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Low-Allergen Gardens

How do you create a garden packed with flowers, trees and shrubs for a client with an extreme hay fever allergy?

Bramley Apple Garden Design discovered that with careful plant selection and consideration to both hard and soft landscaping, it is possible to design a beautiful, Low-Allergen garden that can be enjoyed all year round, whilst reducing the amount of airborne pollen which triggers hay fever and asthma.

Pollen is transferred from male to female parts of the flower usually by wind or insects. Airborne pollen is particularly fine and is carried freely in the breeze. The pollen that’s picked up and deposited by insects is generally stickier and heavier and less likely to irritate. As a general rule wind-pollinated plants should be avoided and opt instead for flowers where insects have to search for nectar such as trumpet shaped blooms or double rather than single flowers.

Key Design Solutions

The client’s hay fever was triggered by both grass and tree pollen and the site was surrounded by protected Oak trees and a large Ash tree in the garden. We couldn’t touch the Oak trees, but the large Ash was removed which introduced more light and opened up the garden.

With a large garden and small budget, lawn is usually a cost-effective surface choice and the green of turf sets off the hard landscaping and planting. In this case, a lawn was not an option, so artificial turf was used, being both low allergen and low maintenance.

The dining terrace was positioned in the centre of the garden to provide good circulation and to enjoy the sunshine and was framed on either side by raised planters containing lavender and Rosa ‘Margaret Merrill’ to attract the pollinators. Roses are a good low allergen selection as their petals enclose the pollen, although it’s worth noting that plants with a strong fragrance such as roses and lavender can affect some people so should be included with caution.

Gravel paths lead through archways to a utility area in one corner and a mindful space with swing seat in the opposite corner. The whole feel of the design is light and airy, with clean lines and planting to blur the edges. Oak raised beds silver with age, blending with the cream of the South Cerney gravel and the sandstone paving.

Framed by an evergreen hedge, a sandstone bird bowl set on a bespoke oak plinth creates a strong focal point at the bottom of the garden and provides a water source for birds and insects.

Plant Selection

Whilst grasses couldn’t be used in the planting scheme, Verbena bonariensis and Gaura lindheimeri ‘Whirling butterflies’ are a good substitute, creating movement and adding an ephemeral quality to the planting.

When selecting trees for the garden, wind pollinators were avoided, instead trees that produce blossom and attract insects were selected. Malus x zumi ‘Golden Hornet’, espalier pear trees, Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’ and a line of Prunus ‘Amanagowa’ provide spring and autumn colour.

Other factors to consider when selecting plants, as advised by Allergy UK, are to avoid male dioescious species, ferns or other species that produce spores and in particular consider alternatives to the ever-popular birch with its striking white bark, which produces the most potent pollen.

There is a useful guide called the Ogren Plant Allergy Scale (OPALS) which is the first plant-allergy ranking system used by the USA department of agriculture. OPALS rates plants 1-10 with 1 lowest in allergy and ‘10’ highest.