PHILIPPE HUGUEN AFP/Getty Images
A woman blows her nose in Godewaersvelde, northern France on May 18, 2013, as the return of pleasant weather marks the arrival of allergenic pollen. AFP PHOTO / PHILIPPE HUGUEN (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images)
Imagine being allergic to watercolor paints, rubber fishing lures, or model-airplane glue. There are not many thing more ironic than being allergic to your favorite hobby. But for those of us who like to get down and dirty in our backyard gardens, being highly allergic to flowers, grasses, and trees can turn a day’s joyful pleasure into weeks of stuffy, runny, itchy, sneezing misery.
To Everything there is an Allergy Season
Allergic rhinitis is what happens when your body’s immune system goes into warp-drive whenever it encounters an irritant like pollen. It triggers a histamine response – mucus-membrane inflammation and swelling in the eyes, nose, sinuses, and throat.
The spring allergy season lasts six to eight weeks – usually April through June – so if you have prescription allergy medication, start taking it at least a few weeks before the flowers and trees start blooming. But an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure – minimize your allergy symptoms by understanding which flowers, shrubs, and trees are high pollen-producers and by taking some common sense steps to avoid exposure to pollen.
The Birds, the Bees, and the Wind
Like all living creatures, plants have ingenious ways of reproducing. The male part of a plant produces the pollen, which, when it reaches the female part of the plant, produces the flowers or fruit. Some species (monoecious) have both the male and female parts in one plant. Other species (dioecious) have separate male and female plants that need intervention by either the wind or by birds and insects who transfer the male pollen to the female plant.
Long story short: if you have allergies, you do not want to have male plants on your property that require wind-borne pollination. You want plants that attract hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies who transfer the pollen without you having to breathe it in.
Many landscapers intentionally use male trees and shrubs, because they don’t leave behind messy flower/fruit/seed droppings every year – male plants are sometimes labeled as “seedless” or “fruitless.” But they’re all loaded with allergy-inducing pollen. Just look at your car’s windshield when the trees start blooming in spring – all that greenish pixie dust is pure tree pollen.
If you want to reduce the pollen floating in your airspace, it’s important that you select grasses, flowers, bushes, and trees that are either monoecious or female. A good nursery or horticulturalist can guide you in making allergy-free choices [see sidebar].
Preparation is Everything
You can minimize your exposure to pollen by doing your gardening in the evening on cool, cloudy, or damp days, when pollen counts are at their lowest (the same advice applies for when to go jogging, mow the lawn, play golf, or walk your dog, if you have allergies). Early mornings to mid-day, and dry, breezy days are high pollen-count times. The pollen count is very high after a thunderstorm, but levels drop significantly after it rains, so plan your activities accordingly.
Always wear long sleeves, long pants, scarf, hat, gloves, and sunglasses – maybe even even a dust mask and goggles – when you’re gardening. Leave the hat, gloves, and tools outside. Remove your outer clothes and shoes in the garage or laundry room instead of traipsing through the house, scattering pollen everywhere, and then put them in the washer. Shower and wash your hair before you go to bed – you don’t want pollen on your pillows and sheets.
Far from the Madding Plant (Crowd)
In general, having your property overcrowded with trees and shrubs of any species is a bad idea, especially if you have allergies. All that pollen and leaf dust settles onto your lawn, porches, and sidewalks, and gets blown through your windows on breezy days.
Hire a gardening crew to thin out crowded stands of saplings, brush, weeds, and shrubbery every spring, especially along the foundation of your house and along your property line. They’re hogging all the root space and soil nutrients, blocking out sunlight and air, and trapping excess moisture (which is not good, unless you like moss, lichens, mushrooms, wood-rot and molds). If you’ve got bald spots on your property where even “you-can’t-kill-‘em” hosta plants won’t grow, then it’s probably because you’ve got too many trees and shrubs.
But even if you’re fastidious about nurturing only low-pollen plants on your property, you might have lazy-gardener neighbors who let their property run wild, filled with high-pollen weeds, overgrown lawns, and moldering leaf debris. Every time the wind blows, the pollen from their jungle floats onto your property.
Ask them (nicely) to be thoughtful about your allergies, and even offer to go halfsies with a gardening crew when it’s spring cleanup time. Otherwise, ask their permission to cut down whatever’s hanging over your fence or invading your lawn. If all else fails, call your town hall.
Stressed-Out Plants Produce More Pollen
During drought and other weather extremes, trees and shrubs will produce more pollen than usual, sometimes even twice in a year, in an effort to survive and propagate. This phenomenon happens especially around urban areas, which are already environmentally-challenged (i.e., smog, industrial pollution, traffic fumes).
If you live in an area like that, choose only hardy native species to minimize the pollen floating around in your yard. If you plant exotic/ornamental trees, shrubs, grasses, and flowers, they will automatically produce more pollen, just because they’re struggling to survive our fickle New England weather conditions.
About your Pride-and-Joy - Lawn...
A manicured lawn is indeed a thing of beauty, but the grass species you choose to plant is important – some are high-pollen producers, like Bermuda, Johnson, Kentucky, and Timothy-grass. Never let your grass grow too high or weedy, and mow it only in late afternoon, when pollen counts are at their lowest, preferably on a cloudy day or after a rain shower.
Even if you sow low-pollen grasses (like St. Augustine, fescue, and buffalograss), your lawn is a sticky natural trap for floating pollens from flowers, shrubs, and trees in the neighborhood. Therefore, you have the perfect medical excuse for having someone else mow your lawn!
Dandelions and clover are insect-pollinated and therefore low-pollen. Don’t go crazy trying to kill them.
Home Remedies and Common Sense
Allergy-suffering gardeners often stock up on Zyrtec and Claritin before the offending plants even start blooming. But there are also time-honored folk remedies for preventing or alleviating the symptoms of seasonal allergies.
Like those prehistoric ants trapped in amber, raw local honey traps all the prevailing local pollens, molds, and spores. A daily spoonful of raw local honey can help you build up an immunity to whatever’s floating out there in your backyard. (Don’t feed honey to children under two years old without a doctor’s permission!)
Don’t plant flowers or bushes beneath your bedroom windows. That early-morning breath of fresh air will be full of pollen. Keep your windows closed during allergy season, especially after midnight, because pollen starts to rise around dawn.
Itchy, swollen allergy eyes can be relieved by applying a cool and wet tea-bag compresses.
Although many people like to sun-dry their sheets and towels on an outside clothing line in the springtime, resist the temptation – they’ll trap pollen and other allergens, especially on breezy days.
Rule of thumb: any flower, shrub or tree that attracts bees, butterflies, or birds (especially hummingbirds) is a low-pollen plant.
Allergic reactions can often be triggered by strong scents, not just by pollen. Don’t stick your nose in a flower to breathe in its lovely scent, because you’ll also be inhaling pollen.
Freshly-cut grass stirs up a storm of pollen and your allergies – keep your windows and doors closed when your fanatical neighbor is out there speed-mowing, weed-whacking and using the blower.
Pollen sticks like Velcro to your pets, especially if they like to roll on the lawn. Wash and groom them outdoors before you let them inside, and don’t let them sleep on your bed or furniture.
Chamomile is a high-pollen plant – don’t drink it in tea form during the spring allergy season.
Every spring, hose down all your window/door screens, and clean all AC, window fan, humidifier and kitchen fan filters to get rid of trapped pollen, spores, and molds.
If you like to have bouquets of fresh-cut flowers inside your house buy someone else’s. Florist flowers are cultivated to be almost pollen-free. Don’t bring cut flowers from your backyard inside unless you’re absolutely sure they won’t aggravate your allergies.
Best Low-Pollen Plants
Black-Eyed Susan Vine
Red maple (female)
Worst High-Pollen Plants
Plants that rely on the wind to spread their pollen are the allergy-offenders. Almost all sunflowers and flowers with bright yellow centers – asters, chrysanthemums, chamomile and most daisies – are related to ragweed, a major offender. Male trees and shrubs are the pollen producers – always plant female trees and shrubs. And most ornamental grasses used in landscaping are also heavy pollen producers.
Privet hedge, boxwood, burning bush, and mountain laurel are great for borders, but they’re heavy pollen producers. Keep them trimmed closely or else replace them. If you’ve let your back yard “naturalize,” remember that Queen Anne’s lace, ragweed, and goldenrod are the worst offenders.
For More Info
If you want to create a beautiful, allergy-free garden, then never buy tree saplings, rose bushes, seedlings, or potted flowers at a big-box store – they’re all sickly, mass-produced, poorly-labeled imports carrying all sorts of invasive organisms (remember the tomato blight a few years ago that spread throughout everyone’s backyard gardens?) Spend the extra pennies at a reputable local nursery or farm where you can ask questions and get knowledgeable advice. They grow and sell only healthy, hardy, local plant stock that will survive and thrive on the South Coast.
Go to allergyfree-gardening.com, read Thomas Ogren’s Allergy-Free Gardening, join your local garden club, and chat up the nursery owner nearest you. (Hats off to Jane Howland in Fairhaven!)