Experts offer sneeze-free gardening advice
By Jennifer Warner
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature
Gardening is one of life's simple pleasures. But for the 35 million Americans who suffer from hay fever or seasonal allergies, having a green thumb means suffering from symptoms like a runny nose and itchy, watery eyes.
Allergens, such as pollen and molds, peak in the warm weather months, but experts say allergies shouldn't keep you away from the pleasures of allergy-free gardening. Knowing what type of plants and trees are most likely to trigger allergies and planning gardening time strategically can help reduce sneezing and wheezing caused by seasonal allergies.
Mary Jelks, MD, author of Allergy Plants, says many people mistakenly think that plants with big, showy blossoms, like lilies, dahlias, and roses, are allergy triggers, but actually the opposite is true. Plants with small, insignificant flowers are most likely to produce large amounts of pollen that are released into the wind and can cause an allergic reaction.
"If you have plants that have pretty flowers, they attract butterflies and aren't as apt to create pollen because they are pollinated by insects," Jelks tells WebMD.
Other plants that produce flowers for allergy-free gardening include crocus, narcissus, snapdragon, daffodil, hyacinth, pansy, tulip, hydrangea, daisy, and sunflower.
Jelks says some people may be irritated by flowers that release a strong scent, but that type of reaction is not related to pollen or seasonal allergies and is caused by a reaction to the oils the blossom contains.
Horticulturist Tom Ogren, MS, author of Allergy-free Gardening, says another common gardening mistake is planting too much of one thing, known as monoculture gardening. If you have a tree, such as a flowering pear, a few might not be enough to cause a problem, but planting a whole row of them or using them over and over throughout a landscape accents their allergy-causing potential.
"It's better to have a diverse landscape, with many different kinds of plant materials, many different kinds of trees, flowers, and shrubs and ground cover," Ogren tells WebMD.
Ogren says monoculture gardening also makes your whole yard more attractive to the one pest that is attracted by that plant. Once that pest or insect starts to thrive, they will begin to secrete honeydew, and mold spores will grow and stick to it, creating another allergy trigger.
"Having a healthy garden, where things are well taken care of, well adapted, and not all buggy cuts way down on the mold count," says Ogren.
Both Jelks and Ogren advocate using plants that are native to your region for allergy-free gardening. They are easier to grow because they're already adapted to the climate and do not require extensive watering, fertilizer, or pesticides.
Ogren says that's important for reducing pollen because when a plant faces stress, such as adverse conditions or a lack of water, its natural reaction is to produce more pollen as a means of self-preservation.
Jelks says native plants also offer another bonus for gardeners.
"Some native plants make berries that feed local birds," says Jelks. "By catering to plants that the birds like, you can bring more aesthetic pleasures to your garden without allergy problems."
Attracting more butterflies, insects, and birds to your garden allows for more animal pollination and less air pollination -- a big boost for achieving allergy-free gardening.
The type of grass in your lawn can also make a big difference when it comes to triggering allergies. Lawns that require frequent mowing are more likely to stir up a lot of pollen and mold spores.
Ogren says certain grasses, such as bluegrass, tall fescue, or hybrid Bermudas, do not produce as much pollen as common Bermuda grasses. He also advises keeping lawns fairly tall. If lawns are mowed too short, they are prone to become stressed and produce more pollen.
"Lawns often get a bad rap," Ogren tells WebMD. "But a good thick lawn is one of the most effective pollen-trapping devices around. When pollen falls on a car or sidewalk, it flies off into the air again with the next breeze. But when pollen lands on thick lawn, after the next rain or watering it's knocked down into root system and taken out of the equation."
Experts say seasonal allergies can lead to other medical problems like asthma and should be taken seriously. To minimize exposure to potential allergy-causing pollens and molds, Ogren and Felks offer this allergy-free gardening advice:
- Use antihistamines or nasal sprays before you begin gardening rather than after symptoms emerge.
- Let someone else do the mowing if it triggers your allergies or wear a mask when mowing to reduce the amount of pollen you inhale.
- Stay fit and drink plenty of fluids to keep your immune and respiratory systems healthy and better able to fend off allergens.
- Time your outdoor activities and gardening when pollen levels are low. Tree pollens are highest earlier in the day during blooming season (early spring). Grass and weeds release more pollen at midday during the summer months.
- Do your gardening on days when the pollen count is low or when the day is cool, cloudy, or less windy.
- Keep high pollen-producing plants away from front or back doors, bedroom windows, or other high-traffic areas.
- Reduce pollen exposure by wearing gloves, goggles, or respiratory masks. Also avoid touching your face and eye while working outdoors.
- When you come back inside from working outdoors, wash your clothes, hair, and skin to remove excess pollen and dust.
- Keep pets away from plants or trees that produce a lot of pollens. They may rub against a plant or sit under a flowering tree and bring the pollens inside on their fur.
Published May 22, 2003.
Medically reviewed by Michael Smith, MD.
SOURCES: American Lung Association. American Academy of Asthma, Allergy, & Immunology. Mary Jelks, MD, FAAAAI, author, Allergy Plants. Tom Ogren, MS, author, Allergy-free Gardening.