A Guide To Spring Gardening, For Allergy-Sufferers

Amanda Tedrow loves to garden, but she has a problem. It’s a common one that many people who share her passion for plants can understand: She has plant allergies.

“I’ve gone through formal testing, and I’m allergic to pretty much everything except the weed Johnsongrass,” she said.

Her allergies are so severe that they forced her to leave a dream job as curator of the shade and native flora gardens at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia in Athens. Instead, she became the agriculture and natural resources agent for the Athens-Clarke County Extension office where she answers gardening and landscaping questions from the public.

If you are a plant lover but are one of the 35 million Americans that the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America estimates suffer from hay fever or if you have another pollen allergy, don’t despair. There are still ways you can enjoy gardening. Here are some suggestions.

Before you go outside:
- If you are on allergy medications, take them before you start gardening rather than after symptoms start.
- Wear a NIOSH-approved face mask, hat, glasses, gloves, and a long-sleeve shirt to reduce skin and nose contact with pollen.

In the garden:
- Avoid touching your face or eyes while working outdoors.
- Limit gardening to early in the morning or later in the afternoon or evening when pollen counts tend to be the lowest.
- Garden after rains when the water has washed pollen off plant and other surfaces and left pollen wet and less susceptible to being carried by the wind than it would be on dry days. Be aware, though, that brief thunderstorms may increase pollen counts.

- Use gravel, oyster shell, or special plant ground covers such as vinca or pachysandra as mulch rather than wood chips since the latter can retain moisture and encourage molds to grow.
- Be cautious about using hedges because the tangle of branches can easily collect dust, mold, and pollen. If you have hedges, keep them pruned and thin.
- Ask a family member or friends who don't have allergies to mow lawns and weed flower beds.
- Keep grass cut low – 2 inches – to help prevent or at least limit the stems from dispersing pollen.
- Keep windows in the house closed while mowing and for a few hours afterwards.
- Clean and replace furnace and air conditioner filters often. HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filters are often recommended because they capture at least 99 percent of pollen, animal dander, dust, and other particles for all-around better air quality.
- Immediately shower and change your clothes when you go back indoors, making sure to wash your hair to remove allergens trapped there. As an alternative, wash your hands often and rinse your eyes with cool water to remove clinging pollen.

What to plant, what to avoid: A pollen primer

Allergy sufferers can also increase their garden enjoyment by understanding what causes the pollen problem in the first place. When many plants flower they reproduce by releasing large quantities of pollen into the air. Once released, the wind carries the pollen, a fine coarse powder with individual grains so tiny they are almost invisible, to other plants. When the pollen lands on a compatible pistil of another plant, it pollinates that plant.

Plants that produce wind-borne pollen are the ones that allergy sufferers should avoid planting because they can easily inhale the tiny pollen particles. When someone with a pollen allergy inhales the pollen through their nose or throat, they get allergy symptoms – sneezing, a runny or stuffy nose; itching in the throat or in the ears; hives; swollen eyelids and itchy eyes; and coughing, wheezing that may cause them to have trouble breathing. Some people are allergic to pollen from specific plants while others are allergic to pollen from multiple plants.

As an alternative to choosing plants that produce wind-borne pollen, gardeners with pollen allergies should select plants that are pollinated by insects or birds. Pollen grains in insect/bird-pollinated plants tend to be larger, heavier, and stickier than pollen produced by plants that rely on wind-borne pollination. Instead of traveling through the air, insects and birds carry this type of pollen from plant to plant. Consequently, plants pollinated by insects and birds are much less likely to cause an allergic reaction than plants that produce wind-borne pollen. The staff at your local garden center can help you select insect/bird-pollinated plants for your area. Luckily, this group contains plants that produce many of the brightest colored, attractive, and sweetest-smelling flowers for the garden. Some examples:

- Flowering plants — begonia, cactus, chenille, clematis, columbine, crocus, daffodil, daisy, Dusty Miller, geranium (pictured here), hosta, impatiens, iris, lily, pansy, periwinkle, petunia, phlox, fose, salvia, snapdragon, sunflower, thrift, tulip, verbena, and zinnia.
- Shrubs — azalea, boxwood, English yew, hibiscus, hydrangea and viburnum.

A quick disclaimer. Unfortunately, even if you plant an “allergy-free” garden, bear in mind that many of the wind-borne pollens that might affect you can travel to your yard from other gardens in the neighborhood, nearby parks, or even from as far away as the next state. At least you’ll know which plants to avoid in your own garden by knowing the worst pollen offenders.

Peak pollen times will depend on the plant, the weather and your location, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & immunology. If you suspect you have plant allergies, it's essential, the college says, to identify which plants trigger your symptoms. To avoid guessing about the culprit and, perhaps, guessing wrong, they suggest you talk with an allergist who can help you determine what you might be allergic to and who can recommend treatment options tailored to your specific situation.

Allergy seasons’ friends and foes

To help give you an idea of which plants are an allergy sufferer’s friends and which ones are foes, here’s a general season-by-season guide of blooming plants divided into good guys/bad guys. The guide will help you get started on your own allergy-free garden – or at least let you know what’s blooming next door or around the corner that may be making you miserable.

Late winter and early spring: Most trees release pollen as winter is ending and spring is beginning.

Trees most likely to cause allergy symptoms include: Alder, Ash, Aspen, Beech, Birch, Box Elder, Cedar, Chestnut, Cottonwood, Elm, Hickory, Juniper, Maple, Mulberry, Oak, Olive, Palm, Pecan, Pine, Poplar, Sequoia, Sycamore, Walnut, and Willow.

Trees less likely to cause allergy symptoms include: Apple, Cherry, Chinese Fan Palm, Fern Pine, Dogwood, English Holly, Hardy Rubber Tree, Magnolia, Pear, Plum, and Red Maple.

Late spring and early summer: Grasses, of which there are hundreds of types, release pollen in the late spring and early summer.

Grasses most likely to cause allergy symptoms include: Bermudagrass, Fescue, Johnsongrass, June, Orchard, Perennial Rye, Redtop, Salt Grass, Sweet Vernal, and Timothy.

Grasses less likely to cause allergy symptoms include: St. Augustine.

Late summer and fall: Weeds usually let go of their pollen in the late summer and fall. Ragweed is by far the worst offender.

Other weeds most likely to cause allergy symptoms include: burning bush (also called kochia, Mexican fireweed, and summer cypress), Cocklebur, lamb’s quarter, mugwort, Pigweed, plantain, Poison Ivy/Oak/Sumac, red (sheep) sorrel, Russian Thistle, Sagebrush, scales (atriplex), and tumbleweeds.

Weeds least likely to cause allergy symptoms include: None!