardeners use them to help fill the bottom third of large flower pot containers to save potting soil and to allow better drainage.
If you have an area in your lawn or garden that is mostly clay or rocky, you may want to throw in these seed pods when you cultivate the land. Because they take so long to decompose, they will help keep the soil loose and aerated.
USE SWEET GUM BALLS TO KEEP DOGS AND CATS OUT OF THE GARDEN
Some gardeners use pine cones to keep dogs and cats from digging in the garden, but sweet gum balls will work, too. You can scatter them around your garden perimeter, not leaving any empty space where they can walk around it and into the garden.
Or you can "plant" them in areas where you've seen animals digging. Dig a hole or trench about 3 inches deep, fill about 2 inches with sweet gum balls and then add an inch of dirt on top. When the animal digs again, it will encounter the balls and won't want to continue digging. If it finds a new place to dig, repeat the process. Eventually, it should give up. "Plant" more gum balls the next season since the old ones will partially decompose and will no longer have sharp spikes.