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If sneezing, itchy eyes, coughing, and postnasal drip are preventing you from working in the garden, you’re not alone. The American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology estimates that allergic rhinitis — commonly referred to as “hay fever” — affects up to 30 percent of people worldwide. Still others are bothered by the skin rashes and abrasions, mold spores, and heavy fragrances associated with gardening. Fortunately, with careful planning and plant selection, you can create a low-allergen landscape that will allow anyone to enjoy the bounty of your garden.
Bear in mind that completely eliminating pollen sources is impossible, and actually not desirable. Pollen transfer is integral to fruit and vegetable production, and pollen itself is a necessary food source for beneficial insects, such as bees and butterflies. The key is to give allergy sufferers some relief by minimizing the effects of allergens planted in your landscape. Here are a few tips on designing a beautiful, healthy, low-allergen landscape.
Know Your Pollinators
Plants that are pollinated by wind, such as pine and spruce trees, and wheat, barley, and corn, are more likely to produce more pollen — and trigger more allergy symptoms. Wind carries pollen long distances between plants and, in doing so, may come into contact with allergy sufferers. On the other hand, bees and other insect pollinators usually flit from flower to flower in relatively small areas, reducing the risk of pollen exposure to humans.
Determine the Sex of Garden Plants
Plants have male and female parts, but not all are arranged in the same way. The sex of a plant has a great deal to do with how pollen is transferred, and can therefore influence the quantity of allergens in the landscape.
Perfect-flowered plants have male and female parts within the same flower. This makes it easy for pollen to be transferred by insects, as it doesn’t have to travel far! Perfect-flowered plants, such as roses, tomatoes, pears, apples, and strawberries, are excellent selections for a low-allergen garden.
Some monoecious plants, such as lilies and most types of grasses, have separate male and female flowers present on the same plant. They’re less suitable for a low-allergen garden than perfect-flowered plants, but bees and butterflies still don’t have to cover long distances to pollinate them, so you might still include these types of plants in a low-allergen garden.
Dioecious plants, such as holly, kiwifruit, willow, ash, and aspen, are more complex. Each dioecious plant is either male or female, not both. The males are the pollen producers, while the females don’t create any pollen at all. (The females are responsible for bearing the fruit.) You’ll need to plant either females or sterile males to reduce the amount of pollen in the landscape.
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Best Blossoms for Low Pollen
If you plant pollinator-friendly flowers, your garden will reap the benefits of these busy beneficial insects, and you’ll have fewer allergic reactions. Look for plants with large blooms and big petals, which are highly attractive to pollinator insects. Roses, peonies, and poppies are good choices. Another option is to choose plants with male (pollen-producing) parts located deep inside the flower — this makes more work for the pollinator, but reduces pollen in the landscape. Select tubular or bell-shaped blooms, such as those found on snapdragons and foxgloves.
Plants with short blooming periods, including spring ephemerals — such as tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths, and trees, such as apples and pears — will lower the length of your exposure to pollen. To keep your garden flush with flowers all season, select perennials that bloom at different times, from early spring through late autumn.
The type of pollen that a plant sports will make a difference as well. Sticky, heavy-grained pollen can’t travel as easily as dry, light pollen. Again, while this makes pollen transfer more difficult for insects to perform, it’s a boon to the low-allergen landscape. Avoid producers of fine-grained pollen, such as oak, birch, and elm.
Stress-free plants produce less pollen. They’re also less susceptible to pests and disease. While you can’t do anything about extreme weather conditions that might stress your plants, you can work to maintain and cultivate your landscape so it thrives. Offer your plants conditions tailored to their individual needs. Consider appropriate requirements, such as soil, light, water, nutrition, air circulation, and siting, for happier and healthier plants that will in turn reduce your allergic reactions.
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Location, Location, Location
Siting is important when designing a low-allergen garden. Position pollen-laden plants away from the doors, windows, patios, and walkways of your house to keep the pollen away from passers-by.
Plant Mold and Fungal Problems
Mold spores can seriously affect plant survival, and they can take a huge toll on human health as well, causing respiratory issues, headaches, and coughs, as well as aggravating asthma.
In cold climates, avoid siting large evergreens on the south side of the house. In winter, their dense foliage may provide too much shade and trap cool air and moisture inside the house, which may increase mold growth indoors. The simple solution to this is to place evergreens in other locations in your yard, and stick to deciduous trees for the south side.
Prune all trees in the landscape regularly. This will promote an open crown and branch structure, which will allow sunlight and air to pass freely, and reduce the risk of mold.
If you use bark chip mulch in shady, wet, and cold areas, watch for signs of mold growth. Gravel may be a good alternative in such areas.
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Stings and Bites
Insects are part of your garden’s ecosystem, but some of them, including bees, wasps, and certain flies, can bite or sting, causing minor to life-threatening allergic reactions in certain people. Minimizing your exposure to insect nesting and feeding sites is key. Wear protective clothing when you garden. I recommend a long-sleeved shirt and pants, as well as boots, gloves, and a hat.
Skin Irritation and Abrasions
Some plants, such as roses, raspberries, sea buckthorn, and barberry, bear defensive thorns and spines. Many of these are also desirable landscaping plants. Fully cover your skin and use gloves when pruning, deadheading, and harvesting these plants or others like them. Other plants, including poison ivy, poison oak, cow parsnip, and hogweed, contain compounds that can cause skin irritation and even severe burns. Avoid hosting these species in your garden, and if you must interact with them, wear protective clothing and exercise caution.
Photo by Adobe Stock/Jamie Hooper
Sensitivity to strong floral scents can be an issue for many people. Avoid growing plants with overpowering odors, such as bird cherries and lilacs. If you delight in scented blooms, try planting isolated specimens instead of large groupings of fragrant flowers.
The creation of a successful low-allergen garden design is proof that you can have your flowers — and stop to smell them too!
Minimize Your Allergy Symptoms
After all your gardening tasks are completed for the day, throw your clothes in the washer and take a shower. This will limit the amount of pollen lingering on your body. If your pets “help” you with your outdoor work, give them a thorough brushing before letting them back indoors — chances are, they’re carrying pollen.
Know the air quality index and pollen counts for your geographical location. Most weather channels on television, the radio, and online will broadcast forecasts throughout the year. If pollen counts are high, stay indoors with the windows closed. If you absolutely need to get some yard work done, use a particle mask on heavy pollen days (or when you’re mowing the lawn).
Take medications prescribed by your physician to combat your allergy symptoms. If you have severe allergies, carry antihistamines and a cellphone to call for help if necessary.
Sheryl Normandeau is a Master Gardener and writer from Calgary, Alberta. She grows mostly vegetables, but also plants perennial flowers, and always has a few projects in the works. Read more about her pursuits on her blog, Flowery Prose.