How to Create an Allergy-Friendly Garden
By choosing the right plants, you can enjoy your yard in spring and summer without sneezing your head off
Is your own backyard off-limits in spring because of your allergies? You may have the wrong plants. Learn how to follow the birds, the bees and the butterflies to find the most allergy-friendly trees, shrubs and flowers.
“Good pollen” plants, “bad pollen” plants
Pollen serves a purpose in nature, of course, so in that sense, all pollen is “good.” But when it comes to your allergies, not all pollen is created equal. Most of the big, sticky grains produced by colorful flowers are carried away by nectar-seeking birds and insects, so they pose less of a problem to you and your sensitive respiratory tract. The bothersome pollen of some trees, shrubs and grasses, on the other hand, is often microscopic and carried by the wind, sometimes right into your nose.
So to enjoy your backyard sneeze-free (or closer to it), choose plants the birds and insects like. “If you pick plants that pollinators enjoy, you won’t contribute to your own allergies,” says Susan Littlefield, horticultural editor of the National Gardening Association.
Plants that shouldn’t worsen your symptoms, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), a patient-advocacy group, include many spring flowers, from crocus to tulips, along with such summer showstoppers as geraniums, hydrangeas, petunias, salvia and snapdragons. Lilies and roses are usually OK (skip the fragrant versions if their scent irritates). And flowering trees such as dogwoods are generally as benign as they are beautiful.
You can also check out “The Allergy-Fighting Garden” by pollen expert Thomas Ogren. In it the California-based horticulturalist ranks hundreds of flowers, shrubs, grasses and trees by allergen levels. Key allergy culprits according to Ogren? Male versions of favorite trees like mulberries and maples.
Male cultivars are often billed by nurseries as “seedless” or “fruitless” and therefore fuss-free, unlike females. That may be true — but they’re also the source of pollen, which females don’t produce. If you’re plagued by allergies, cleaning up seedpods may seem like a small price to pay.
The ornamental grasses being touted by some landscape designers pose another problem, says Canadian horticulturalist Peter Prakke. “People plant them because they’re beautiful and drought-tolerant, but nearly all of them are highly allergenic,” says Prakke, a co-founder of the Society for Allergy Friendly Environmental Gardening.
Tips for sniffle-free gardening
Some allergy-smart ways to stifle the sneezes and get growing again:
- Keep shrubs short. Shear allergenic shrubs like privet and boxwood before they bloom, and keep them trimmed.
- Plant low-pollen lawns such as St. Augustine or UC Verde Buffalo grass, if local drought restrictions permit, and mow as closely as possible.
- Whack those weeds. Many are pollen powerhouses.
- Share the yard work. If mowing and weeding aggravate your allergies, consider persuading or paying someone else to do yard chores. If mow you must, wear a mask, and don’t toil on hot, windy days when pollen peaks.
- Choose female cultivars, and convince your neighborhood landscape committee to do the same. Unlike males, female red maples such as Autumn Glory are allergy-friendly, according to Leonard Perry, professor of horticulture at the University of Vermont.
- Keep your distance. Don’t put problem plants under windows, at the edge of patios or decks or near children’s play areas, advises Perry.
- See an allergist and have your allergies tested. Knowing what plants are likely to trigger your condition will allow you to make better choices next time you plant.
You can’t count on keeping your garden absolutely allergy-free, since the wind can always waft pollen your way from neighbors’ plants and trees. But follow these tips and chances are, you can take back your yard during allergy season, and take joy in watching your garden grow.