Gardening Is Nothing To Sneeze At

Hydrangea, OPALS 3-6, depending on variety.

Hydrangea, OPALS 3-6, depending on variety.

When Joe and I first moved into our Long Island home, I had my all-time worst allergy season. All at once, it seemed, the oaks unleashed gobs and gobs of pollen in clumps that rivaled tumbleweeds. Pale yellow dust coated everything with its evilness.

As a new homeowner, I wondered and worried how I would be able to garden in a world that was inhospitable, where merely stepping outside caused relentless sneezing, itchy and swollen and watery eyes, and a sore throat.


Thomas Ogren.

Fast forward some twenty-odd years and we have Thomas Ogren, a gardener/educator who has compiled more than thirty years of research into The Allergy-Fighting Garden, a wonderful new book that combines horticultural science with logical garden choices so that homeowners and communities can work toward limiting the amount of allergens in the environment.

The book combines the best of his two previous works, Allergy-Free Gardening and Safe Sex in the Garden, with new information, so the end result is something that is informative and user-friendly.

My favorite portion of the book is the section entitled “The Allergy-Fighting Plants,” a very thorough A-to-Z listing of garden plants and their OPALS rating. OPALS is the Ogren Plant Allergy Scale, which Ogren created when he wasn’t researching, lecturing, writing, or gardening. It’s the first allergy-ranking system for plants and is now used by the United States Department of Agriculture. On the scale, plants are ranked from from 1 (least allergenic) to 10 (most allergenic). I’ve illustrated this post with photos of some of my gardening choices, and I’ve added their OPALS ranking.


NGDM: The strangest thing happened to me while reading your book. I had a series of aha moments because so much of what you’re writing makes complete sense — that gardeners can garden allergy-free — and it’s something I’ve never even considered. I always thought that will gardening comes pollen, and with pollen comes sneezing. We just have to deal with it. When you began your research, what was the moment that you had your Aha Moment, that you were on to something?

Tom Ogren: That total Aha Moment….or, actually two of them: I had been very skeptical about both allergies and asthma, but my wife had both. I’d read a book by some MD called Psychosomatic Illnesses and in it the author, a man, wrote that allergies and asthma mostly affected women because they were more emotional, more given to hysteria . . . and I sucked that all up. After all, I didn’t have allergies or asthma, so obviously I had my act together much more than did my wife, Yvonne.

Yvonne would have an attack of asthma (fairly frequently back then) and I would show no sympathy at all, and (I sure do hate to admit this) often I’d even lecture her on how she ought to get her act together. This went on for years, but one day I was doing a landscape job in Berkeley, California, and people everywhere were sneezing and generally acting like they felt miserable. It was early spring and everywhere the big acacia trees were in bloom.

When the landscape job was done (a week or so), I drove back home to San Luis Obispo and as I drove I thought about all of this allergy I’d been seeing, and I came up with an idea. The next day, back at work (I teach landscape gardening and horticulture in a prison), I got with my students (big, tough, muscular gangbangers, every last one of them) and I proposed that we sniff flowers and record what, if anything, happened.

First we sniffed some pansies and nothing happened at all, then we did some double dianthus and again nothing at all. The third plant we tried was bottlebrush flowers. I sniffed them, nothing; my foreman sniffed them, nothing — but then the next guy took a sniff of the bottlebrush flowers and wow! Did he ever sneeze! Really loud and really hard.

Daylily, OPALS 6.

Daylily, OPALS 6.

Suddenly I was suspicious of that idea that allergy was “all in your head.” By the time we’d gone through the whole class, one third of them were sneezing, over and over again. It was perfectly amazing and it was an Aha Moment if there ever was one. Not only had I discovered that some flowers triggered this response, but also that some flowers did not — a learning lesson. I also suddenly felt very guilty for the hogwash that I’d been putting my wife through. This was the first Aha Moment.

The second Aha Moment: I’d been studying plants and allergies for 6-7 years or so and one night my wife and I were in bed and she was reading a novel and I was reading a thick serious book about monoecious and dioecious flowering systems in trees. I read something and then said to Yvonne, “I just had an idea. These dioecious plants, they are often the very worst allergy plants of all, but think about this. Since they are 100% separate-sexed, that would mean that the males produce all the pollen and the females catch it and turn it into seed.”

“Okay,” said Yvonne.

“Yeah,” I said, “but look at it this way. The big lists of plants they say not to use, all those maples, poplars, willows, yews, junipers and so on, the female plants aren’t producing any pollen, just the males. And think about this, if a female plant produces no pollen and it traps pollen, it means that female plants are actually allergy-free plants! See what I mean?”

She looked at me for a moment and then said, “You know, Tom, you just might be on to something with that.”

Now, really, what I’d reasoned out there, it wasn’t rocket ship science, just the opposite. But still, up to that point no one had ever written anything ever saying this. It was an Aha Moment. For sure.

Canna, OPALS 3.

Canna, OPALS 3.

NGDM: I imagine you must often find yourself fighting an uphill battle trying to get your message out there, especially when dealing with cities and municipalities. What has been the greatest challenge?

TO: Well, indeed this has been nothing but an uphill battle, and it still is. Considering that pollen is the most common allergy/asthma trigger in the world, I am amazed that allergists do not take any courses at all in horticulture, and very few of them have had any courses in botany either.

Likewise, I am amazed that all these asthma educators and the many health groups that are associated with them, that they dwell on 2nd hand smoke, on mold, on dampness, on infestations of rodents and or roaches but they never even consider doing anything to limit exposure to pollen. I heard two speeches in the last few days on “asthma triggers” and the word pollen wasn’t mentioned even one time. I find this disturbing at best.

Most cities and counties don’t seem to want to do anything about allergies at all, and not all that much about asthma. Allergies are seen by many as not so important (especially if those in charge don’t have allergies) . . . and yet more than 80% of those with asthma already have allergies, and also that getting allergies greatly increases your chances of getting asthma. Cities are very reluctant to ever cut down a tree “just” because it is highly allergenic. Even worse, they are generally quite reluctant to even stop planting the very most allergenic trees. Most of the time they appear to want to keep on doing things just as they have always done them. But then, cities and municipalities are not the only ones that make this an uphill battle. Commercial horticulture has so far not done their part either, mostly just the opposite.

All said, it sounds terrible, but nonetheless, I am very dogged in my pursuit of this, and in the end I feel that common sense will yet win the day.

Hosta, OPALS 1.

Hosta, OPALS 1.

NGDM: Your book is very user friendly and very well-researched — but I was most impressed with your OPALS rankings, a means of providing the allergy quotient of so many plants. It seems like it would be a no-brainer for wholesalers and retailers to include that information on the plant tag. Why do you think there’s so much reluctance to provide this information?

TO: Nursery people don’t like to say anything negative about any plants, and especially not ones that they sell. The big growers already make good money on many very allergenic male clones, and they will keep on growing them until suddenly no one wants them anymore.

NGDM: If you could offer the average home gardener three top tips to address allergy-free gardening in their own yards/communities, what would it be?

TO: One, make a big effort to get rid of the very worst plants in their own yards, and at the schools where their kids attend. Two, join with some other people and try and get a local pollen-control ordinance enacted, an ordinance that stops the sale and planting of the very worst landscape plants. Lastly, plant and encourage others to plant many more female plants — there’s no balance of the sexes in cities, and everywhere more female plants are needed.

Zinnia, OPALS 3.

Zinnia, OPALS 3.

NGDM: When did a passion for gardening first take hold in you? Who inspired you to get in the garden?

TO: When I was a kid we had a lovely old black lady who lived with us to help out with all of us kids (there were six of us). Her name was Katherine Scott and she loved to garden and she’s the one who first showed me how to plant the squash and bean seeds, how to weed and water; she’s the one who really got me hooked….and I was totally hooked by age four.

My grandfather, Tom Myers, he was a doctor and he loved to garden, especially to grow roses. I was named for him and I can still see him wearing his old clothes, working contentedly in his big rose garden. When I was seven, he asked me what I wanted for my birthday and I told him I wanted my own guava tree — and that’s what I got. I loved that tree and I was the only kid I knew who had his own fruit tree.

Lastly, both my mother and father appreciated good gardens, even if they weren’t especially good gardeners themselves. My mom loved the idea of lots of fruit trees in the yard, and my dad planted them, and as I was the oldest boy, he often had me help him.

I guess you could say I was raised right!

For the record: Oak, OPALS 8.  No surprise that I was sneezing.

For the record: Oak, OPALS 8. No surprise that I was sneezing.

For more information on allergy-free gardening,

you can also visit Safe Gardening.

Victor Victorian: Garden Style Fit For A Queen

At this time of year, as the garden tumbles into autumn colors in preparation for its winter sleep, it’s difficult to not search out garden photos — whether of my own garden, the gardens of other bloggers, or especially gardens of the past.

It’s in those old photos, the kind that give a peek into a moment in time, that the questions start to swirl.  What plants did they select and why?  Where was the best spot to view the garden?  What were the scents and aromas?  The sounds?  Who tended the beds?  What tools did they use?

The Victorian Garden

Enter The Victorian Garden (Shire Publications), a fact-filled and image-rich book by Caroline Ikin.  Beautifully crafted, the book not only offers a clear explanation of Victorian garden style and history, it also celebrates the Victorian gardeners and their innovations — accomplished through Ikin’s skill at bringing readers along as she steps through the garden gate.

Recently, I had the chance to ask Caroline Ikin about her book, the Victorians, and life in her own garden.

Continue reading

Book Review & Giveaway: “What A Plant Knows”


For many gardeners, the reasons for gardening come down to stimulating and satisfying our own senses: the scent of a summer rose, the feel of a freshly mowed lawn under your toes, the sound of morning songbirds, the taste of a homegrown tomato, or the sight of the saturated color of the season’s first peony bloom.

But are our senses the only ones being stirred in the garden?  According to a remarkable video and an equally remarkable book, the answer is “no.”  Our senses, it seems, are in good company with the senses of our plants.

Continue reading

Book Review & Giveaway: The Backyard Parables

The Backyard Parables

Parable is one of those Old — no, make that Ancient World words.  Just saying it conjures up an image of a toga-ed philosopher sitting on the steps of the Parthenon, eager and inquisitive students kneeling and sitting and catching each one of his words.

That’s kind of how I felt as I read Margaret Roach’s newest book, The Backyard Parables.  Okay, it wasn’t a toga party, but I could certainly imagine gardeners arriving from far and wide to her rural New York State garden — gathering about her as she shares the wit and wisdom of her words.   (Note to self: find out Margaret’s Open Garden Day schedule.)

Continue reading

Book Review: Vegetables (A Biography)

I love my veggies.  I love them raw, steamed, roasted, grilled, sautéed and pureed.  I just don’t grow them.  In fact, other than the rare bonus packet of tomato seeds that comes with my annual seed order, I avoid growing vegetables.  There, I’ve said it.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love the idea of growing and harvesting my own food, and the whole locavore movement (although I do have issues with the word.  I think it sounds like “crazy eater.”) — it’s just that I’m more in love with the idea than the actual task.  And the sad part is, I know I’m missing out on something.  On many things.

Part of my aversion comes from the multitude of garden pests.  I know what they can do just in my flower garden – and squirrels have been known to push me over the edge.  I just don’t think I could handle a) the vigilantism of protecting my food from varmints and b) the disappointment of seeing my dinner on someone else’s plate.

I also feel that with vegetables, it’s either feast or famine – and both are ill-timed.  When I’ve tried to grow tomatoes in the past, there were very few for summer salads.  Instead, they all arrived at once at the end of the season – and let’s not forget the brown bags full of green tomatoes and an apple to help them ripen.  The same goes for strawberry.  Yes, strawberry – because that’s about all I was able to enjoy as a freshly picked dessert and I know I’m not alone.  Here is some proof from Tidy Gardens by Jane.

Continue reading

Book Review: Mentors In The Garden Of Life

I’ve always had a green thumb, and I’ve always wondered from where did it come?  Is it something that sits quietly on a strand of DNA, inherited through the millennia courtesy of an ancestral gatherer, Neandernittygritty erectus?  Or is it something learned, passed down through several generations – a horti-oral tradition, if you will?  Or is it information picked up and shared along the gardening path?  Is it perhaps a combination of all three theories?

These were the questions rolling around in my head when I was introduced to an amazing memoir, Mentors In The Garden Of Life, by Colleen Plimpton.  In short, if I ever write a book, this is the book that I would love to write.

Continue reading

Book Review: Wicked Bugs

I’m good when it comes to bugs.  For the most part.

I mean, I generally do not become hysterical when I cross paths with a 6- or 8-legged creature.  In fact, there are some bugs I actually enjoy.  I’m captivated by a trail of ants going about its journey; I love the sultry summer chirp of cicadas; I’m totally in love with praying mantis; I’m mesmerized by the flicker of lightning bugs; I’m completely overjoyed by the arrival of a butterfly (which is why it received top billing);  and when it comes to bees, we have a firm understanding.  I’ll let them do their work, if they let me do mine.

Continue reading

Spring, “The Secret Garden,” and You

I cannot think of a better way to celebrate spring than with a visit to The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic piece of children’s literature about a willful girl, pain and loss, and the healing power of gardening.  By the way, do not be turned off by the “children’s literature” label — it’s a story that knows no age.

I must admit that although this book was first published in 1911, I never got around to reading it – and that was a huge mistake.  Yes, I am familiar with the various film interpretations, but I never treated myself to the beauty of Burnett’s written words. 

My second mistake was downloading the free Kindle version.  With each “page,” I found myself nodding along as Burnett captured in language all of my thoughts about gardening.  And with each nod, I craved an illustration.  Fortunately, the strength of the prose allowed me to paint the images in my mind.

Before The Secret Garden was published in book format, it ran as a serial – sort of like posts on a blog.  To correct my mistakes, I would like to invite Frances Hodgson Burnett to be today’s guest blogger via a few spring-like passages.

Continue reading

Book Review: Year of Wonders

We all know we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover – but is it polite to judge it by its title?

Take, for example, Year of Wonders, by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks.  On the surface, it seems like a pleasant name for a book – inspirational and awe-inspiring.  It’s the haunting tagline under the title that seems a little unnerving: “A Novel of the Plague.”

Not exactly an uplifting subject – and yet, it was all that and more.

Based on true life events, this fictional account focuses on a small English village in which Plague has taken hold.  Under the guidance of the local minister, the town quarantines itself – and through the eyes of Anna, we witness moments of horror and joy, life and death, infection and healing.

As Plague ravishes this small community, the reader witnesses Anna’s spiritual growth.  As a woman who has faced monumental losses, she is able to face life one step at a time, to learn, to find her purpose as a healer and midwife, and to discover her voice – no small feat for a woman in 1666.

Through Brooks’ rich and eloquent prose, the reader is allowed to witness Anna’s p

Continue reading

Book Review: Two Women, Two Writers, Two Gardens


Prior to starting this blog, I did very little garden-related reading.  In fact, most of the garden reading I had done was the technical kind, usually to research a plant or a seed.  It never crossed my mind to want to read a gardening book for pleasure – and now I find myself craving garden books and garden blogs.  Recently, I read two remarkable books at the same time, and I am enchanted.

From the moment I received One Writer’s Garden, by Susan Haltom and Jane Roy Brown, from my friend Catherine, I knew it would be a difficult book to categorize.  It’s definitely a gardening book, but it’s a biography and a history book, as well – all woven together with strands of roses and irises and camellias.

The garden, located in Jackson, Mississippi, was designed and planted by Chestina Welty, an amazing woman who passed her love of gardening on to her daughter, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Eudora Welty.  In beautifully written narrative, the reader is transported to a time that now seems almost other-worldly.

Continue reading