Landscaping With Low-Allergy Plants

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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:

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2 Responses to Landscaping With Low-Allergy Plants

  1. Linda Driver says:

    I take the Kitsap Sun newspaper and wanted more information on growing winter Kale. However, I don’t know if I want to subscribe and receive mail regularly. How do I grow a winter garden of Kale and where do I get the seeds or plants?

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      Hi Linda,

      Kale does very well in our area and starts can be planted now–or over the next month–for winter harvest. It’s probably too late to grow starts from seed at this point, but we never know what kind of fall and winter weather we’ll have, so it may be worth a try. Space the starts 2 feet apart in good garden soil with plenty of sun, and water them regularly until the autumn rains return. Good luck!

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