Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Pacific Northwest
February, 2011
Regional Report

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Low allergen plants, such as this Exbury azalea, can add a burst of worry-free color to your landscape.

Reducing Allergens in the Garden

According to the Mayo Clinic website, approximately 20 percent of Americans suffer from seasonal allergies caused by pollens, molds, and grasses. This means that gardeners who endure watery eyes, sneezing, and wheezing await the coming of the growing season with a mixture of joy and trepidation. If you count yourself among this tortured group, here are a few techniques that will help you minimize your exposure to the most offensive allergens you'll find in your garden - pollen, mold, and fungi.

Avoiding the Culprits
There are about 100 species of plants that freely release pollen into the air. Sensitivity varies, but among the worst in my garden are aster, amaranth, sunflower, oriental lily, stephanotis, baby's breath, golden rod and sweet pea. Trees and shrubs release lots of pollen in the spring as well. My worst enemies include oaks, maples, birches, ashes, alders, willows, privets, and junipers. Male cultivars of shrubs and trees are the biggest pollen producers so when you have a choice, select only female cultivars. The good news is that their pollen season in relatively short here in the Pacific Northwest, lasting from only mid-March through about mid-May.

Besides pollen, some people are allergic to mold spores and fungi, as well. Watering in the mid-morning helps give your plants and the soil a chance to dry quickly, which discourages the growth of mold and fungi. Installing a drip irrigation system can also be helpful.
Plants that are susceptible to mold or fungus, such as phlox, bee balm, and roses should be avoided. Or you can choose disease-resistant cultivars to help reduce your exposure to these allergens.

A short list of plants releasing the most pollen, and those to avoid whenever possible, include Autumn Spire red maple (Acer rubrum 'Autumn Spire'), love-lies-bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus), Artemisia 'Powis Castle', silvermound (Artemisia schmidtiana), painted daisy (Chrysanthemum carinatum), 'Golden Chalice' and 'Mary Stoker' chrysanthemums, Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica), forsythia, hellebores, fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum), goldenrod (Solidago spp.), meadow rue (Thalictrum spp.), and edelweiss (Leontopodium alpinum).

More Prevention Techniques
Weeds that are allowed to flower can produce lots of pollen so weed your garden often. Mow your lawn regularly to prevent the grass from flowering. Try not to garden in the early morning or late afternoon -- plants typically release pollen into the air during the coolest parts of the day. Don't cultivate the soil right after a rainstorm when mold spores are most prevalent and you'll reduce the chance of bringing the mold spores up to the soil's surface. Be sure to change your clothes after you've gardened, and don't forget to clean your glasses! Showering will remove any remaining pollen grains.

Choose Low-Pollen Plants
Some annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees that are garden safe for allergy sufferers include Autumn Glory red maple (Acer rubrum 'Autumn Glory'), allium, columbine (Aquilegia), sea pink or thrift (Armeria), red chokecherry (Aronia arbutifolia), false indigo (Baptisia australis), bellflower (Campanula), coleus, crocus, cyclamen, foxglove (Digitalis) coral bells (Heuchera), hosta, Japanese kerria (Kerria japonica), impatiens, lobelia, Virginia bluebells (Mertensia), peony, petunia, Solomon's seal, rhododendron, azalea, pearlwort (Sagina), hens and chicks, periwinkle, pansies, dianthus, and daylilies (Hemerocallis).

Plants with double flowers are missing most or all of the male pollen-producing parts so you can safely plant these without fear of airborne pollen. Double chrysanthemums and tuberous begonias are two I have in my garden.

Roses are some of the least offending flowers. Their pollen is large, and less likely to be spread around in the wind. Hybrid roses have even less pollen than wild roses and their varieties. When choosing a rose bush, the key to obtaining the least pollen is choosing the rose with the least fragrance. The pale pink Cecile Brunner rose and the Lady Banks' rose produce no pollen whatsoever.

Obviously, there is no escaping pollen that floats in from your neighbor's yard, but you can improve your own pollen count by taking care to plant low pollen beauties in your own landscape.

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