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Gardening with Allergies

Millions of gardeners suffer from some sort of respiratory distress during the gardening season. It is impossible to remove pollen from the lawn and garden completely, there are a few things you can do.


Pollen and Allergies

Pollen grains are tiny particles that flowering plants produce by the millions. The grains contain genetic material necessary for the fertilization and survival of plant species. On its own, pollen is a relatively harmless substance. However, when it's inhaled or reaches the eyes of many humans, a reaction is triggered - the sneezing and watery eyes begin.

There are two main types of pollen. Each corresponds to the plant's method of pollination.

Wind-borne pollinating plants produce pollen that is light and practically invisible. Easily inhaled, this is the type that causes the allergic reactions. Although "wind-borne" and often carried very far away, most of it stays close to the source. Wind-borne pollen can collect on anything and it sometimes gives other plants a bad rap.

Most ornamental shrubs, annuals and perennials are safe. Oddly enough, the clouds and layers of pollen we see from pine trees are usually not allergy-provoking. Fruit trees are pollinated by insects and are also safe. Plants with strong fragrances can also prompt allergic reactions that are not necessarily related to pollen.

Insect-pollinated plants produce grains that are larger, heavier and sticky. These types in general are not irritants. Carried by insects and animals from plant to plant, these pollens are readily visible.

Pollen of both types range in size and protein makeup; therefore they also range in levels of allergic aggravation.

Tree pollen is number one on the list. The major suppliers of wind-borne pollens are oak, birch, most maples, ash and alder. Lesser tree allergen contributors include acacia, hickory, mesquite and sycamore. These trees bloom before they produce leaves — one of the keys to wind-borne pollen. The season begins in late winter and carries over into spring.

Weed and grass pollens are next. The most notorious pollen-producing weeds are from the ragweed family. Chrysanthemums, daisies and marigolds are members of this group. Most common turfgrasses do not produce pollen and will not if kept mowed at their proper height. Late spring into summer and fall are the season for these plants.

Dealing with Pollen Allergies

The pollen season starts in late winter/early spring and lasts until the first frost. Short of never going outdoors, here are some things a gardener can do: 

  • Plant insect-pollinated plants in your garden.
  • Avoid gardening from 5-10 a.m. Pollen levels are usually at their highest at this time, especially when the weather is hot and calm or very windy.
  • Wear a mask, hat and glasses. Avoid taking pollen-covered clothing into the house.
  • Wash thoroughly, including your hair, after gardening sessions.
  • Keep weeds in check by vigilant mowing, pulling and mulching, or by planting ground cover.
  • Replace hedges with fences or walls.
  • Install a water garden.
  • Check the local pollen count. The pollen count monitors pollen levels in the air and can help you when planning outdoor activities.
  • Avoid "seedless" or "male" varieties of trees or shrubs. These are typically wind-borne pollen producers. Although most plant tags do not designate which, if any, sex the plant is, it doesn't hurt to check.

Rain or a change in the weather will remove a lot of pollen from the air. Moisture from that same rain can also prompt new blooms on some troublesome plants and increase mold spores.

Mold spores are also a cause of distress for many allergy sufferers. They can occur in dry or wet weather, depending on the type. Less seasonal but just as irritating are indoor allergens. Molds, dust, dust mites and pet dander are persistent and troublesome to many people.

Use these items to help improve the indoor environment:

  • Air purifier with a HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Arresting Filtration) filter.
  • Dehumidifier to dry out basements or other damp rooms.
  • Air conditioner with a clean filter.

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Any difficulty in breathing may indicate asthma or other respiratory problems. Consult a physician for advice.