Asthma-Friendly Gardens

Studies have shown that babies born to mothers who were exposed to high levels of pollen in their last trimester of pregnancy have a much greater chance of developing asthma. One of the major keys to asthma prevention is avoidance.

When you have asthma, the typical garden is not a very friendly place at all. There are mold spores to contend with, and there’s also all that pollen. Typically, gardens have pollen-producing male trees and shrubs and other plants that can provoke asthma attacks. Almost anyone with asthma will tell you that their asthma can be activated by many allergens, or triggers, but pollen is often the number one trigger for causing an attack. Garden allergies are common, but they need not be. If we’re willing to make some simple changes in our environment, allergies caused by gardening can be largely a thing of the past.

In fall of 1999 in Richmond, Virginia, the American Lung Association of Virginia (ALAV) built a new Breathe Easy™ office and headquarters. They had the entire large building constructed with the latest innovations in green construction and sustainable design. No construction materials were used that would off-gas any harmful or toxic chemicals, no materials were used that would trigger asthma or allergies. Every attempt was made to build an environment that would be pleasant and healthy to work in. The people who work in this office now will tell you that it’s a healthy building.

The ALAV decided it would also make perfect sense to landscape their new healthy building (in some states such buildings are now called Health Houses) with an allergy-free landscape. A plant/allergy numerical ranking system called OPALS™ was used to select only plant materials that were either very low in pollen and other allergens or totally pollen and allergen free. In effect they created the first true asthma friendly garden in the U.S.

Health Houses in other states are now also creating pollen free landscapes around their green buildings. A new Health House is about to be built in Pennsylvania, and the Pennsylvania Association of Landscapers and Nurserymen is helping to surround it with an asthma-friendly landscape. Schools, too, are getting into the clean air act. In 2004 in the city of Visalia, California, the Tulare County Asthma Coalition directed the asthma-friendly landscaping of a newly built elementary school.

Here are twelve keys to building your own asthma-friendly garden:

  1. Plant lots of female trees and shrubs. Not only will these not shed pollen, they will also trap a good deal of pollen that may float in from somewhere else. Think of these female plants as nature’s air cleaners.
  2. Use only low-pollen or no-pollen lawns. In southern states, if you have a common Bermuda grass lawn, consider replacing it with a newer, more asthma-friendly hybrid Bermuda grass. ‘Princess 77’ is a new Bermuda grass hybrid that can be planted from seed. It is next to pollen free, grows very low and tight, and is especially good looking.
  3. With OPALS™ 1 is best, 10 is worst. Use only plants with rankings of 1 to 5. The more plants in your gardens that have rankings ranging from 1 to 3, the friendlier your place will be for anyone with allergies or asthma.
  4. Remove any trees or shrubs with rankings over OPALS™ 7. The woody landscape plants with rankings of 8 to 10 are all sure-fire allergy triggers. You can live without them.
  5. Replace high-pollen, asthma-triggering plants with their opposites, female trees or shrubs. Other good replacements are perfect flowered plants that are known to be very low pollen producers. These will have good (low) OPALS™ rankings.
  6. Use only plants that are well adapted to your own area. If you can find natives that have low allergy rankings, consider using them. Walk around your neighborhood and see for yourself which kinds of plants seem to be flourishing there and which trigger your asthma. For almost every kind of plant used in landscaping, there is now a no or low pollen version.
  7. Use a wide variety of plant materials. Diversity is good and biodiversity always makes sense. The more diverse our gardens are, the fewer problems we’ll have with insects and molds.
  8. Avoid plants with strong fragrances or odors, as they can cause asthma. Don’t plant jasmines or similar vines next to entrances or exits and certainly don’t plant them beneath bedroom windows.
  9. To cut down on toxic mold spores, use rock or gravel instead of bark for mulch.Flat stones or pavers also make good, mold-free mulching materials.
  10. To further eliminate mold spores, encourage wild birds to visit your garden. Insect damage triggers outbreaks of mold, and wild birds eat insects. Even the tiny hummingbirds actually eat a large number of insects. Put up a hummingbird feeder!
  11. Keep your plants healthy. This, too, will cut down on both pollen and mold. When it is hot and windy, irrigate your garden or lawn. Fertilize everything in the garden in the spring and fall. If plants are crowding each other too much, thin them out. If tree branches overhead are putting your whole yard in deep shade, consider having the tree thinned to let in more light. Fresh air and light are the enemies of molds.
  12. If a tree, shrub, vine or any other plant always looks sickly or dirty, or always attracts bugs, then shovel prune it. That is, dig it up and get rid of it. Replace it with something easier to grow. Don’t get caught up in having to spray insecticides all the time, as they, too, can easily trigger asthma and allergies.

Make your garden a fun, stress free zone. Be sure to have a few comfortable garden chairs to sit in, and a little table is always good, too. Wind chimes, bird feeders, and birdbaths can add greatly to your enjoyment. A beautiful, pollen-free, allergy-free, asthma friendly garden can be just the place for healthy children to play and a healthy place for anyone to relax and enjoy the great outdoors. For more advice on low allergen gardening, look up allergy-free gardening on the Internet or go to your local library and read some books on this new and important subject.