Plastic grass and organic gardens

One of the best cures for writers’ block for a Garden Professors is to spend a little time in front of the tube watching home gardening shows.  Now, to be sure, there are useful nuggets of information that can be gleamed from an hour or so of gardening or landscaping on HGTV or PBS Create.  But there are moments when I just stare at the TV in disbelief and go, ‘Have these people lost their frickin’ minds?’


A recent case in point, a half-hour gardening show devoted to installing an ‘allergy free’ backyard for a youngster, we’ll call him Billy, with environmental allergies.  Let me state up front I am in no way minimizing the seriousness of environmental and related allergies.  I suffer wicked seasonal allergies (yes, I know, poor career choice) and I have several close friends whose children have severe allergies.  I realize allergies can seriously affect quality of life and, in the cases of some food and insect allergies, can be a matter of life or death.  And I realize that a parent will do just about anything to keep their kid healthy.  Nevertheless, some of the practices promoted on this show strained all manner of credibility.


First, since Billy is allergic to grass, the landscaper replaced all of the grass in the backyard with synthetic turf.  Grass allergies are among the most common allergies but what is it about grass that most people are allergic to?  Pollen.  According the National Institutes of Health just keeping grass mowed is a simple preventative measure to reduce grass pollen.  Synthetic grass may have issues of its own with molds and there are remaining uncertainties regarding the safety of the used-tire derived crumb rubber used in some fake turf.   And if Billy has issues with pollen, I saw a much bigger problem looming like an 800 lb gorilla as the camera panned back from the picture-perfect synthetic lawn: Trees, specifically dozens of oaks and pines in the woodlots beyond the backyard.  I joined the show part way through but the overall landscape looked like the Southeast, perhaps Georgia or the Carolinas.  Even if the fake turf does reduce grass pollen in the back yard, Billy will scarcely notice as a yellow-green cloud of tree pollen envelops his house every spring.


Next, in addition to wanting a place to play, Billy wanted a vegetable garden.  Actually, given Billy’s obvious disinterest during this part of the show I don’t think he was really that interested in vegetables but the producers knew they couldn’t fill a 30 minute show with just fake turf.  Assuming Billy really was into vegetables the solution, of course, was an organic garden.  Why an organic garden is a panacea for allergy sufferers was never explained in the show; apparently pollens and molds don’t hang out in organic gardens.  The choice of vegetables was curious as well.  Billy got to plant squash and watermelons; guess no one bothered to tell Billy that cucurbit allergies are among the most common food allergies for people predisposed to pollen allergies.  For good measure, Billy got to plant some corn – doubt that could ever produce any pollen…


Bottom-line: take the info from the garden shows with a grain of salt and consider the source of the information.  Often times these shows are limited to whatever local source they could dredge up.  Do you really want to rely on a landscape contractor to make decisions about your child’s allergies and health?  Enjoy the shows but keep your skepticism handy and be ready to do some fact checking on your own.

9 thoughts on “Plastic grass and organic gardens”

  1. Urgh! Fake turf. My most despised of all garden fads. Are people stupid? The ef
    fects of its use on soil structure and oxygen exchange would be devastating. People who use it might as well salt the earth before they lay it down. It’s a mad world.

  2. You can be allergic to watermelon? Oh no! I’m very allergic to oak tree pollen so of course I have a dozen mature oaks on my property and I grow corn and watermelons… I learn the most interesting things from reading your blog!

  3. Kandi:
    Turn’s out the large portion of hay fever sufferers (yours truly included) have Oral Allergy Syndrome, which is a sensitivity to many raw fruits and vegetables – including melons, cucumbers and squash. To my knowlwdge, it’s not like a nut or seafood allergy, which can put some people into anaphylaxis; but if you have pollen allergies you may notice that your symptoms are worse after comsuming raw melons or cucumbers.

  4. RE: fake lawn. A friend recently moved to Australia – Melbourne specifically. The house they are renting has a fake lawn in the back yard – this was the first I had heard of such a thing. Water is scarce in Melbourne, so few homes have lawns. Though you would think there would be a better solution than a fake lawn.

  5. That’s where I live, April – Melbourne. The fake turf fad down this way is troubling to say the least. It has every horticulturist in the state ripping their hair out. I established a lawn in a client’s garden two years ago consisting entirely of an indigenous grass species (Microlaena stipiodes) and the results have been magnificent. It required no irrigation post-germination, mowing only once every 4-6 months or so and it looks almost like a ‘traditional’ lawn. Another couple of years and it will be unable to be recognised as a native species lawn. Still the bloody fake turf industry lives… Sigh.

  6. Reminds me of the Desperate Landscapes episode where they planted a Southern magnolia 4 feet from the door and a foot and half from the house. That’s when I knew not to bother watching the show.

  7. There is a wave of feeling that the horticulture industry has selected for male plants over the last twenty or more years. The theory goes that all these male plants are causing increased allergies. What is the intelligent thinking about this idea? always true? or is it right plant placed in the proper place?
    Is the solution to have more females in the landscape or?

  8. Hi Tom:
    In theory, planting female trees would reduce pollen in the air compared to planting males. The question is how much. Certainly if you live anywhere there are woodlands around, I’d say the effect would be negligible. I’m not sure there are any specific data to support this – I’m basing this on personal observations of the massive amounts of pollen produced by pines when I live in GA and SC and the copious amounts of pollen produced by oaks and other native hardwoods here in the Midwest.

    The other factor is only a relatively small proportion(~15%) of tree species are dioecious. Then you have to consider that we’re only to going to select for males when the female trees produce messy fruit (think mulberry). So we’re only talking about a small sub-set of landscape trees.

    There may be cases where planting females rather than males could make a difference on small scale. But to conclude that male landscape trees are a major contributor to allergy issues, I’d have to see some convincing data that this pollen can even be detected over background pollen levels.

  9. Obviously, they weren’t talking about pollen allergies. I have dermatological reactions to some grasses, and mowing, which wounds the grass, makes it worse. I always get a little itchy, but sitting in the grass leaves me with a rash. (Solution? Picnics only on a blanket as a kid!) Some people have much worse allergies. I’ve had a dog and known a horse who got superating sores after contact with grass. (Really!) Some people can get serious hives from grass contact.

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