Are you a gardener? 7 ways to defend yourself against pollen

By Carol T. Bradford | Gardening columnist 

on May 13, 2015 at 11:40 AM, updated May 13, 2015 at 12:26 PM

Sneezing? Eyes itching? Nose running? Or are you one of the lucky ones who only notices when you have to sweep yellow dust off the car to see out the windows? 

The pollen counts in the air are exceptionally high this season in the Northeast. Major news outlets have picked up on the term "pollen tsunami" and warn that seasonal allergies are going to get worse before they get better. That leaves gardeners in a spot, because sitting in the air conditioned den isn't an option when there is so much digging, dividing, planting, mulching, watering and mowing to be done outside.

Spring allergies are caused mostly by tree pollen. The showy flowers, apples, peaches, cherries, magnolias aren't causing the trouble. Those flowers are insect pollinated and the pollen is heavy and sticky. Trees that are wind pollinated produce vast amounts of dusty pollen that is carried for miles. The flowers — only flowers with male parts called stamens produce pollen — are generally tiny, green and inconspicuous.

Fifty million Americans have nasal allergies, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. There are steps you can take to minimize your exposure to pollen, dust and mold.

• Keep your windows closed.

• Stay inside in the morning between 5 and 10 a.m. when pollen is released.

• Work later in the day or after a rain.

• Wear a dust mask when working outside.

• Delegate the worst jobs, like shoveling wood mulch, to somebody else.

• Shower, wash your hair and change clothes when you come inside.

• Don't hang your wash out on a line where it accumulates pollen.

Do some research before you plant a tree or shrub to make sure it isn't a prime allergy culprit. Likely ones include: ash, aspen, beech, birch, boxelder, cottonwood, elm, hickory, maple, mulberry, oak and willow. A physician can test for specific allergies and treat them if needed with medications or with immunotherapy, "allergy shots."

Pharmacies have aisles full of over the counter remedies. They can be very effective. Eyedrops, even plain saline eye wash or "artificial tears" can be wonderful. Pollen seen under a microscope is spiky; it would irritate your eyes even if you weren't allergic to it, and it feels good to wash the pollen away.

Cutting down trees and shrubs may help; replace them with something desirable that won't trigger allergies like crabapples, redbud, magnolia, tuliptree or dogwood. The decision to chop may be easy as most ash trees in New York are doomed by the emerald ash borer; aspens, boxelders and cottonwoods are relatively short lived and somewhat weedy; willows get huge and break up disastrously.

Mulberries are rarely a good choice in gardens in any case. Male cultivars are often preferred because they don't produce messy fruit. But males make pollen, so it's lose-lose for mulberries, unless you want a female tree with fruit and can beat the birds to it.

Carol Bradford gardens in Syracuse. Send your questions and location to her at