Landscaping With Low-Allergy Plants

Plants For An Accessible Playground

I’ve recently become involved with a beautiful community project that will culminate in Owen’s Playground, an interactive site that will be accessible to everyone. The inspiration comes from an Islander called Stacy Marshall, co-founder of Grounds For Change ( and mother of Owen. Owen’s brief life enriched many people, and this playground is just part of his legacy to his family and community.

Here’s the link to learn more:

The Bainbridge Island Parks & Recreation Department nobly stepped up to offer Owen’s Playground a home, and landscape architect Chris Cain of Studio Hanson Roberts (which specializes in designing zooscapes and botanic gardens) offered pro bono services as well. Many other folks have also chipped in with time, skills, and donations of all kinds, making this project a delight already.

Planning The Plants

My part involves selecting plants for various parts of the playground as well as the surrounding ball park. I’m excited to work on such a lovely project, not least because of the challenges it represents. For one thing, the site is on glacial till that reminds me of the Old Settler song lines:

For two year I scraped and I struggled
But I never got down to the soil….

The barren site is in full sun, with no shade. It is visited daily by deer and other critters who will be enchanted to dine on whatever we plant. Drainage swales have been established, ending in a rain garden, but at present there’s no other vegetation. Thus, I need to come up with plants that will look good all year round, need little or no maintenance, and stand up to poor soil, little water (irrigation is expensive), and full sun. As well, I need to think about creative ways to limit potent allergens, from pollen to bee stings.

Low Allergy Plants

As a life long gardener, I find it ironic (and intensely annoying) that I am sensitive and/or allergic to many kinds of pollen. I’m not alone in this: Plant pollen allergies are on the rise, yet few medical schools offer more than a perfunctory introduction to the topic. Most docs recommend the seasonal use antihistamines, but hardly any suggest learning which plants trigger allergies or strategies for avoidance.

Fortunately, once you know which plants set off allergies, you can often eliminate or avoid them. Though many folks are very clear that they have plant pollen allergies, it can be tricky to decide which specific plants are giving us trouble. For starters, we may have a quick response (within half an hour or so) to some pollens, while an allergic response to different pollens may not show up for 8 hours or more.

Why We Sneeze

Here in the maritime Northwest, we have many, many reasons to sneeze. Some, like willow and alder pollen, are pretty hard to avoid; that’s what those antihistamines are for. However, with some planning, we can at least make sure our gardens and landscaping aren’t contributing to our discomfort. (Muscle soreness after extensive outdoor chores doesn’t count.)

For starters, many common woody plants are sexed, having both male and female forms. A lot of landscaping trees and shrubs are males, often chosen for their lack of messy fruit. Unfortunately, male trees and shrubs produce the lion’s share of pollen, making them significant allergens. Unless you’re willing and/or able to remove offending trees (my neighbors’ sequoias are off limits), you’ll just have to figure out when they shed pollen and do your best to protect yourself from exposure.

Wash That Pollen Right Out Of Your Hair

To minimize effects, keep house and car windows closed, wash your car often, and shower and change/wash clothing as soon as possible after time outdoors. If your eyes are affected, it also helps to wash them gently several times a day, since pollen tends to cling to our eyelashes.

Retrofitting a pollen-rich garden may be expensive and difficult, but those just starting a garden are in a good position to avoid heavy pollen shedders. Ideally, we can choose all female shrubs when planting a garden, rather than males. A good plant nursery can help you figure out which cultivars are male and suggest well behaved girls instead. Even famously troublesome families like maples, willows, and elms have female forms that won’t give you grief.

Low Pollen Picks

There are also some fairly simple ways to control some high-pollen plants that are already in place. For instance, you can eliminate most or all pollen from an established hedge (think boxwood), by shearing off high-allergy blossoms. If replacement is in order, consider low-pollen shrubs such as azaleas, camellias, native ceanothus, escallonias, rhododendrons and weigela.

While some herbs are significant pollen shedders (chamomile, artemisias), others are not. Many pollen-sensitive folks can enjoy growing basil, chives, dill, mint, thyme, lavender, fennel, parsley and rosemary without pollen issues. (Many people are sensitive to lavender, but specific sensitivity to such herbs is not usually pollen related.)

Babelicious Bounty

When it comes to low-pollen flowering plants, the best bets produce relatively large, flashy, scentless or lightly scented blossoms. These are largely female and/or pollinated by critters rather than wind. Wind-pollinated flowers (which may cause allergy issues) tend to be small and less showy, so pick the showboats every time. Plants promoted as bird-friendly are good picks, because most are pollinated by nectar-seeking birds. Sterile hybrids are always good choices, since they produce no pollen at all.

Good picks include anemones, bellflowers, begonias, coleus, columbines, foxgloves, pansies, petunias, salvias and verbenas.
Some folks even plant all-female gardens, with girl grasses, lady shrubs, womanly trees and babes-only blossoms. That takes some research, but for the truly afflicted, a low pollen garden is a joy forever. One terrific resource to get you started is a book called Allergy-Free Gardening by Thomas Leo Ogren. Ogren also has a website you can visit for lists and resources:

Posted in Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Not Killing Birds, Bees, Butterflies and Fish

No NeoNics In Plants, Gardens, Food…

Bees have deservedly been getting a lot of news coverage lately, especially in terms of their susceptibility to the gigantic class of synthetic tobacco-type poisons. Neonicotinoids or neonics have been clearly implicated in honeybee colony collapse disorder (CCD), and new studies now show that these common-as-dirt toxins are also killing birds, not to mention butterflies. Oh, and fish, as well as other aquatic critters.

What’s going on? Two forms of neonics (imidacloprid and clothianidin) are now the most widely used poisons on earth, found in scores of products used by both farmers and gardeners. Unfortunately, neonics are “hidden” in products that many people may be using unknowingly. Neonics are systemic toxins, which means they penetrate to every part of treated plants, including foliage, flowers, pollen, and fruit, if any.

Bee Friendly Or Bee Deadly?

Sadly, unless they come from organic or transitional growers or are sustainably grown, nearly all nursery-grown plants have been treated with neonics at some point. That includes the veggie 6-packs found at the grocery store, or the hardware store, or the big box store, or on the sidewalk racks outside the mega-pharmacy. In fact, a study released in June found that over half the plants sold as “bee friendly” at Home Depot and other big box stores have been treated with neonics, making them bee-deadly instead.

Independent nurseries are more apt to stock plants grown organically or sustainably and by now, most of them will be able to tell you if their plants have been treated with neonics or not. Why should you care? For starters, these dangerous chemicals have been and are still being used in prodigious quantities. After some 60 years of use, we are just starting to learn how they affect the environment, starting with tiny creatures like bees and butterflies, and and now larger ones like birds and fish.

Time Will Tell, But Let’s Not Wait

Water soluble and very long lasting, neonics are now found in increasing quantities in waterways across the country. The effects are still being discovered, yet are already so significant that the Pacific Region of US Fish & Wildlife Service will be phasing out neonics currently used on agricultural crops grown to feed wildlife. The FWS is concerned not only for the bees and butterflies that pollinate those crops but also for the birds and fish that are inadvertent targets of these potent pesticides. As more studies emerge, hunters and fisherfolk are becoming as engaged as bee-frienders in the efforts to reduce and eliminate the use of neonics.

This phase-out is not an immediate halt, but it is a hopeful step toward less dangerous, destructive and hello, stupid policies. What makes using a systemic toxin on native plant intended to support native wildlife a good idea? Here’s a link to learn more:

To help you sort out this increasingly distressing puzzle, websites have been developed with lists of nurseries that do not use neonics, as well as garden products that contain neonics in any form. You’ll find lists and information about common pesticides that contain neonicotinoids on the website of the Center For Food Safety. Click on this link to find information on how to help bees in a wide range of ways.

Here’s a link for a fact sheet on pesticides and pollinators:

The Center For Food Safety circulated a widely-signed petition that gained enough signatures that led to the FWS decision to withdraw neonics from the Pacific region, and is actively protecting human and environmental health on many other fronts as well.

Befriending Bees

Friends of the Earth also has a Bee Action campaign going, with lots of helpful information on their website as well. This website includes an ever-growing list of retailers who have made a commitment not to use or sell neonics. Click here to learn more….

Beyond Pesticides is another group that has been promoting the reduction and elimination of neonics and other unsafe agricultural/horticultural toxins for many years. Their website offers excellent information about gardening and landscaping without toxins, as well as practical ways to nurture and support bees and other native pollinators. Every day there’s a new story; today’s is about Vermont Law School’s new bee-protective policies:


Posted in Garden Prep, Soil, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living | Tagged | Leave a comment

Vegan Garden Entrees

Reveling In Sumptuous Summer Bounty

Small as it is, my little back-deck garden spills over with delicious treats in midsummer. Every day I pick tiny alpine strawberries and plump blueberries for my breakfast, and nearly every meal features fresh greens in some form or other. My son and his wife love to add kale to their breakfast smoothies, but I prefer it in my morning scrambles.

I am fortunate to live in a community where chickens are treated extremely well, living in elegant coops with large roaming yards, plenty of sun and shade choices, and fresh running water. Thus, organic local eggs often appear on my table. For those who don’t eat eggs, morning scrambles are made with crumbles of soft tofu and plenty of just-picked garden vegetables and herbs.

A Vegan Morning Scramble

1 teaspoon olive oil
1/4 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup chopped green beans
1/4 cup halved cherry tomatoes
2-3 ounces soft tofu, crumbled
1 cup stemmed, shredded kale
1 tablespoon minced basil
sprinkle of sea salt or liquid aminos

In a small omelet pan, combine oil, onion, and green beans over medium heat and cook until barely soft (3-4 minutes). Add tomatoes, tofu, and kale, cover pan, reduce heat to medium and cook until kale is barely wilted (2-3 minutes). Add basil and salt to taste and serve hot. Serves 1.

A Gardenly Vegan Brunch Or Lunch

Hot or cold, quinoa makes a splendid base for summery entree salads. Itself rather mild, quinoa quickly absorbs livelier flavors from all sorts of companions, sweet and savory. When I cook quinoa, I usually makes extra to have on hand when unexpected company arrives. Cooked quinoa freezes beautifully and thaws fast, so it’s one of my favorite go-to summer staples.

Healthy and wholesome, this garden-based entree hot salad makes a lovely brunch or light evening meal. Use any beans you prefer, from garbanzos to cannellini, and swap the nectarines for peaches, pears, or apples in season. Add cilantro and salsa to ramp up the flavors or use fresh mint, coriander, cardamon, and nutmeg to give it an Indian twist.

Hot Quinoa Bean Salad with Caramelized Nectarines

1 cup quinoa, rinsed and drained
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
2 shallots, peeled and mashed
4 leaves Buttercrunch or butter head lettuce
1 tablespoon fruity olive oil
2 nectarines, pitted and quartered
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon honey
1-1/2 cups cooked black beans, rinsed and drained
1/2 teaspoon liquid aminos or shoyu
1/2 cup chopped sweet onion
1 cup plain Greek yogurt
1 lime, quartered

In a heavy bottomed saucepan, toast quinoa and cumin seeds over medium high heat until browned (3-5 minutes), shaking often. Add 2 cups water, salt, and mashed shallots, bring to a boil, cover pan, reduce heat to low and cook until tender (15-20 minutes). Meanwhile, arrange lettuce on 4 dinner plates. Heat oil in a frying pan over medium high, add nectarines and brown well (3-4 minutes per side). Add 1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar and honey and cook for 1 minute, stirring to coat. Remove nectarines a bowl. Add beans, remaining balsamic vinegar, and liquid aminos to pan, bring to a boil and cook for 1 minute. Toss beans with cooked quinoa, nectarines and sweet onion and put a scoop on each lettuce leaf. Serve garnished with yogurt and a wedge of lime. Serves four.

A Speedy Summery Entree

This cold salad goes together fast and tastes best at room temperature, so let it stand for a few minutes so the flavors can meld. You can use any vegetables you like, adding more or leaving out anything you don’t have on hand. Vary the fresh herbs (try lemon thyme, lemon verbena, or rosemary), change up the fruit (raspberries are great), and adjust the seasonings to your pleasure!

Chilled Vegan Quinoa Chop Salad

4 cups Romaine lettuce, cut in ribbons
2 cups kale, stemmed and cut in ribbons
1 cup diced tomatoes with juices
1 cup chopped cucumber
1 cup chopped spicy peppers
1 cup blueberries
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped baby carrots
1/2 cup finely chopped red onion
1/4 cup chopped toasted walnuts or peanuts
1 tablespoon coconut aminos
1 tablespoon avocado oil
1 tablespoon minced fresh mint
2-3 teaspoons nutritional yeast
1-2 teaspoons maple syrup
3-4 cups cold cooked quinoa

Combine all ingredients in a large salad bowl, toss gently, let stand for 15-20 minutes and serve at room temperature. Serves 4-6.

Posted in Recipes, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Enjoying Eggplant And Tomatoes

A Marriage Made In Garden Heaven

Plump and lovely, eggplants are kissing cousins to tomatoes and peppers, which may be why they taste so terrific together. From French ratatouille to Italian caponata to Indian curries and Asian-inspired stir fries, these nightshade kin are combined in toothsome ways all over the world. Eggplant is probably the most under-used, which is sad, since chewy slabs of eggplant can even replace meat in vegetarian and vegan recipes, from Greek moussaka to eggplant parmesan.

That natural affinity of flavor is paired with a similar desire for warmth and sunlight. These tropical beauties thrive when summer stays reliably hot and night temperatures remain in the 60s or even higher. In my cool maritime garden, a more typical pattern is for foggy grey mornings to keep chilly night air captive until the marine layer burns off around mid day.

Grafting Is Horticultural Magic

In maritime and cool climate gardens, eggplants and tomatoes and peppers may struggle when temperatures swing or simply fail to climb. For the past few years, I’ve finally had outstanding success with these temperamental tropicals, thanks not to wondrous weather but to the horticultural magic of grafting. When flavorful but cold-sensitive varieties of these veggies are grafted onto sturdy, disease-resistant root stock, good things happen even in my windy, often chilly garden.

I’ve been using slender, tender Ping Tung eggplants in all kinds of dishes this summer. The grafted plants are strong enough to bear the weight of the 10-12 inch eggplants, which turn a lustrous purple as they ripen. Thanks to grafting, I’ve been enjoying tomatoes since June (amazing for my garden). It’s hard to pick a favorite, but for salads, everybody loves the INDIGO Cherry Drops, rosy, black-tinged cherry toms with a sparkling sweet-tart balance. For a gorgeous garnish, I often use INDIGO Pear Drops, with dusky purple shoulders above a glowing golden base. When company’s coming, I decorate the table with trusses of super sweet INDIGO Gold Berries to nibble with a glass of whatever. Plump little INDIGO Blue Chocolate tomatoes are almost dessert like, their rich, juicy sweetness layered with just enough tang to make them mildly addictive.

And Basil Makes Three

Blue Chocolates make an incredible Caprese salad, sliced with tiny balls of fresh mozzarella and pretty little leaves of variegated Pesto Perpetual basil, which brings a citrusy sparkle to the classic combination. This is a gorgeous plant, building into a statuesque bush that’s almost shrubby. Since it doesn’t bloom, fresh foliage never stops forming and the more you pinch, the bushier it gets. With its dainty, silver-tipped, soft jade green foliage, it looks delicate, yet a single plant can fill a half-barrel, towering 3-4 feet high, and will remain productive until frost cuts it down.

My other favorite basil has always been Genovese, with large, smooth leaves that smell and taste like heaven. but this year, I’m trying Bolloso Napoletano, with great, rumpled leaves that are big enough to use as wraps for bite-sized appetizers. They’re awesome with slices of nectarine and ripe brie, or crisp mini peppers and goat cheese, or tiny baby carrots and a dab of hummus….

Menage A Trois

If eggplants and tomatoes make delicious culinary partners, things get even juicier when we toss in some hot or spicy peppers. I especially love them in classic French ratatouille, but to avoid firing up the oven in the heat of summer, I make this stovetop version and serve it hot with fresh local goat cheese and ripe peaches.

Quick Ratatouille

1/4 cup fruity olive oil
3-4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 cup chopped onion
2 cups peeled, diced eggplant
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup thinly sliced red peppers, spicy or hot
2 cups thinly sliced green bell peppers
2 cups chopped zucchini
3 cups diced tomatoes, with juice
1 tablespoon capers, drained
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons shredded fresh basil

In a heavy soup pot, combine 1 tablespoon oil, garlic and onion over medium high heat and cook for 3 minutes. Add eggplant, sprinkle with salt, cover pan, reduce heat to medium low and cook until soft ( 10-15 minutes). If pan gets dry, add oil as needed, 1 tablespoon at a time. Uncover pan, add 1 teaspoon oil and the peppers. Cook, covered, for 5 minutes. Add the zucchini and oil as needed. Reduce heat to low and cook, covered, for 15-20 minutes or until vegetables are tender but not mushy (all shapes should still be distinct). Gently stir in the tomatoes, capers and pepper, heat through for 3-4 minutes and serve hot or at room temperature for fullest flavor, garnished with basil. Serves 4-6.

Grilled Teriyaki Eggplant

Slathered with teriyaki sauce, grilled eggplant is a delightful summer entree and leftovers make amazing sandwiches. This recipe is also great with thickly sliced sweet potatoes or roasted beet rounds. Add as much garlic and ginger as you like, and toss in some fresh herbs such as lemon thyme, fennel greens, or cilantro.

Teriyaki Eggplant

1/4 cup plain rice vinegar
1/4 cup shoyu (Japanese soy sauce)
1 tablespoon honey
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 inch fresh ginger root, peeled and chopped
1 large eggplant, sliced in inch-thick slabs
1/2 cup stemmed cilantro

In a shallow bowl, combine vinegar, shoyu, and honey, stirring to blend. Add garlic and ginger, mix well, and add eggplant slices, turning to coat well. Let eggplant marinate for at least 30 minutes before you start the coals or preheat grill. Set grill high above the coals or in oven, then grill eggplant until soft (6-7 minutes per side), basting with marinade and turning twice. Serve at once, garnished with cilantro. Serves 4-6.

Posted in Recipes, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living, Tomatoes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment