Gardeners battle allergies, pollen

Sunday, May 19, 2002

NEW MARKET, Va. -- Gesundheit!

That was a sneeze, wasn't it? A runny nose, too? Irritated eyes? Itchy skin?

Maybe you should take yourself and your allergies out of the garden. Or perhaps you should shape your yard to fit your allergies. Make your little corner of the world a safe haven rather than continue suffering at No. 10 Pollen Place.

If it's any comfort, you're not alone with your irritations. More than 50 million Americans come down each year with allergic diseases, according to the National Institutes of Health. Allergies are the sixth leading cause of chronic disease in the United States, costing the health care system $18 billion annually, the agency says.

Landscapers and gardeners are particularly susceptible to pollen-induced ailments. The yellow dust is released into the air by plants having light, loose pollen. It finds its way into clothing and hair and attic fans and eventually throughout homes.

Inhaling the pollen triggers the typical allergic reactions among members of the asthmatic, hay fever and sinus communities. You can medicate it, retreat indoors until the pollen count goes down or take the offensive by eliminating problem plants from your personal landscape.

Change surroundings

First, however, aim at the right targets. Have some skin testing done by an allergist to determine which allergens, or plants, bother you most.

"Allergies can change over time as can sensitivity. By knowing your allergies, you can begin developing avoidance strategies," researchers at Iowa State University say. "Altering your surroundings can significantly reduce your exposure to allergies (triggers)."

You can locate the pollen count in most daily newspapers alongside the weather map or get it via the Internet. Pollen and mold reports appear on Page 2A in the Southeast Missourian. The numbers provide conditions from localized sampling stations, so your situation may vary by a sneeze or two. But watching the count over time will show a seasonal trend, and you can plan your yard work accordingly.

A pollen count is the average number of pollen grains per meter of air collected during a given time. Pollen counts reflect regional conditions because pollen grains can drift long distances. Pollens and molds vary according to potency. The highest counts come from members of the grass family, ragweed and certain trees.

Check pollen counts

Generally speaking, the higher the pollen count, the more irritated the allergy sufferer. The pollen count for trees ranges from zero to 1,500; for grasses, from zero to 200, and for weeds, from zero to 500. Mold spores are an altogether different animal, and can range from zero to 50,000. Molds and mildews usually are found in cool, dark areas around the house, or in carpeting, chimneys and closets.

Thomas Ogren, in his book "Allergy-Free Gardening" (Ten Speed Press, $19.95), suggests ways gardeners can breathe easier and continue enjoying their favorite hobby.

"I'm not dismissing the fact that certain pollens can blow in from 100 miles, but some don't blow at all," Ogren says. "Many are very localized."

The horticulturist-turned-author-and-lecturer has devised a new Ogren Plant Allergy Scale (OPALS), which was adopted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help post allergy rankings for major cities.

It lists hundreds of trees, flowers, vegetables, houseplants and ornamentals on a 1-to-10 scale for their allergy causing potential. Friendly plants are listed at the low end of the scale; chronic offenders are placed at the highest, or ending at 10.

Most of the allergy-producing transgressors are male plants, which are widely used because they don't litter yards with seeds, fruit or pods, Ogren says. He recommends choosing female plants.

"They're not only valuable because they don't produce pollen, but they're also air scrubbers," he says. "They use an electrical charge to pick up pollen from the air."

Ogren suggests using his plant-by-plant OPALS list to select only those producing the least amount of pollen. He advocates moving eventually toward replacing other plants in your yard that are the heaviest pollen producers.

"Put a chainsaw to them," Ogren says. "You don't have to do it overnight. Do one, then another and another. Every change you make will enhance your personal airspace."

Beyond plant selection, there are other forms of self-defense for allergic gardeners.

"Pollen counts are higher in the early morning in the fall, and in the afternoon in the spring," says the Atlanta Allergy and Asthma Clinic.

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