The Permacultivator - Journal of Cool Climate Permaculture
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Gardening with Allergies

Spring has sprung and so has the hayfever. Jo Dodds provides some insights to help deal with it.


Allergic reactions can give us an endorphin high, further encouraging us to eat, touch or smell the allergen, however, the overall effect of allergies is negative. Constant lethargy as a result of sore throats, sneezing fits, itchy eyes, nose and ears, sinusitis, recurrent headaches and wheezing spoil the beauty of Spring for many people. Fortunately there are strategies to ensure allergy sufferers can enjoy year-round gardening. Sensitivity to plants varies from person to person so keep a diary of symptoms, which plants are flowering and weather conditions to help identify and remove or avoid the culprits.

Wind pollinated and strongly scented plants are the most common causes of hayfever and asthma. Brightly coloured flowers are insect or animal pollinated, so a low-allergy garden will not necessarily be a dull one. There are, however, exceptions such as the Asteraceae family. Daisies and daisy like flowers such as, chrysanthemum, calendulas, and marigolds, have pollen and/or fragrances that may cause reactions. Native trees and shrubs are well suited to allergy free gardens, however, the strong scent of some wattles (Acaia spp.) may be allergic. Several weeds are very allergenic particularly Pellitory or Asthma Weed (Parietaria judaica), Plantain (Plantago spp.), Ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia), and Patterson’s Curse or Salvation Jane (Echium vulgare). Introduced grasses can produce large amounts of pollen. If buying turf ask for a low allergy cultivar. In small areas consider alternative lawns such as Lawn Thyme (Thymus serpyllum) and other prostrate forms of thyme, Corsican Mint (Mentha requienii), Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium), Native Violet (Viola hederacea), Kidney Weed (Dichondra repens), Rice/Weeping Grass (Microlaena stipoides), Kangaroo Grass (Themeda triandra), and vetches and clovers. If you’re not sensitive to Daisy type flowers there’s also, Lawn Daisy (Bellis perennis) and Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile).

In the Southern Highlands we unfortunately have many introduced trees and shrubs with airborne pollen such as Ash (Fraxinus spp.), Birch (Betula spp.), Elm (Ulmus spp.), Liquidambar (Liquidambar styraciflua), Maple (Acer spp), Oak (Quercy\us spp.), Privet (Ligustrum spp.), Willow (Salix spp.), Mulberry (Morus nigra) and the many types of conifers. Whilst these trees are very beautiful and offer fabulous Autumn colour consider alternative trees when planning a low allergy garden.

Asthma and hayfever are not the only allergic reactions to consider when planning a low-allergy garden. Contact dermatitis, eczema and hives can be caused or exacerbated by contact with many plants. Ivy and Privet are common contact allergens. In general be wary of plants with soft stems and milky sap, and hairy, sticky or spiky surfaces. Remove identified allergenic plants and wear long sleeves, gloves, trousers and boots to avoid contact as well as protect you from sunburn and insect bites.

Mould spores may also cause allergic reactions when gardening. This can be a problem when dealing with compost and mulch. Wear a mask, wet down mulch or compost when handling it or ask a friend who is not allergic to assist you. Similarly dust when digging, weeding or applying dry soil conditioners may cause irritation, again a mask or liquid alternative is a safer option. Avoid synthetic pesticides of any kind as they are toxic and can cause chemical injury far more debilitating than the organic alternatives.

As well as planting low-allergy plants employ strategies for avoiding allergens. Garden on still, damp and cool days or early in the morning whilst the dew keeps pollens at bay. Avoid gardening on windy days. Likewise hang washing, especially bedding, on still cool days. Mow lawns wearing a mask, in the morning when still damp or better still ask a friend to do it for you! Mow regularly to prevent flowering. Invest in garden seating and have a picnic rug handy to avoid sitting on grass. Wear wrap around sunglasses to prevent pollen, mould and dust from reaching your eyes. Inorganic mulches such as pebbles won’t harbour mould and provide an attractive alternative in small spaces. Explain your allergies to neighbours and offer to help them remove their allergenic weeds. Rectify damp areas where moulds or algae proliferate. Catch particulate pollution from busy roads with 5 to 10m high vegetation screens. Regularly clean filters in air conditioners during the pollen season. If you wish to include wind pollinated or strong smelling plants in the garden place them well away from windows and doors.

Finally, consider natural medicinal approaches such as consuming local honey and elderflower (Sambucus nigra) tea instead of suppressing symptoms with anti-hayfever drugs. A combination of carefully selected plants, avoidance strategies and natural tonics may lead to healthy, happy, allergy-free gardening year round.

J45 Spring 2004