'Safe sex in the garden' and other flowery matters

Michelle Berriedale-Johnson has a sniff around Chelsea Flower Show

Even 'normal' exhibitors at Chelsea Flower Show are given a cough by the vast amount of pollen generated by the show and by the huge plane trees which overhang the Royal Hospital grounds. So pity those exhibitors - or indeed visitors - who suffer from hay fever or asthma - up to 35% of the population, according to latest estimates. Given those figures it seems extraordinary that low allergen gardening - and such a thing is certainly possible - scarcely features at Chelsea, the nations's premier garden show. With the honourable exception of the Shelter Garden (and even that did not mention its low allergen potential anywhere in the programme) there were no show gardens or displays suitable for hay fever, asthma or eczema sufferers - but many which reduced many onlookers to snuffling wrecks!

But hopefully, this may soon change. Lucy Huntington's excellent book, Creating a Low Allergen Garden, came out in a new edition last year. This year, Californian landscape designer Tom Ogren published his second allergy-free book, Safe Sex in the Garden. In this he berates town planners and garden designers alike for planting 'tidy' male trees which do not litter the streets and gardens with fruits and seeds but effectively banish hay fever and asthma sufferers to locked rooms during the pollen season.

There are a few very basic concepts you need to grasp if you want a low allergen garden.

1. All male plants produce pollen in order to fertilise female plants and ensure the continuation of the species.

To get the pollen to the females male plants use insects (very 'tidy' pollen carriers who collect from the male and deliver to the female 'dropping' very little into the atmosphere on the way) - and the wind.

Because the wind is a very untargeted deliverer of pollen, the plants using wind (some trees and shrubs and most grasses) produce millions of pollen grains which need to be very light and buoyant to be carried to a female maybe miles away. Not all of these pollen grains are allergenic but many are and because of the sheer quantity released into the atmosphere, it is almost impossible to avoid them.

Female trees on the other hand, far from wishing to cast their seed to the winds, wish to attract and keep seeds to fertilise themselves, so, for those allergic to pollen, are a far better bet.

2. Fungal or mould sores grow on dead or decaying material such as compost heaps and rotting wood.

The spores, many of which are highly alelrgenic, are also dispersed in their millions by the wind in the late summer and autumn.

NB Ferns also produce spores on the base of their leaves but these are botanically different from pollen and mould and may, especially if you can find sterile cultivars which produce very few spores, be fine.

3. Scented plants may cause some allergic people to react...

... and should be treated with caution.

These three concepts (plus the contact allergic reactions some people may suffer when touching certain plants) are investigated in some detail in the two books listed below, both of which also give useful advice on planning a low allergen garden for yourself and A-Zs of low allergen plants.

Tom Ogren has devised his own allergy rating (from 1=best to 10=worst) for a very wide range of common plants. Both authors also have excellent credentials for giving such advice: Lucy Huntington designed three low-allergen gardens for Chelsea in the early 1990s under the auspices of the National Asthma Campaign while Tom Ogren is a landscape designer who lives with a family of asthmatics and hay fever sufferers.

Meanwhile..... We at Foods Matter are doing our best to encourage designers of next year's show gardens at Chelsea to think about allergy sufferers (who are often keen, if frustrated, gardeners) and to include at least one garden which is allergy free - thereby not only making us all very happy but raising the profile of allergy sufferers within the gardening world.

Creating a Low Allergen Garden, by Lucy Huntington

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 2003


Articles on allergen-free gardening



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