For myself, gardening is enjoyable all year long. Others, however, are not so fortunate. Seasonal allergies can stop some people in their tracks with sneezing attacks, watery eyes and noses or an inability to breathe. Spring begins the allergy season with the pollen of ash, birch, elm, hickory, and other trees. Late spring and summer brings problems with grasses. Summer and fall continues the agony with numerous weeds such as dock, ragweed and amaranth.
People who are unaware of their particular allergies often want to blame plants with bright, fragrant flowers even though these are often not the culprit. The plants that often cause allergies are those whose pollen is windborne and have inconspicuous flowers. Brightly colored, fragrant flowers have heavy pollen that need insects for transfer. Unfortunately, highly susceptible people may be affected by insect pollinated plants as well.
The first step in gardening with allergies is to identify the plants which cause problems. Allergies can change over time as can sensitivity. By knowing your allergies you can begin developing avoidance strategies. Altering your surroundings can significantly reduce your exposure to your allergies (triggers). The microenvironment you create for yourself may not help much on windy days at the peak of your allergy season, but it should help at other times. Utilize plants throughout the landscape that do not cause problems for your allergies. If you have allergies to tree pollen, your yard may be sunnier than your neighbors. If grasses cause problems, avoid large expanses of lawn.
Once you know your triggers and have employed all the avoidance strategies you care to, then you can plan your outdoor activities accordingly. The American Academy of Allergy and Immunology ("United States Pollen Calendar," 611 E. Wells St., Milwaukee, WI 53202; 800-822-ASMA (2762)) offers a calendar indicating the average bloom period of many plants. Your doctor can help in this area as well. Knowing when your particular allergies are likely to flare up can help you plan major garden projects.
Pollen counts from the previous day are often published in local newspapers. Pollen forecasts are commonly given with the weather report. Both counts reflect conditions at particular sampling points, so individual situations may differ somewhat. Some people's allergies are worse in the morning, others in the afternoon and evening. Wind, humidity, and cloudy conditions all play a role in allergic responses as well. If you do venture out during times of high pollen counts, a small mesh face mask might help as will goggles and a head scarf. Showering immediately after prolonged exposure and changing into clean clothing is also helpful. If allergies are a part of your life, following some of the above suggestions may help you enjoy the gardening season and the outdoors a little more comfortably.
This article originally appeared in the August 25, 1995 issue, p. 129.