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Allergy-Free Gardening

We can do many things in our gardens and landscapes to eliminate allergy-causing mold spores. All molds produce tiny reproductive spores, yet the trick is to find ways to get rid of the molds themselves. What we plant and where has a considerable influence. And cold and damp is precisely what mold thrives on.


Many people seem unclear on just precisely what mulch is. Very simply, mulch is anything that covers the soil. It can be made of old leaves, straw, rocks, bark, gravel, boards, bricks, and even plastic.

Mulches are almost always a very good idea, but when it comes to mulches and molds, they aren’t all created equally. Bark is a very good material on which to grow mold. Gravel mulches are good because they don’t encourage mold growth.

Flat stones and pavers work well for this too, and they look good as well. Mulch holds down weeds and cuts down on summer water loss. Earthworms often thrive under mulch; in general, mulches help plants grow better. The one spot where mulches are less effective is in those cold, shady areas. Here mulch will keep the soil from ever warming up. Everywhere else, though, mulch is beneficial.

Buggy Plants and Mold

Plants that are not being grown right will usually get infested with insects. The insects secrete “honeydew,” and on this very nutrient-rich, gooey substance, molds tend to grow quickly. The mold then starts producing spores, and soon there is a serious allergy situation in the landscape. The insect dander itself is highly allergenic and just adds to the problem.

Buggy plants often look dirty, and this is because they are covered with honeydew and mold. Clean, healthy plants are what we want in our yards.

Why are Plants Covered with Insects?

If a tree is native to the cold, damp forests of Japan or Minnesota, it just won’t thrive in a place like Los Angeles. It certainly might grow in Los Angles though, and that’s the problem. It will grow there but it won’t thrive. Because it doesn’t have the conditions it needs, it will always be somewhat weakened and vulnerable to pests. Remember, insect pests equal mold spores.

If an area is very deficient in fertilizer, the plants there won’t thrive. As they grow weaker, the insects start to prey on them. If plants are getting far too much fertilizer, they will also become weak. If a tree is a type that needs regular water in the summer but never gets it, again it will become weak and soon be a target for white flies, aphids, scale, spider mites, and mealybugs. If shrubs or trees are native to an area with acid soil and you’re growing them in alkaline dirt, sure enough they’ll probably become bug infested. If a tree is simply not tolerant of urban smog and it is planted right smack in the middle of a great metropolis, it will draw the pests.

There are many other cultural reasons for plants not to thrive, and any one of them can result in weak plants and mold.

A Word to the Wise on Natives

Judicious use of natives is often one of the very best ways to avoid many of these weak plant-mold problems. However, make sure the “natives” you buy are endemic to your own area. Also, make sure you’re not getting a bunch of male (pollen- producing) clones. Many of the native trees, shrubs, and ground covers sold now are male clones.

Air Flow

In every place there are prevailing winds. The breeze generally blows from one direction. Many landscapes are so crowded that the breeze simply can’t penetrate the mess. A landscape with no air flow is one where molds will thrive. Molds grow best in conditions with poor air circulation.

If your own yards are over-grown and choked for lack of fresh air, then get out the pruning saw and start thinning them out. Clean, fresh, freely moving air equals less mold and fewer mold spores.

Sunlight and Molds

Bright light and fresh air are the enemies of mold. Many landscapes have huge trees overhead that let in little light. Consider hiring a tree trimmer to thin out some of the branches overhead. Open the trees up so that the sunlight can come through. Perhaps it would be a good idea to remove a tree or two if they’re growing too close. When planting any new tree, consider the shade that it will cast when it is full-grown. Certain trees always develop very thick canopies while others will be light and airy.

Watering and Irrigation

Perhaps as important as any other single mold factor is the watering. Too little water makes for weak plants that attract insects. Too much water will also always produce weak plants.

Automatic irrigation systems, on timers, are responsible for a great deal of mold growth. Allergists in desert areas often find very high mold spore counts, in the middle of the summer. Much of this is being directly caused by irrigation systems that are not being monitored closely enough. Often, they are set to irrigate lawns that are already still soggy from the last watering. Overwatered lawns will quickly become mold factories and will shower everyone near them with an abundance of mold spores.

Plant Diseases and Spores

Many pests of our plants are not insects but are fungal type diseases such as mildew, rust, black spot, scab, and leaf blight. These organisms also produce allergenic airborne spores. The best way to avoid these diseases and their spores is by planting disease-resistant plants. The second most valuable approach is to keep plants growing cleanly and strongly.

Insect-attacked plants will often later be attacked by fungus diseases and vice versa. Healthy plants go a long way to keeping our air clean. If grown in the wrong area, certain plants can almost be counted on to harbor disease. Evergreen viburnum growing in the shade will certainly get moldy and full of mildew. For instance, Crape Myrtle trees grown in an area that doesn’t have hot summers will always have mildew.

In areas with cool, foggy nights and warm days, rust will surely grow on any roses, hollyhocks, or snapdragons that are not rust-resistant. Most roses grown in too much shade will quickly mildew. Almost any plant that thrives in full sun will face problems in too much shade.

Insecticides and Fungicides

When you see a plant covered with insects or fungus, fight the urge to go get out the chemical sprays. Many chemical sprays will trigger allergies. They may also weaken your immune system. A shrub full of insects can often be helped immensely by blasting off the bugs with a strong jet of water from the garden hose. Spider mites on plants can also often be controlled with this same stiff spray of water.

Many insect pests can be killed with a simple, non-toxic homemade spray of vegetable oil, water, and liquid dish soap. For a gallon of water add two tablespoons of vegetable oil and two to four tablespoons of soap.

For fungus diseases, spray them with a mix of baking soda and water. Use two to six tablespoons of baking soda per gallon of water, depending on how bad the infestation of disease is. This often needs to be repeated all summer long. The baking soda will also kill some aphids. You can just add some baking soda to the insecticide mix of soap and oil and have an all-around insecticide-fungicide spray mix.

Do not expect these homemade sprays to be just as effective as the most powerful chemical killers. Often, they’re not, but they do work and are much safer and less likely to cause allergies.


This stands for Integrated Pest Management, and one of the basic themes of IPM is that we are not looking to eliminate insects or pests, just to control them. Using beneficial insects such as ladybugs, mealy bug destroyers, tiny parasitic wasps, and green lacewings is always worth a try. It would be worthwhile for any gardener interested in allergy control to read a book or two on organic pest control.

Ants, Aphids, and Scale

Ants will farm out aphids and scale and will protect them from their natural predators. When the aphids and scale have ruined one part of a plant, the ants will move them to another fresh spot.

Frequently we can’t seem to get rid of the insects because there are so many ants on the trees. To kill the ants, we recommend using a slow-acting but effective mix of powdered sugar and borax. Look for the borax in a box at the grocery store where they sell laundry products. Mix the sugar and borax fifty-fifty. You can even flood the area under where the ants are thick with a hose and then when they’re all over the place, sprinkle the sugar and borax mix.

A few types of ants don’t care for sugar; for these try mixing corn meal and borax. This bait mix will also kill some other garden pests such as slugs, earwigs, and roaches. Cockroaches inside the house cause plenty of allergies, and the best way to kill them is with a mix of boric acid and powdered sugar as bait. Sprinkle this powder down where the roaches will walk through it. You can buy boric acid in almost any drugstore. These baits are cheap, safer than other poisons, and they work.

Don’t put these baits where children or pets can access and eat them. Sometimes it works well to hide them under old boards or flat rocks.

A Note about Ferns

Ferns don’t produce mold spores, but they sure can produce fern spores. Often these spores from the ferns can be just as allergenic as mold spores. Fern spores usually shoot out and land close to the fern. Small ferns growing in a shady part of the garden rarely trigger an allergic reaction. But people love to grow ferns in hanging baskets, often hanging over patio chairs and tables, right where someone will be sitting.

When these overhead ferns cast off their minuscule spores, they will land directly on the unsuspecting victim underneath. Hanging basket ferns are fine but watch where you hang them. All too often they are planted right next to front doors where with their added height, they can shower spores on the people coming and going.

Another consideration with tree ferns is that they have millions of tiny reddish-brown colored, needle-sharp hairs on their trunks. These little fern hairs can make you itch, and they can also cause plenty of irritation of the throat and nose when they’re inhaled. Plant tree ferns back away from most human traffic.

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