Creating the Allergy-Friendly Garden
There is nothing like the garden. The magic of young plants thriving under the gardener’s care, the bursting forth of vibrant blooms. But if you’ve never donned the cotton gloves for fear of cultivating pollen and misery, you are missing out. It is possible to create a garden that’s almost allergy-free. There’s just some planning to the planting.
If you know you have allergies, but don’t know to which plants or trees, visit an allergist for testing. Once your specific allergies have been diagnosed, you’ll know what to eliminate from your garden plans. Next, research the allergenicity of plants. “Read everything on the subject you can find,” advises Thomas Leo Ogren, author of the definitive Allergy-Free Gardening and an expert on horticulture and allergies. “Go on the Internet and read articles, read books, learn as much as possible.”
There are several factors that determine how much a given plant will affect someone predisposed to pollen allergy. These include the sex of the plant, size, shape and colour of the flower, how the plant is pollinated (by wind or insects) and what the pollen itself is like.
Pollen and Pollination
The size and shape of a plant’s pollen can dictate its allergenicity. So does its means of getting from one plant to another. Wind pollination requires light pollen – and lots of it – that can travel great distances. This is the troublesome kind because it is abundant, easily inhaled and likely to cause allergic reactions. Flowers that depend on bees, wasps, butterflies, moths and beetles for collection and dispersal of pollen tend to produce heavy, sticky grains that are somewhat airborne. A good rule is to avoid all wind-pollinated plants, unless there are female versions available.
Head to plants with bigger, brighter blooms. “Go for flowers with bright colours and as many petals as possible,” says Ogren. The showier flowers tend to be insect pollinated, and the shape of the bloom will also play a part. If the pollen is buried deep inside the flower, it will be less likely to blow away on the wind and into your nose. Stalwart examples of low-pollen summer flowers include pansies, violets, hydrangeas, gladiolus and fucshia, to name a few.
Be careful with heavily scented blooms, which can trigger attacks in asthmatics. This is especially important when choosing roses, which are often prized for their scent as much as their beauty.
Annuals are a great way to add yard colour, and many aren’t triggers for allergies unless planted in large clusters. Some of the better choices are: impatiens, petunias, sweet pea and foxglove.
“I would not buy and plant anything that lives a long time, any tree or shrub, unless I had a very good idea of what it’s allergy potential was,” says Ogren. “Don’t buy any that are seedless, fruitless or podless since they are probably males and will make lots of pollen.” Look for shrubs and trees with berries or fruit rather than flowers – they’ll be female.
We love our lush lawns, but grass is the most common, persistent allergy offender. In fact, it can cause reactions even if it’s not the allergen because pollen, dust, mould, and insects and their droppings get trapped in the lawn, and then disturbed when you mow. The best option is to avoid laying sod altogether. Stylish, modern gardens are often a mix of stone pathways and flower beds.
If you must have a patch of green, weekly mowing is key. This will keep the grass from flowering and producing pollen, and provide less of a harbour for other allergens. Using a push mower also disturbs allergens less. Be sure to clean up clippings promptly to avoid mould growth. Better yet, have a non-allergic person mow the lawn.
“The worst molds in the garden are caused by insects on buggy plants,” says Ogren. Unhealthy plants should be replaced, and the others fertilized regularly to keep them healthy. Rake up leaves in the fall and avoid overwatering, which can create a perfect damp environment for mold to flourish.
Whether it’s a towering tree you can’t cut down, pollen floating in from miles away or what your neighbors have planted next door, there will be some things beyond your control. But, there is much about your outdoor space that you can determine. With some research and planning, you, too, can get digging.
Next Page: Allergy-Friendly Plants to Look For