Gardening with Allergies

Ahchoo!   Summer is here, plants are in leaf and flower, and lots of folks are sneezing.  The cause of much of this allergy misery? Contact with grains of plant pollen. What to do if you are among this sensitive lot and you still like to garden? If you want grow your own veggies or plant a garden to help pollinators, are you just making your allergy woes worse? Is there such a thing as allergy-free gardening?

Well, there’s good news and bad news, as they say. The good news is that growing your own fruits, vegetables, and many kinds of flowers is not likely to exacerbate your allergy problems. The bad news – you’re still probably going to encounter some symptom-inducing pollen when you’re outdoors, regardless of what plants you decide to grow.

To understand why, we need to start with a little background info on pollination, the process by which pollen grains produced by the male parts of a flower are transferred to the female parts of the same or a different flower, leading to the eventual formation of seeds.  The flowers of some plants are perfect, meaning each blossom carries both male and female parts, while other kinds of plants may have separate male and female flowers on the same plant. Some plants are dioecious, meaning that male and female flowers are borne on completely different plants. The plants with only male flowers produce pollen exclusively, while those with only female flowers bear only fruits and seeds.

Some plants rely on living creatures called pollinators to move their pollen for them. Pollinators are most often insects such as bees, but in some cases birds and even bats act as pollinators! Plants with showy, fragrant, nectar-rich flowers, whether on trees (like apple trees), flowering shrubs (like lilacs), or flowering annuals and perennials, generally have heavy pollen that needs to be moved from one flower to another by pollinators, which is why the plants expend their energy producing blossoms and scent to attract these needed creatures.

Other plants simply toss their pollen out on the breeze and depend on the wind to carry it to receptive female flower parts. Because they don’t need to attract pollinators, their flowers are not showy or fragrant. But because this method isn’t directed, the wind-pollinated plants need to produce large quantities of light-weight pollen in the hope that a small portion will reach its intended targets. Wind-pollinated plants include grasses, many weeds (like ragweed), and nearly all conifers, along with a great many broadleaf trees like aspens, cottonwoods, oaks, ashes, elms, birches, and olives. (And just to keep things interesting, some plants use both strategies to some degree!)

These wind-pollinated plants are the ones causing allergy problems because their pollen is traveling through the air, often for long distances – and up into people's noses. However, not all wind-borne pollen has the same allergenic potential. For example, oak, birch, pigweed and ragweed pollen is considered highly allergenic, while pine and spruce pollen is less so. For those plants that are dioecious, the male plants are the trouble makers, allergy-wise, because every flower they bear is a pollen-producing male. Seedless male clone tree varieties are popular for street and landscape plantings of trees whose female flowers produce a messy litter of fruits and seedpods, for example ash and mulberry (e.g. “seedless” ash and “fruitless” mulberry varieties are pollen-producing male clones).

The pollinator-dependent plants with their showy flowers are generally less of a problem for allergy sufferers because their heavy pollen isn't carried on the wind. This means that most flower and vegetable gardens don't contribute much to allergy issues. Sweet corn is wind-pollinated, but most other vegetables are insect or self-pollinated or are harvested before they produce pollen-bearing flowers (for example, carrots and spinach). And since showy flowers are the point of flower gardens, most of these plants generally do not cause big problems for allergy sufferers. Of course, if you bury your nose into a blossom to enjoy its fragrance, you’ll be exposing your sensitive nose to pollen. And it’s probably best to skip cutting flowers for indoor bouquets that may shed some pollen indoors.

But what about goldenrod, you may be wondering. Isn’t this plant with its showy flowers the cause of lots of late summer sneezing and misery? The answer, actually, is no. Goldenrod has heavy pollen that is ferried from flower to flower by pollinators like bees and butterflies. The real culprit is usually ragweed, a wind-pollinated plant with nondescript, greenish flowers that blooms at the same time as goldenrod. Its highly allergenic pollen wafting on the breeze bedevils hay fever sufferers, while the more eye-catching goldenrod, unfairly, takes the blame. 

When you’re choosing plants for your home landscape or schoolyard, it’s a good idea to keep their allergenic potential in mind. When choosing dioecious plants like most ashes and junipers, skip male tree clones and select a female, pollen-free clone, if available. (Check garden references or consult knowledgeable garden store staff to find out which kinds and varieties of plants are wind-pollinated and dioecious.) You’ll probably also want to give ornamental grasses a pass. Take care to locate allergenic wind-pollinated trees and shrubs away from building foundations to reduce the chance of pollen blowing indoors when windows and doors are open. And be sure to keep weeds under control, especially ragweed!

But keep in mind that what's growing in the vicinity of your home or school landscape can also contribute to your allergy woes, and unfortunately, there is not much you can do to stop this “traveling” pollen from reaching your property on the wind. Wearing a mask outdoors when pollen counts are high may help keep you more comfortable, and promptly showering and washing the clothing you wore after outdoor activities will help keep pollen from making its way indoors. Pollen counts are generally highest in the morning, so scheduling gardening or other outdoor activities later in the day may also help.     

If seasonal allergies make you miserable, a visit to an allergist for testing can help you identify the specific plants that are most problematic for you and let you fine-tune your plant choices. Finally, check out the website of Thomas Ogren. He is a widely recognized expert in this area and has written a book on allergy-free gardening that rates a wide variety of plants according to their allergenic potential.

And, between the sneezes, enjoy those homegrown fruits and veggies!

School Garden Tip #5: Try Something New

The way that our school garden program is set up, each grade level has a different focus and different planting activities, which means that we could easily implement the exact same program every year and it would still be something new for the students. I will be the first to admit there would be benefits to keeping everything the same. It would eliminate the need for new handouts to be created, all of the teachers would be trained and know exactly what to expect with answers ready for common questions, left over seeds could be used (many seeds will germinate long after the sell by date listed on their packets) and it would be easier to predict the amount of volunteer labor needed and when it would be needed. Despite these added conveniences, my last school garden tip for you is to make sure to try something new every garden season. It could be a small change, like trying a new type of vegetable, or a big change like trying a different garden theme. But regardless of the size, I think there are two main reasons for shaking things up on a regular basis:

1. There is always room for improvement. Although finding time to evaluate your garden season at the end of the year seems like one more thing to do on top of an already long list, it is important to take time to gather feedback from students, teachers and garden volunteers and allow them to reflect on their experiences and give them a chance to provide suggestions for future gardens.

You can click here to download a copy of the end of the year survey that our school used this year. From this survey, I discovered that the most common responses for what they learned about growing a garden was that “it takes a long time” and “is hard work.” We had a beautiful crop of tomatoes this year with very few disease or insect problems, so quite honestly this was not the response I was expecting. However, I guess that by starting the plants from seed, transplanting them as they got larger, helping move them in and out of the building for a couple of weeks to help harden them off, planting and then making sure to keep them watered (we had a very dry spring so they needed a lot of irrigation water this year), allowed the students to get an up-close look at the work involved in growing your food.

Honestly, I was delighted with this answer. Not that I want them to think gardening is too much work (and since most of them mentioned how they were excited for next year and could not wait to grow an even bigger garden, I don’t think that was the case), but I do think it is important for kids to have a better appreciation of the farmers who keep our markets and grocery store shelves stocked. I hope this will increase the students’ perceived value of fresh fruits and vegetables and maybe encourage them to eat more.

I also think most of them enjoyed the added responsibility, and I know they were so proud of what they accomplished. That being said, perhaps we do need to spend a little more time on talking about the plant life cycle so that can get mentioned as an important lesson learned too. Through this survey I also got a lot of great ideas for next year. For instance, we had a lot of requests for strawberry plants so I hope to be able to make that happen next year.

Want more information on evaluating your garden program? The National School Garden Network recently hosted a webinar on “Measuring Impact” that provided a lot of great ideas, and the archive of the presentation will soon be available on their website.

2. The second reason to add something new to your garden each year is to keep it fun, not for the kids, but for you! Although with variables like weather and critters, you will never have the exact same gardening experience again, adding something new each year increases the interest and excitement of teachers and volunteers, translating into a contagious enthusiasm that shines through as they work with the students. It is a win for everyone!

In our fourth grade gardens this year we planted something new, Dragon’s Tail radish (pictured above), an Asian heirloom plant grown for edible seed pods rather than its roots and oops, I did not read the description very closely (some how I missed that they produce 3’ to 4’ tall plants), and they took over our vegetable gardens. The kids had an absolute blast with them. In addition to being large, they had beautiful flowers, colorful pods (although the consensus was that they looked more like rat tails) and a great spicy flavor. The teachers were as enthralled with watching them grow as the kids, and everyone wanted to try to save seeds to grow some at home. Just adding something a little unusual really added to the excitement of our spring garden.

So just to recap, here were my top 5 school garden tips:

Thanks for reading! I promise to take my advice and write about something new next time!

Creative Kids Help Bees

Do you ever wonder where your creativity went? I am constantly amazed by the ideas children come up with when faced with a creative challenge. We adults rarely seem as clever.

I have a lot of theories on why we appear to think less creatively as we grow into adulthood. I could share these with you. Or I could tell you what one teacher in Pennsylvania is doing to inspire and reward creativity in her students. She sets a great example for educators across the country who hope to cultivate creativity in their students and empower children to take action on issues and challenges that matter to them.

This year Cynthia Kravatz and her students at Coebourn Elementary School in Brookhaven, Pennsylvania focused on “Going Green. ” They used KidsGardening’s Carton 2 Garden Contest to create a tangible product to demonstrate what they were learning and share their new knowledge with family and friends. For this, they were awarded with the Contest’s Sustainability Award.

With a focus on pollinators and a desire to help support declining pollinator populations, students created Mason Bee houses from repurposed milk cartons for their schoolyard and community members. Close to two hundred bee boxes were spread throughout the community in garden areas. Cynthia says, “Students were eager to hang them in their gardens after learning that Mason males never sting and Mason females only sting if threatened or squished.”

The Mason Bee house project is a STEM project. Students started by examining a purchased bamboo Mason Bee house. Later they watched video clips about Mason Bees and did further research about the life cycle and habits of these bees. Groups designed prototypes using only cartons. They shared their prototypes with some local gardeners who have certified pollinator gardens and experience building wooden Mason Bee houses. From them, the students learned that their prototype houses were not deep enough and needed an overhang to protect the bees from weather. Students used this information to redesign a bee house that better fit the needs of Mason Bees.

Through this project, students learned very important lessons about biodiversity and sustainable practices. Participation in this project allowed students to hone their problem-solving skills on real world problems and gave them the chance to positively impact their environment.

“Pollinators have become a buzz topic in the gardening world,” says Cynthia. “I feel our problem-solving work with recycled cartons connects students to real world needs far beyond memorizing the parts of a flower.”

About the Carton 2 Garden Contest

Evergreen Packaging and KidsGardening are proud to host the national Carton 2 Garden Contest! Open to public and private schools, contest winners are be selected based on their implementation of an innovative garden creation featuring creative and sustainable uses for repurposed milk and juice cartons.

Coordinating a Garden Celebration

In the past few weeks, I’ve had the pleasure to participate in and lead a handful of school-wide garden celebrations—full day events, where 200-300 students have the opportunity to kick off the growing season by participating in various garden maintenance projects. The lead-up to these garden work days can be undeniably stressful, but the payoff is always worth it. There’s nothing like seeing a group of youth realize they have the power to transform a weedy plot of land into a properly planted garden.

So, how do you successfully coordinate and facilitate a full day of gardening activities for your entire school? Here are some of the best practices I stick to when it comes to these events…

  1. Start planning early. There are many moving parts to a school-wide garden celebration, so it’s good to give yourself (or your planning committee, if you happen to have one) a month to two months to get everything in order.
  2. Get the school community excited. Once you’ve decided to host a garden work day, let students and parents know. Send home information in weekly newsletters and put up posters around school (you might find parents want to help out).
  3. Create a simple sign-up sheet. Divide a school day into enough time slots for every class to sign-up for a garden visit. 20-30 minutes is a decent amount of time to tackle a small project without losing student interest. Decide if your garden is big enough to handle two classes at once or if the event has to take place over multiple days.
  4. Brainstorm jobs and assignments. Figure out what maintenance tasks or projects each class will tackle during their garden visit, and who will be leading them. I’ve found it can be very helpful to have one dedicated individual out in the garden all day to help guide groups and coordinate garden tasks, which brings us to our next point...
  5. Recruit volunteers! When working in the garden there are certain youth-to-facilitator ratios I like to maintain… when I say facilitator, I mean someone who knows exactly what needs to be done in the garden and is leading the activity, as opposed to someone who is simply there to support and provide assistance with group management. (For many of these school-wide garden celebrations that I’ve participated in, it’s the volunteer who will be taking on the facilitator role and the teacher who will help supervise their students). Ideally, I like to have no more than 10:1 for elementary school students and about 20:1 for middle and high school students.
  6. Have more work than you think you can accomplish. It’s always better to have more tasks in the garden than necessary. Leave all those weeds untouched, don’t unpack all your tools just yet—turn everything into a task for students to take on.
  7. But don’t rush. Take your time explaining what youth will be doing, why it’s important or helpful, and how they can accomplish these tasks safely. If the garden work doesn’t get done, it’s not the end of the world.
  8. Divide your tasks and spread them out. Rather than assigning 20 kids to a single garden bed in the hopes that all those hands can get everything from weeding and cultivating to planting and watering done in one go, spread out the workload. Have 5 kids at each bed and let them take their time to accomplish a single task. Not only is it less chaotic, but it leaves room for exploration and discovery.
  9. Incorporate a garden-themed game or activity. Not sure you have enough work for every class? Have students spend half of their time on a maintenance project and half their time on a garden-themed game or activity, like a quick scavenger hunt or relay race.
  10. Have fun!

Feel free to contribute your own tips for planning and leading a school-wide garden celebration in the comments!


Ten Tips to Help Pollinators

You’ve heard the saying, “Think globally; act locally.” Well, here’s your chance! June is National Pollinator Month. Pollinators are vital to the production of many of the foods we eat. In fact, it’s estimated that a third of the crops we grow depend on pollinators. But many pollinators, including honeybees and native bees, are in trouble. Populations are in sharp decline due to pesticide use, disease and parasite problems, and loss of food and nesting habitat. How can you help?

Just like people, pollinators need food, water, shelter, and a safe and healthy environment to live in and raise their young. Here are some ideas for ways you can help pollinators in your schoolyard, community garden, or home landscape.

  1. Plant a pollinator-friendly garden with a variety of flowering plants to give a succession of bloom from spring to fall. This will provide pollinators with nectar and pollen to feed on all season long. Remember that many flowering trees and shrubs are important sources of food for pollinators early in the season. Especially when planting flowering annuals and perennials, try to group each kind of plant into clumps of three or more rather than dotting them individually throughout your garden. This makes it easier for pollinators to locate plants!  
  2. Include lots of native plants in your garden. Native plants have evolved along with native pollinators, making them generally the most beneficial to these insects. Choose native plants that are adapted to the soil, light, and moisture conditions in your garden and you’ll help pollinators and make your garden care easier.
  3. Include plants to feed all stages of pollinators’ life cycle. There are no butterflies without caterpillars! Make sure you have plants that will feed both the immature as well as the adult stages of pollinators. For example, while adult monarch butterflies feed on many kinds of flowers, their caterpillars feed exclusively on milkweed plants. Similarly, the caterpillars of eastern black swallowtails feed on plants in the carrot family, like Queen Anne’s lace, carrots, parley, and dill. And accept that these caterpillar host plants will be chewed on – plant them in an inconspicuous spot if you don’t want to look at ragged leaves.
  4. Minimize the use of pesticides, even organic ones. Even pesticides approved for organic gardens may harm pollinators, so try to keep any pesticide use to a minimum. If you do use a one, choose a pesticide with the lowest risk to bees and other pollinators; check the label for bee hazard information. Spray in the evening after the pollinators have stopped flying.
  5. Go wild! If you can, let a corner of your schoolyard or backyard go “wild.” A wooded area, hedgerow, or unmowed “mini-meadow” will provide shelter, food, and nesting areas for many pollinators.
  6. Provide a source of water. A shallow basin of water set on the ground with some stones or piles of gravel in it on which insects can perch will help pollinators quench their thirst. Some insects, especially butterflies and some pollinator bees, prefer a mud puddle. Let a hose or faucet drip just a bit to form a damp, muddy sipping spot. Add a bit of sea salt or wood ashes to the mud to add micronutrients and minerals to their diet.
  7. Don’t be too tidy. Leave some leaf litter and plants standing over the winter to provide spots for pollinators to overwinter. If you can, leave some dead wood standing in an out-of-the-way area to provide nesting sites for native bees.
  8. Build bee housing. Make nesting blocks for pollinating bees that nest in wood, such as mason bees, by drilling at least 10 holes 4 to 8 inches deep and 5/16” in diameter in a block of untreated wood. Hang your bee “condo” with the holes set horizontally at least 3 feet off the ground and facing as close to southeast as possible.
  9. Enhance your lawn. Lawn “weeds” like white clover and dandelions provide a source of food for pollinators when they’re in bloom. Think of your lawn as pollinator habitat and embrace the idea of letting more than just turf grasses grow there.
  10. Spread the word. One pollinator-friendly garden is good; an entire neighborhood or community of them is even better! Share information with your school community, neighbors and others in your town or city about the importance of protecting and nurturing pollinators, and encourage them to make their gardens and landscapes welcoming to pollinators too.