Sniffling and snuffling. Wheezing and sneezing. Hay fever season hit our farm so hard this year we thought of renaming it Phlegm Farm. Allergies are no fun when you work outdoors. This doesn’t mean the plant pollen that causes hay fever can’t also find its way inside your home or office. But when you’re out where its grains are blowing around, you’re more of a target.
Pollen season starts with trees in spring, when their flowers emerge, followed by grass pollen in early summer. Worst of all is weed season, which begins in midsummer and lasts until cool weather, when most plants have finished blooming and have set their seed. Weeds are there earlier, but it’s when they bloom that misery intrudes.
A number of plants with wind-borne pollen are common allergens, but the most troublesome one is ragweed. It’s everywhere, and its flowers are loaded with pollen. It’s not a showy plant, its flower spikes a greenish color. In fact the plant that most often gets blamed for its ill deeds is goldenrod, which blooms at the same time. People spot goldenrod’s gorgeous, brilliant-yellow plumes and blame it for their itchy, runny noses. But goldenrod is pollinated more by insects than by wind and is not a significant culprit.
How can you find relief? Seeing a doctor and getting your hay fever diagnosed might rule out or point to other health problems, but usually when you have hay fever every August, you simply know it. “Read the daily pollen count figure in the newspaper, and if it’s high, stay indoors” is one piece of advice commonly given. Stay indoors? Look out the window and watch more weeds grow? No thanks.
Keeping weeds down won’t solve the whole problem, because ragweed pollen can travel a long way. But it will help to some degree, and weeding is a job that has to be done anyway. The longer you let it go, the less pleasant it will be, on a hot, late summer day, to wade into a garden full of tall, flowering weeds. (You’ll start to recognize the ones that make you sneeze the most.) Try to get ’em when they’re small, and before they bloom. They’re as bad for your crops as they are for you.
Some gardeners take antihistamines, but I’ve never felt that the odd, groggy sensations they produce go very well with enjoying the outdoors or getting an active job done.
Instead, relish the days when it has just rained and the pollen has gummed up and settled a bit. When it starts to fly again, wear pants and shirts with plenty of pockets and stuff them with tissues. Then get on with your hoeing, your picking or whatever you’ve set out to do. Focus on your hands and you’ll pay less attention to your nose. Every now and then, splash cold water on your itchy eyes. Then pick a bunch of goldenrod for the table. There are more than 100 species of this magnificent native plant, all of them more beauty than trouble.
Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”