Gardening with Asthma

I thought I would revisit an article I wrote a couple of years ago…It concerns a garden that was devised specifically  for…. Asthma Sufferers…. It was featured at Bloom id say about 5 years ago…the garden in question was one which allowed people with hay fever or asthma an opportunity to step into a garden that would not affect there health…….The facts. Remind the same and it is I believe  a very interesting story…


This is what I wrote

Such was the interest that the organisers ran out of the 5000 leaflets, they had published for the show, in the first two days. I for one was surprised that it was possible to create such a garden with lots of flowers in it. In Ireland it is estimated that 490,000 people suffer from asthma. In fact Ireland has the 4th highest prevalence of asthma world wide and at least 1 person dies from asthma every week in Ireland. Other countries sharing this high rate include UK, Australia and New Zealand and it is believed that our common Anglo Saxon or Anglo Celt genes play some part in this asthma tendency.

Taking all this into account I decided to meet up with the Chief Executive officer of the Asthma Society, Doctor Jean Holohan. I had met her at Bloom briefly and was intrigued that such a garden could be created.  Jean is very engaging and charming woman who made the two hours I spent with her seem like 25 minutes. First off she explained that up to 80% of people with asthma have allergic rhinitis (hay fever) and exposure to pollens can be a significant trigger for asthma sufferers. The pollen season starts in early spring with tree pollens in April and May that is followed by grass pollen in June and July and there are the pollens from the flowers that follow in the late summer months. Jean reckons if anything the season is getting longer “The season is a lot longer than you think more like 6 months than 6 weeks and then there weeds and new popular crops like Rape Seed high in pollen adding to the mix ”. I had my eyes opened over the two hours I had not realised or thought much about things in the garden that can trigger asthma. “Hedges harbour mould and dust so try to select a thin hedge like cornus and as for compost heaps well they are full of spores”. At the best of times I am a not a great listener but as Jean made everything she said so interesting I just shut up and listened. “The cause of asthma is not fully understood but a number of factors have been recognised as contributing to the increasing prevalence in developed or developing countries. These factors include ‘The Hygiene Hypothesis’ this comes about thanks to modern standards of living as our houses are too warm and too clean; our immune systems are not challenged resulting in increased rates of allergic type conditions including asthma”.

So how did this all come together???

Three years ago, in response to requests from patients Jean and the society developed a booklet called ‘Gardening with Asthma and Allergies’. In 2009 and 2010 they had a small stand at Bloom to offer advice on managing asthma and allergies in the hay fever season “As a result of our booklet being so popular. Bord Bia asked us to turn the booklet into a real garden and to create an asthma and allergy friendly garden .We came up with the title ‘Treat not Trigger’ which was supported by Teva and Kilsaran with design done by Fiann O’Nualain”. Fiann is a man I know well and have written about many times. Like Jean he has great passion for his work. He knows his topic inside out, his plant choices for the garden, was based on what is know as a “low opal rating” – these are plants rated by allergen gardening expert Thomas Leo Ogren on the basis of pollen size and fragrance.

I also met up with Fiann who explained how it worked “I was already familiar with Ogren, He has several books on asthma gardening that I had read some years back but the problem is that he is American and writing for an American demographic and so he excludes a lot of plants that could be safe in Ireland, for example bamboo very rarely flowers here so it is not a pollen hazard to Irish people. A lot of his safe or recommended plants would not survive our wet winters”.

To build a garden that Asthma sufferers in Ireland could sit or stand in Fiann had to think about the mechanism of pollination and considered plants with heavy pollen so that the pollen would fall to the ground and not rise up in to the air and thus not into the eyes, nose and mouth. “ I used plants with bell shaped or trumpet flowers this means the bee must crawl in to get the pollen so they have the advantage of not shedding pollen on windy days and in coating the bee not your nostril and I avoided anything wind pollinated and outright male plants that shed large amounts of pollen”.

Fiann also used fruiting and female trees for atmospheric air purification and to attract birdlife that rid the garden of debris using it for nesting and excess insects..

The one thing that Jean and Fiann wanted to get across to Asthma Sufferers was that there are so many plants that you can plant and enjoy in the garden. Aquilegia, Campanula, Agapanthus, Delpheniums, Primulas and Paeonia are just some of the plants you can use. Jean summed it up nicely “The big misconception is that if you have asthma, you must have a sterile environment with no flowers, that’s just wrong, why should any health condition impede your, enjoyment of life. The Bloom garden showed you could have both floral abundance and a full life with asthma”. I have to congratulate Jean,Fiann and there team .The garden in question was a striking one, and most importantly perhaps the most effective garden, for its purpose that I have ever visited.

Scroll to Top