Creating Asthma-Free Gardens by Tom Ogren

When you have asthma, the typical garden is not a very friendly place because pollen producing male trees, shrubs and other plants can trigger asthma attacks.Being allergic to the landscape surrounding your home and workplace could be a thing of the past, if some simple changes are made.

In fall of 1999 in Richmond, Virginia the American Lung Association of Virginia (ALAV) built a new Breathe Easy' office and headquarters. They had this entire large building constructed with the latest innovations in green construction and sustainable design. No materials were used that would cause the emission of gases or any other toxic chemicals and no materials were used that would trigger asthma or allergies. The people who work in this office will tell you that they all notice how their respiratory health has greatly improved.

The ALA decided it would make perfect sense to landscape their new healthy building (in some states these are now called Health Houses) with an allergy free landscape. OPALS' (the plant/allergy 1-10 numerical ranking system) was used to select only those plant materials that were either very low pollen, low allergy, or that were totally pollen and allergy free. In effect, they created the first true asthma friendly garden in the US. Twelve keys to building your own asthma friendly garden:
1. Plant lots of female trees and female shrubs. Not only will these not shed any pollen, they will also trap a good deal of pollen that may stay in from somewhere else. Think of these female plants as nature's air cleaners.
2. Use only low pollen or no pollen lawns. There are types of lawns now that are pretty well pollen free and these are a big improvement over some of the older lawn varieties. 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. OPALS' 1 is best, 10 is worst. Use only plants with rankings of 1-5. The more plants in your garden that have rankings ranging from 1-3, 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 8-10 are all sure-fire allergy triggering plants and you can live without them.
5. Replace any removed high pollen, asthma triggering plants with their opposite, female trees or female shrubs. Also good as replacements are perfect flowered plants that are known to be very low pollen producers. These will all 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. For almost every kind of plant used in landscaping, there is now a no or low pollen version of it, if you know what to look for.
7. Use a wide variety of plant materials; diversity is good. 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 use them underneath bedroom windows.
9. For mulch, use rock or gravel instead of bark to cut down on toxic mold spores in the garden. Flat stones or pavers also make good, mold free mulching materials.
10. To further eliminate mold spores, encourage wild birds in your garden. Virtually all wild birds eat insects, and insect damage triggers outbreaks of mold. Even the tiny hummingbirds actually eat a large number of insects. Put up a hummingbird feeder!
11. Keep your plants healthy. When it is hot and windy, irrigate. Fertilize everything in the garden spring and fall. Fresh air and light are the enemies of molds.
12. If a tree, shrub, vine or any other plant always looks sickly, looks dirty, or always attracts bugs, then 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 cause asthma and allergies.

Tom Ogren is the author of five published books, including: “Allergy free Gardening, Safe Sex in the Garden” (Ten Speed Press), and “What the Experts May NOT Tell You About: Growing the Perfect Lawn” (AOL Time Warner Books). Tom has an MS degree in Agriculture-Horticulture, taught landscape gardening for twenty years, owned and operated two wholesale retail nurseries, and in northern Minnesota was host of the popular Public Radio call-in gardening show, "Tom Ogren's Wild World of Plants!" You can contact Tom through his website, at: