It’s late March, and for the first time in years, my allergies are out of control.
The reason in large part is that I’m not at home where I benefit from an allergy-free garden. After shoulder surgery, I’m at a wonderful rehabilitation facility in SLO, but here the winds blow the wrong kind of pollens my way.
Our allergy-free home is largely thanks to my brother-in-law, Tom Ogren. For 12 years, Tom taught landscape gardening at the California Youth Authority in Paso Robles. Many of his 15-21-year-old students could barely read. Using a book about a boxer he’d written, Birthday Boy, he taught dozens of young inmates to read.
Many became avid readers, and decades later, some are Facebook friends of Tom. Tom’s wife, Yvonne, has severe pollen allergies and asthma. While Tom was working at the CYA, he decided to re-landscape their home in SLO. He wanted to get rid of any plants that might trigger Yvonne’s allergies. For replacements, he wanted only allergy-friendly plants. He tried to find a book on allergy-free gardening, but there was nothing to buy.
He decided to start doing allergy research on landscape plants, grasses, shrubs and trees. Among many amazing things, he discovered that huge numbers of clonal male trees and shrubs were now being sold and planted. All of these male-only plants triggered widespread allergies.
This phenomenon is now called “botanical sexism.” Meanwhile an “epidemic of allergy” and asthma rapidly increased worldwide in all urban areas. Planting male-only trees was being promoted in landscaping as “fruitless” or “litter free.” In 2000, Tom’s “Allergy-free Gardening” was published, then “Safe Sex in the Garden and Other Propositions for an Allergy Free World” and , most recently, “The Allergy-Fighting Garden.”
Soon, he was giving lectures to arborists, gardeners, city planners, doctors, allergists, physician assistants and landscape designers. He’s spoken across Canada, in most of the US, in New Zealand, Australia, Israel and numerous times in the UK.
Liz and I recently saw “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.”
We loved the movie, as well as the bestselling book it‘s based on. Not long after the book came out, Tom was invited to Guernsey to give a series of talks on allergy-friendly landscapes. During World War II, the Germans occupied Guernsey and cut down and burned all the trees on the island for fuel. Nigel Clarke started “Green Legacy Guernsey” to reforest Guernsey.
Nigel read about allergies and asthma being caused by certain trees. He hated the idea that he might be planting trees that could make people sick. Nigel started his own research, and this led him to Ogren and his books.
In Guernsey, Tom’s concepts of allergy-friendly landscapes and gardens were adopted in a big way. All the trees and shrubs at the local schools in Guernsey are now allergy-friendly. Nigel’s Queux Plant Centre, the largest nursery in Guernsey, now sells all its plants with OPALS plant-allergy tags. These tags rank the potential to trigger allergies.
The scale (called OPALS) runs 1-10, where 1 is allergy-free, and 10 is the most allergenic. Local doctors started recommending the nursery to their patients, increasing business 30% in a year. Nigel’s big, stone house, built in the early 1700s, is called Queux Manor. In the photo of Tom and Nigel, they’re in a large allergy-friendly garden.
“We’re dressed up because I’d just given a walk and talk at a swank hotel,” Tom said. “After the talk ‘high tea’ was served to all in attendance.”
Pollen allergies are about to kick off big time right here in SLO. We’ve had the rain. The table is now set for a super-bloom of allergenic pollen from many of our own landscape trees and shrubs. Tom is trying to get the city of SLO to enact a local pollen-control ordinance. This would stop the sale and planting of any more allergenic trees and would also require that all new developments use allergy-friendly landscaping.
This past month, Tom gave talks at conventions of landscape designers in Boise, Idaho, and San Diego. Last year at this time, he was in New Orleans giving the keynote address at the national convention of Physician Assistants in Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
Almost 20 years ago, he designed an allergy-free landscape for the new “Breathe Easy” green-constructed headquarters of the American Lung Association, in Richmond, Virginia. He wrote the section on tree selection and allergy reduction for a 2018 textbook published by Oxford University Press, “Nature and Public Health: the role of nature in improving the health of the population.”
After his talks, people often ask him about San Luis Obispo. They assume it must be a wonderful example of smart, allergy-friendly city landscaping. Unfortunately, he has to say this isn’t the case. The city of SLO has never embraced allergy-friendly, and many landscapes here are loaded with highly allergenic trees and shrubs.
SLO was a real trendsetter when we banned smoking in restaurants and bars. There already are a number of western cities with pollen-control ordinances, but none in California. If SLO were to enact the first pollen-control measure in California, we’d again be ahead of the curve.
Also, requiring allergy-friendly landscaping for all new housing would be very progressive. It would be a sustainable, smart, healthy choice and a win-win for everyone.