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The Plant Doctor: The dirt on gardening and allergies:bad mix

With the coming of spring, many gardeners can be assured of two things: the urge to put away the snow shovel and bring out the rake, and encountering a vast variety of airborne pollen that settles on everything in sight, including the gardener’s nose.

Between sneezing and wheezing, the gardener attempts to cope with his or her first love, preparing the garden for spring planting and the beauty that will follow during the summer.

Allergies are a misguided immune response, or in this case, a reaction to common airborne substances such as pollen and mold. Pollen encases the sperm nuclei, and is a major adaptation for sexual reproduction for land plants. The countless dust-like particles released in the air are not searching for your nose, rather, they hope to encounter the female receptacle, usually the stigma portion of the pistillate flower.

However, when you inhale the offending allergen, your immune system releases histamine and other inflammatory substances, resulting in swollen sinuses, itchy eyes, and other annoyances.

It is estimated that 35 million people are affected by seasonal allergies. The most common agent for the “hay fever” sufferer, as indicated previously, is the pollen produced by wind-pollinated plants. Grasses, weeds and many trees produce phenomenal amounts of pollen that can travel for miles and are easily inhaled. Fortunately, most vegetable and ornamental plants are self-pollinating or insect pollinated, resulting in very little airborne pollen.

The peak season is June to early frost when most pollen-producing plants are in full bloom…but don’t tell that to allergy sufferers who begin to sneeze and feel miserable in May.

Coping with seasonal allergies obviously begins with minimizing your exposure to allergens. Some suggestions include: gardening in late morning or early afternoon, when pollen counts are less. Cool, cloudy days result in less pollen exposure, also.

Head indoors when the wind picks up, particularly when it is hot and dry. Windy days stir up the pollen that has settled on the ground, making exposure far more likely.

Although the view of gardeners with goggles or masks is something out of science fiction, it does work—you be the judge, appearance or discomfort.

Avoid touching your eyes and nose while in the garden and wash your hands thoroughly when the task is completed. While washing your hands, consider laundering your outdoor gardening clothing—frequently.

Finally, the route most often taken by those who will not give up gardening because of the pesky allergen, is a trip to an allergy specialist who will determine what substances you are most allergic to, and prescribe an appropriate medication that will inhibit the production of histamines and other reactions that cause allergy symptoms. The arsenal for treating allergies improves each year and includes a regimen of immunotherapy shots that can lessen the symptoms in severe cases, to cortisone nasal sprays that clear nasal congestion and sinus inflammation.

With prudence, patience and common sense, there is no reason why allergies should stop your itch to garden.

Good luck…“achoo”…bless you.

Questions or concerns about houseplants or gardening may be addressed by e-mail to

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