Designing A Low Pollen Garden
Are you waking up with a scratchy throat and itchy eyes? Do you sneeze explosively in little bursts several times a day? Got a low-grade headache most of the time? Ears block up often? Though allergic responses are idiosyncratic, these are very common symptoms of over-exposure to pollen. In June, grasses are the usual culprits, though some trees and weeds are also cranking out the guy stuff. Massive pollen shed is linked with plant stress, with many contributing factors. Excess or unseasonal cold and/or heat, increasing drought and/or heavy rains and flooding, unusual amounts of ice and snow, all can induce plants that feel threatened to produce extra pollen in an effort to save themselves (or really their species) through their offspring.
Folks who aren’t sensitive to pollen may not notice these super pollen events until their cars, decks, outdoor furniture, and walkways are crusted with greeny-yellowy pollen. This can be almost as annoying ad an allergy to the tidy-minded, who might appreciate learning that the best way to get pollen off cars and other painted surfaces is to wet it down, then use a combination of dish soap and warm water with a soft cloth. Scrubbing and harsher detergents can damage the paint and won’t get the pollen off as well either.) Whether you’re sneezing or seething, it’s worth taking some time to learn which garden plants are least likely to dump pollen and to trigger those inconvenient sensitivities.
Finding Helpful Information
Though few gardening references include information about how much pollen a particular plant sheds, a book called Allergy-Free Gardening by Thomas Leo Ogren is a reliable resource. In it (and on his website) Ogren offers both plant lists and strategies for pollen avoidance. For starters, most heavy pollen shedders are male. Thus, we can seek out shrubs and perennials with big, showy, scentless or lightly scented blossoms. These tend to be female and/or pollinated by critters rather than wind. Pollen-rich, wind-pollinated flowers (candidates for allergy triggers) tend to be small and less vividly colorful, so eye-catching showboats are safer bets. So are bird-friendly plants, which are generally pollinated by nectar-seeking birds. If your allergies are acute, pick sterile hybrids of any kind, from ornamentals to annuals, since they don’t produce pollen at all.
There are plenty of good perennial candidates for the low-pollen garden, including the following:
Acanthus (bear’s breeches), Achillea (yarrow), Agastache (anise hyssop), Alchemilla (lady’s mantle), Anemone (windflower), Aquilegia (columbine), Astrantia (masterwort), Cynara (cardoon), Erysimum (wallflower), Eupatorium (jo pie weed), Gaura (wandflower), Geranium, Heuchera (coral bells), Hosta, Kniphophia (poker plant), Lavatera (tree mallow), Lythrum (loosestrife), Nepeta (catmint), Oenothera (evening primrose), Penstemon (beardtongue), Perovskia (Russian sage), Phlomis (Jerusalem sage), Phormium (New Zealand flax), Phygelius (cape fuchsia), Potentilla (cinquefoil), Rheum (rhubarb), Salvia (sage), Sedum (stonecrop), Sisyrinchium (blue-eyed grass), Verbena (vervain), Veronica (speedwell), Yucca (Spanish bayonet).
Adding Annuals And Edibles
Annuals are often bred for dazzle and many produce little or no pollen, including the new sunflowers that are bred from low-pollen species to avoid getting tablecloths dirty when table arrangements include sunflowers (!). Among the most reliable low-pollen annuals are: Calendula (pot marigold), Clarkia (winecup), Cosmos, Eschscholzia (California poppy), Godetia (satin flower), Nigella (love-in-a-mist), Lunaria (silver dollar plant), Meconopsis (Welsh poppy), Petunia, Tagetes (marigold), Verbena (vervain), Viola (pansy), and of course my favorite Zinnias.
As for edibles, most root vegetables are harvested before they flower, so their pollen is not an issue. Both crucifers (broccoli, cabbage, kale, etc.) and alliums (chives, garlic, leeks, onions, shallots) are seldom troublesome pollen producers, and while some herbs shed lots of pollen (notably chamomile and artemisias), many others do not. Many pollen-sensitive folks can enjoy growing basil, chives, dill, mint, thyme, lavender, fennel, parsley and rosemary without pollen issues. (While many people are sensitive to lavender, sensitivity to fragrant plants is not usually pollen related.)
As for those dratted grasses, some (like turf grasses) are indeed major offenders in the pollen-shedding category. This isn’t the only reason that I encourage people to reduce or eliminate lawns, but it’s certainly a factor for all of us who prefer not to be allergic to June. Turf grass sensitivities can usually be reduced by regular mowing, but weedy and ornamental grasses are another story. Here again, some are major pollen producers (Johnson grass, orchard grass, Timothy grass), while others are generally far less problematic. Happily quite a few ornamental grasses produce only modest amounts of pollen. Here’s a list of beautiful garden grasses that are less likely to trigger allergies:
Anemanthele lessoniana (pheasant tail grass), Arrhenatherum elatius (oatgrass), Bamboo, Briza (rattlesnake grass), Carex (sedge grass), Elymus (lime grass), Nassella tenuissima (Mexican feather grass), Panicum (panic grass).
Go For Girly Shrubs
Shrubs are of course a key element in garden design and as such, can definitely not be left out of the picture. As with mowing the lawn, clipping shrubs and shearing hedges before they bloom are good ways to eliminate allergic reactions to pollen. However, it’s far simpler to replace heavy pollen producers with less stressful plants. For instance, if you love willows (a notoriously heavy pollen producing clan), plant a corkscrew willow, or the weeping form called Weeping Sally, both of which are females. If you hope to avoid excessive pollen exposure from all your shrubs, consider planting some or all of these handsome shrubs:
Aronia (chokeberry), Berberis (barberry), Callicarpa (beautyberry),
Ceanothus (California lilac), Chaenomeles (quince), Cornus (twiggy dogwood), Escallonia, Fuchsia, Holodiscus (ocean spray), Kolkwitzia (beautybush), Lonicera (shrubby honeysuckle), Nandina (false bamboo), Oemleria (Indian plum), Philadelphus (mock orange),
Physocarpus (ninebark), Potentilla (cinquefoil), Rosa (rose), Rosemarinus (rosemary), Santolina (cotton lavender), Spirea,
Symphoricarpos (snowberry), Vaccinium (blueberry, huckleberry),
Viburnum (guelder rose).
Of course, allergy responses can be idiosyncratic; what triggers many may not bother any given individual, and our particular triggers can be both specific and uncommon. The best way to figure out what to avoid is to pay close attention to your body and to develop a good nose for triggers. Keep track while weeding to discover which weeds set you off and mulch areas where the worst offenders are usually found to discourage seed sprouting. And what about the bees? Consider planting a pollinator patch or several, tucked into out of the way areas, and/or allow pollen-rich plants that aren’t triggers for you to flourish as well. Onward!