An allergy-free gardener roams the Chelsea Flower Show

Tom Ogren makes his first visit to Chelsea. Find Tom at

This past May 18th I had the pleasure of visiting the Chelsea Flower Show on press day, ahead of the crowds, when all was fresh and new. I went as an aide to Ann Davies, the lady who, more than any other, over the years has made sure that the Chelsea Show is accessible to the handicapped, especially to those in wheelchairs.

Jacob's Ladder garden at Chelsea 2009


Chelsea in 2009 had several recurring themes: going green and global warming, making do with less in a rocky economy, and education. These three are all worthy goals, certainly, but I was curious as to what Chelsea offered those folks with serious allergy concerns. I saw no allergy-free food being served, anywhere, no gluten-free or dairy-free offerings, although it is possible there were some and that I missed them. I also saw zero emphasis being placed on low-pollen landscapes, on pollen-free landscapes, in fact on any kind of landscape that was designed to be friendly to those with allergies.

There were demonstrations of living walls, water gardens, fragrance gardens, and edible gardens, an entire garden filled with gaudy, fake flowers, a garden created by homeless people (great idea that one!), and many filled with lavish bronze garden sculptures, but no allergy-free gardens.

And perhaps I might not have felt so slighted had not so many of the demonstration gardens been filled with extremely high allergy plants. Silver birch trees were in superabundance, never mind that they are now well known to trigger numerous springtime allergies.

A tall, narrow-growing male clone of English bay was also much in evidence. Bay trees are not normally much of an allergy problem, but these new male-clonal ones will be.

Olive trees (very allergenic pollen) were, seemingly, in every other Chelsea demo garden, even though olive trees really don’t grow worth a hoot in the UK. Olive trees, and red-flowered bottle-brush trees (another species with exceptionally allergenic pollen) were both featured in numerous demo gardens, along with some none-too-pretty, sneezy-weedy-looking white-flowered umbels that reminded me of sneezeweed, or at best, wild parsley.

In the press booth where literature was being passed out, I picked up a sheet from an English agricultural school, Writtle College, and saw that they claimed, because of global warming, ‘warm-winter species such as olive and bottlebrush were now being widely grown in the UK’.

Tom in his garden in California - with Kestrel

I would say instead, that it is because these two species have become trendy, and that when a really cold winter arrives, it will (with luck) kill off most of these half-hardy trees. Trendy plants are always a big thing in horticulture – if it’s ‘in’, people plant it.

Last year, in New Zealand, I also saw widespread new plantings of both bottlebrush and olive trees. Part of an unwelcome landscape trend, and one that, as is all too common, ignores the needs and concerns of those with allergies and asthma.

But all was not amiss per allergy-free gardening at Chelsea. Inside the big-tented area was the most glorious display of flowers from UK growers. Nary a one of them was promoting any plants as allergy-friendly, and yet some of them indeed were. I saw many fabulously handsome double-flowered, pollen-free begonias on display while, at the totally awesome display of clematis from Thorncroft Clematis Nursery, I discovered that they had three different pollen-free clematis cultivars in their catalogue. One of these allergy-free clematis, ‘Early Sensation’, is an all-female plant (thus no pollen) with bright white flowers and rich green foliage.

Thorncroft Nurseries' clematis

I hope to go to Chelsea again. It is indeed an impressive flower show, about as fine as they get I expect, but next time, hopefully, there will at least be an attempt made to have some gardens designed for those with allergies or asthma.

If the right designer knows what to look for, there are hundreds of marvellous plant choices of pollen-free (usually all-female) plants, and it would be great to see a pollen-free display garden at the Chelsea Flower Show.

You can find all of Tom's books on allergen-free gardening here on Amazon in the UK and here on Amazon in the US.

First published in 2009

Articles on allergen-free gardening


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