, Hayfever sufferer? Here’s how to create a low-allergen garden, Nzuchi Times

Hayfever sufferer? Here’s how to create a low-allergen garden

The hay fever season is here (it runs from March to September), causing misery for 20 per cent of the UK’s population overall and 37 per cent of teenagers, according to NHS statistics.

Hay fever – caused by pollen – is one of the most common allergies and is often linked with others, particularly food, and respiratory conditions such as asthma. A total of 44 per cent of the British adult population suffers from at least one allergy, with the figures on a steadily upward trend, reports Allergy UK.

For those suffering from such conditions, the outside world, including their own gardens, can inflict torment and pose a serious threat, says garden designer Olivia Kirk.

Kirk started offering low-allergen garden design in 2010 after the National Pollen and Aerobiology Research Unit (NPARU) at the University of Worcester asked her to design such a garden for its coursework. She was already known for creating healing gardens, but low-allergen planting was a new area for her.

“When I began researching it, I was surprised at how little information there was on people’s respiratory responses to plants,” says Kirk, who is also a tutor at the London College of Garden Design at Kew, runs workshops for the Society of Garden Designers, and is a regular contributor to Royal Horticultural Society publications.

“I suggested to NPARU that we showcase the [low-allergen] garden at Chelsea Flower Show because it was such a new horticultural idea.”

The garden won a silver-gilt medal at the 2010 show and proved to be “a eureka moment” for Kirk. “From then on I was on a mission,” she says. “I thought to myself, ‘It’s not right that we’re not training garden designers to be aware of respiratory problems and plants.’ I wanted to give designers the option to create a good look with their plantings without triggering an allergic reaction. 

“I also realised that I can’t design healing gardens without also making them low-allergen, because people who have been through treatment for cancer and very ill children are highly sensitised to their surroundings.”

Go for clever design

Kirk, in her mid-50s and based in Bishops Frome in  Herefordshire, points out that, contrary to most people’s expectations, a low-allergen garden does not have to be dull or exclude most plants. “I’m not here as a bad person telling you that you can’t have a beautiful garden. It’s the opposite, you can create a beautiful paradise.”

It is all to do with clever design and selecting plants and materials that are the least likely to spark an allergic reaction. That still leaves plenty of choice, she says. People are not born with allergies but susceptible individuals develop them if over-exposed to a trigger allergen, especially in childhood. Kirk says this means that people with young families should also carefully consider what they put in their garden.

“Starting with design, I would avoid having a large lawn in case grass triggers an allergy. Instead I’d go for a more cocooned effect, with borders of plantings between you and your neighbours. I’d keep your sitting areas in the middle of the garden, which is nice because you’re creating little oases on a journey through your garden.

It also keeps you cocooned away from any neighbours’ problem trees and shrubs. Pergolas and arbours are also a good way of protecting you from pollen in the air.” She strongly recommends choosing planting over fencing: “It’s much better to have lots of low-allergen plants because they act as a green sink and soak up problem pollen,” she says.

Make it insect friendly

Gravel and decking are preferable to paving because the former traps pollen while the latter has gaps for it to fall through between the boards. Pollen falling on paving will just sit there until the wind stirs it up into the air.

When it comes to plants, those pollinated by wind rather than by insects cause the most problems. And thanks to their sheer size, trees are the biggest culprits, with sycamores, birches and planes of particular concern due to the amount and type of pollen released.

Kirk says council planting schemes over many years have exacerbated the problem. The policy of planting male clone trees rather than “messy” female trees that are prone to spread seeds, fruits and berries onto pavements has resulted in an imbalance.

The air is now full of male pollen floating about seeking out female trees, but because we humans emit an electrical charge, this pollen is likelier to find our mucous membranes – the thin layer of protective tissue found in areas such as the eye and the linings of our nose and throat – than a female tree.

In gardens, Kirk prefers insect-pollinated plants because their pollen is designed to stick to the insect so is much heavier than the wind-borne type, plus it travels much shorter distances.

Insect-pollinated trees, such as many fruit trees, can act as a barrier against neighbouring problem ones. Taller shrubs such as dogwood and hydrangeas can be used to grow up towards the trees and strengthen the barrier.

With hedges, those with small, insect-pollinated flowers, such as Portuguese laurel (Prunus lusitanica), or that are self-fertilising, such as the female holly Ilex aquifolium ‘JC van Tol’ are to be preferred over privet (Ligustrum ovalifolium) which can release clouds of problem pollen, or hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) whose pollen can cross-react with other pollen. For example, someone allergic to birch pollen could find that hornbeam also triggers an adverse response.

Stick to sterile options

Grasses are wind-pollinated so most need to be avoided unless they are sterile varieties. But when it comes to flowers, there is a host of choice for a colourful and insect-friendly garden.

While Kirk warns against the daisy family because they tend to be high pollinators, you still have plenty of choice among low-pollinating and insect-pollinated varieties.

She says: “You could also mix in a few double and sterile flowers that have no pollen, such as some peonies and roses, and Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’. Geranium ‘Rozanne’ is designed to flower on and on, so it has nectar but no pollen.”

Scent can be an issue, however. “Anything quite strongly perfumed can trigger an asthma attack or bring on hay fever. It’s better to have plants with a lighter perfume.”

Such plants can be placed in borders, lessening the possibility of brushing against them but allowing non-allergy suffering members of the family to still be able to enjoy their scent, she says. Strongly scented herbs can also be placed in the centre of a border but still within easy picking reach.

Kirk, whose subsequent gardens have won silver-gilt and gold medals at Chelsea, has now written a low-allergen planting planner in an innovative card format. The cards contain pictures and information for 100 plants in five categories and can be shuffled to create different garden ideas. 

She plans to continue to add follow-up cards to the planner. “I’m on a mission because it’s high time for people to spread the word on this so all of us can enjoy our gardens.”

Top plants for  low-allergen gardens

Olivia Kirk’s favourite plants that are sterile, insect-pollinated or low pollinators: 

, Hayfever sufferer? Here’s how to create a low-allergen garden, Nzuchi Times


Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) is an excellent choice of hedging plant for hayfever sufferers 


Credit: Getty Images / iStockphoto

Trees 

Any fruit trees work well as they are insect-pollinated.

Also try Amelanchier lamarckii, Sorbus aucuparia ‘Cardinal Royal’, Liriodendron tulipifera, and Liquidambar styraciflua for a long season of interest and good screening.

Hedges 

Crataegus monogyna (hawthorn), euonymus and escallonia.

Shrubs 

Magnolia stellata; hydrangeas, especially H. paniculata ‘Grandiflora’; Physocarpus ‘Lady in Red’; and cotinus, if coppiced (which prevents flowering).

Grasses 

Grasses are wind-pollinated, so should be avoided. Exceptions are sterile or low-pollen varieties, such as Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’; panicums, including P. virgatum ‘Shenandoah’; and Pennisetum ‘Fairy Tails’.

Flowers 

Geum, including ‘Totally Tangerine’; Aster × frikartii ‘Mönch’; Helenium ‘Sahin’s Early Flowerer’; salvia; digitalis (foxgloves); echinacea; and  Verbena bonariensis.

The Low Allergen Planting Planner is available from oliviakirkgardens.com

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