Cultivating an Allergy-Free Garden

Tips for reducing the sneeze-makers in your landscape.

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If you're one of the 50 million-plus Americans affected by seasonal allergies, your yard and garden may be sources of misery.

"Allergies are getting to be a bigger and bigger problem all the time," says master gardener Pam Geisel. "We plant more trees that produce pollen, and so the background count of allergies has gone up dramatically over the last 20 years."

Flowers that aren't showy are among the worst culprits. Microscopic pollen contains the male cells of flowering plants. Pollen can have a smooth surface, but the real nostril tweakers are the barbed ones that latch on to your sinus membranes and don't let go. These tend to come from flowers that are small and unattractive. "Flowers that are not really showy tend to be pollen producers," says Pam. Because they're not attractive to bee pollinators, they have had to evolve to the barbed form in order to be wind pollinated and carried off into the air.

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Ornamental grasses are some of the most popular landscape plants because they're so versatile. But if you live on antihistamines during allergy season, you may want to steer clear of them. "Grasses are probably the worst pollen producers," says Pam. Their flowers bloom for a long period of time and are grown over a large area. Even lawn grasses like Bermuda and annual bluegrass can be terrible on allergies, unless you mow frequently to minimize flowering.

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Many communities plant non-fruiting male trees so they don't have to deal with messy fruit-producing female trees. The olive tree is popular in many landscapes, and because of its beautiful structure, many homeowners plant one in their garden close to their house and windows. The olive tree's barbed pollen, however, makes it one of the worst pollen producers.

How to Maintain a Low-Allergen Garden

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The closer you are to a pollen source, and the more frequently you're exposed to it, the more likely you are to develop an allergy. With that in mind, here are some steps you can take to minimize your exposure to allergenic plants.

  • Consider a plant's proximity to doors and windows. If you're constantly coming into contact with plants loaded with pollen, the pollen can get on your clothes and follow you indoors. "As you re-landscape your garden, remove those plants that are pollen producers and replace them with low-allergen plants," says Pam. If you still want to enjoy high-pollen plants in the garden, plant them towards the back where you're less likely to come into contact with them.
  • Incorporate bee-pollinated plants into your garden. So how do you know which plants don't produce a lot of pollen? Take a look at the flowers that bees tend to gravitate to; showy flowers tend not to be wind pollinated but rather bee pollinated. Most big, bright flowers are bee magnets. Their pollen is spread by hard-working insects moving it from flower to flower, rather than through the wind. Long tubular flowers are good for the landscapes of allergy-riddled gardeners. "They do have pollen, but usually because the pollen is down inside the flower, it's not released," says Pam. "It takes a bee or another insect to go down inside the flower and get the pollen, so it's not released into the atmosphere where you would be exposed to it."
  • Be wary of fragrant plants. Another hidden culprit is the fragrance of some plants, including roses. Fragrance can spark your senses and cause an allergic reaction. Even herbs like rosemary can produce quite a bit of scent and can be just as irritating as pollen for some people.
  • Diversify plantings. Check with your local nursery or extension office for a list of plants that aren't high-pollen producers. Bulbs are great because they tend to have showy flowers. They also bloom at a time when there's not a lot of background pollen in the air so your exposure level is a lot lower.
  • Trim hedges. Keeping hedges pruned back can also keep pollen at bay. The fewer flowers the plant produces, the less pollen gets into the air.

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When working outdoors, protect yourself personally by wearing gloves, coveralls, sunglasses and a hat. Then before you go in your house, take all that stuff off so you don't bring the pollen into the house.

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