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Allergen-Free Gardening for Everyone!

For some of the first several years of my life, I grew up in a yard surrounded by peaches, apples, grapes, and a vegetable garden (this article is accompanied with photos of our old family garden.). It seems simply the word "garden" brings back memories to everyone--memories not only of sight, but also of smell and taste! FAST member Christan, for example, says "my earliest memory was our apple and cherry trees in the backyard." Many people say that produce we create with our own hands tastes much better, but I have to say that never applied to rhubarb and me. Christan says, "I currently garden for pure enjoyment and the satisfaction of eating my own produce. As my boys get older, I will be teaching them and hoping that they enjoy it as much as I do."

Nothing can beat home-grown produce, which is likely somewhat responsible for the rise in popularity of Farmers' Markets. For those with food allergies, growing one's own food has another benefit. You'll know exactly what is going into the food and, subsequently, exactly what is going into your or your child's mouth. In fact, families may choose to only grow produce that everyone in the family can eat, making the garden a communal area for family time. For Christan and her children, it's something fun to do together. "My favorites are the cherry tomatoes, and my boys' favorites are the green beans and peas. The pumpkins were really fun this year. The boys liked having them and watching them grow. I learned that if you carve something into the pumpkin when it's growing, it will heal and always have the carving on it. My oldest will be old enough to try it this year if we grow them again."
Gardening is open to everyone--from people whose homes are without any direct sunlight, to individuals who have acres of land just waiting for a huge project. The first step is to discern the ability of your available conditions. It would be a horrible disappointment to plant an entire apple orchard in the shade, for example.
Because of the extreme variability in conditions and all the aspects involved with gardening, this article is meant only as a starting point to give you some ideas on what type of garden would be suitable for your available conditions. It begins with ideas for those with little experience and little available sun, and proceeds to more advanced techniques for those with a lot of space, time, and ability.
This article is not meant to be the end-all of your research. Rather, it is a slight glimpse at several types of gardening, in the hopes that you might become inspired to give it a try! But please remember that individuals with allergies should always discuss these types of things with a reputable allergist. It's possible to be allergic to plants and bees, both of which are sure things for a gardener! If you have environmental allergies (pollen, etc.) on top of your food allergies, gardening is probably not right for you.

Indoor Gardening

Indoor gardening is best suited to beginners and children. It has many benefits:
  • It can be done year-round
  • One needn't leave the home to harvest food
  • It reduces the incidence of insects and other garden pests
  • It brings a bit of the outdoors, in
  • Mushrooms in a Box

    Perhaps you have the worst growing conditions: no sunlight or counter space. Does your basement or storage area have a couple square feet of space? Is no one allergic to mushrooms? Do you like to eat them? If so, you're not without hope, believe it or not!
    A rather new and innovative indoor gardening idea is to grow mushrooms in a box. These are available in boxed kits through mail order. (Because they come with the growing medium, you may wish to contact the companies that sell the kits to ask more about the ingredients, but it typically contains such things as chemically-treated manure and mushroom spawn.)
    How does it work? First, you keep the closed box in a warm area. After a short time, the box is moved to a dark, cool area (as low as 50 degrees, so no worries if you live up north and it's the dead of winter). Then, the most maintenance the mushrooms will require is watering here and there. Mushrooms in the box are produced for about a month's time.
    Despite not liking mushrooms and refusing to take more than a nibble (thankfully, other family members love them), I have gotten a kick out of watching the mushrooms grow. Sometimes it looks as though one is just popping up, and almost overnight it's huge! There's something so therapeutic about seeing something growing, especially when it's cold and snowy outside.
    If interested, search online for "mushroom kit," and you will find a wealth of sources for this inventive garden that can be operated in even the most cold and dark locations. Best of all, you may be able to find your favorite, from button to portabella to shiitake. Also, be sure to search around, since prices vary greatly.
    The main problem is that it appears that with all companies, the box used to grow the mushrooms in is also the box it is shipped in. This proved to be an issue since the delivery company pulverized the box. So be sure to have a spare, like-sized box available in case of a delivery issue.


    If you are new to gardening and have little space or direct sunlight, sprouting may be just the ticket for you. Some even have had success with sprouting in a darkened cupboard (at least during the beginning stages--seeds don't need sunshine to sprout)! Unfortunately, sprouting has received a bad name since many years ago, when alfalfa sprouts were found responsible for attacks of salmonella (of course, they had a poor name to begin with, since many consider them tasteless health food). Since then, popularity of this hobby has died off somewhat. One also asks, "But what can I do with sprouts?" Perhaps only topping off a salad comes to mind! Yet there is much more that can be done with sprouts. Many enthusiasts like eating them by the handful as a snack. The tastes and textures vary. Radish sprouts, for example, have a spicy taste, and onion sprouts taste like strong onions. It seems the stand-by salad can be one of the best places for sprouts, too, especially because sprouts are often spicy or have a bite to them. If you can't have pre-made salad dressings, sprouts help add a "kick" to your salad. Being considerate of your allergies, be careful what seeds you choose to sprout.
    Sprouts are also great for impatient gardeners. Since they're only the sprouts of plants, they take very little time to grow (a few days for most varieties), and "crops" of different seeds can be started after the other "crop" is removed from the sprouter. In fact, some manufacturered sprouters even come with multiple chambers for those who want to grow more than one sprout "crop." However, they can just as easily be grown in a normal canning jar with a special sprouting top.
    Believe it or not, there's controversy over how to sprout. Some people don't like siphon sprouters, for instance, and claim they don't work. However, our family has had sprouting success with all three different sprouting systems we've tried--and I prefer the "controversial" one that is multi-layered. We ran a little experiment in January 2008 and found that it worked more quickly than the old standby jar sprouting method. Sprouting is especially fun during the cold winter months when outdoor growing is not possible--you can get some fresh greens during the cold weather, and in only a few days' time.

    Herb Gardening (Indoors)

    While herb gardens initially seem like fun, it's difficult for some of us to discover a use for them. Our family has grown such herbs as catnip, parsley, dill, and chives for use with our cat, guinea pigs, pickles, and us, respectively. While herbs are a crop that can easily be grown indoors, one must have an actual use for them in order to appreciate them, especially since they are not all that appealing to look at (although, they may flower if left to grow long enough).
    It's possible to dry herbs for future use. However, unless you use herbs a lot in recipes, they can become somewhat of a useless indoor crop. Still, they can be a novelty for those with no outdoor garden space. Before growing herbs, it might be a good idea to ask: "How often do I use fresh herbs in my cooking? Do I have a genuine use for fresh herbs?"
    Despite seeming to be fool-proof, herb gardens can prove a failure, just like any other crop. Our family's herbs often have very small yields, not really for enough use other than snacking. My measly attempt at growing chives seemed laughable compared to my late grandmother's success. FAST member J. Melissa Peeler says she can only offer advice on "killing them. I have tried herb gardening three times, but have yet to make it past a month before they die or otherwise meet an untimely demise." Indoor herb gardens can grow, but the herbs tend to do a lot better when transferred outside, even if in a pot, during warmer months. For example, I started catnip indoors, then transplanted it in the spring. It did so well that it bloomed!
    Unlike J. Melissa and myself, Arnida has found herbs to be a fun crop. She grows them both indoors and out. "Herbs can be picked from your garden the day you are going to use them. It is fun to tell guests 'I used the parsley from my yard!' Parsley and basil can be picked at the end of the season, frozen on a cookie sheet, and transfered to zip baggies for future use." Arnida additionally says that "herbs grow quickly, but you cannot save the seeds." However, a nice thing about them is that "they can grow year round if you bring them inside in the winter."

    Easy/Small-Time Outdoor Gardening

    Outdoor gardening is no longer limited to those who have big backyards.
    For beginners, live plants are a great temptation since they get growers off to a quick start . . . but they often come with free residents. Seeds are much less expensive, and don't come with their own complimentary friends! Small starter "greenhouses" allow a gardener to grow seedlings indoors for transplanting outdoors. While the plants are not as large as what can be obtained from commercial greenhouses, they do allow one to observe the early days of a new seedling. Beginning plants indoors has an added benefit of being able to observe the germination ability of your seed source, for future reference and to find the best source possible.
    Don't feel that buying a seed packet is a waste of money if you only want one or two plants. First of all, you'll probably want to start several seeds in order to make sure you end up with at least one healthy plant. (Not all seeds germinate; the packet may contain information on the percentage that should germinate, by which you can guesstimate how many seeds to plant.) This method also allows people in colder regions to get a head start on the growing season. Second--and here's a great secret!--the "shelf life" of unused seeds is generally years. You can save your unused seeds for next year, and perhaps even get several years of use out of one seed packet. Not too shabby for $1-2 (US)! Compared to buying a live plant, this is an incredible value. Just be sure to store the unused portion in a dry, dark space, and check the germination in subsequent years, before it's time to plant.
    You may additionally be able to save seeds from the actual crop. It is common to save tomato seeds, especially from heirloom varieties, and you can easily find instructions for how to remove them and prepare them for storage. This means the plant you start from one packet of seeds can, in a way, last a lifetime, and may even become an heirloom in your family.

    Patio/Container Gardening

    Perhaps the only sun that peeks through the trees at your home falls directly on a dirtless portion of your yard known as the patio. Why depair? This is now considered one of the most popular places to grow a garden--even if the patio is small, like the one pictured above. There are strains of many plants that have been developed to grow in containers, such as blueberries, cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, strawberries, and tomatoes. But plants don't necessarily have to be developed for pots in order to grow in them. Arnida says, "Strawberries are perennials--they come back each year by themselves and grow well in a pot!" An added benefit is that patio gardens are excellent options for the elderly or disabled, because there is little to no weeding, and one needn't bend down to ground-level in order to collect the harvest.
    Popular patio planters include the rustic wooden half-barrel (actually, a reused whiskey barrel, as your nose will tell you!) and planters formed to "hug" the top of a patio railing. While these, when made in plastic, may seem flimsy and light, they are not once the soil is added. Half-barrels, though decorative, are best left to those with large patios, while the patio railing type are practical space-savers for those with smaller patios. They can also be found in more expensive wooden versions. Plants can include a mixture of edibles, such as fruit and vegetables, and even edible plants, such as the smiling pansy at right.
    Unfortunately, patio planting isn't without its drawbacks. Insects will still find their way to the plants, and one of the most distasteful, yet necessary, aspects of this type of gardening is that bees will be encouraged to make return visits to your home. But perhaps the most disappointing aspect of patio planting is that it has a definite limit. Once your patio looks like a lawn and there's no room to sit or stand on it, you realize the garden has reached--if not surpassed--its limits.
    Arnida advises that patio gardeners take special care in the wintertime. "Both plastic and ceramic containers can freeze and crack. I sometimes put the plants in the ground along the perimeter of my concrete patio for the winter. If this is not possible, I would suggest moving the containers indoors or inside a garage."

    "With patio gardens,
    some people are using
    colored buckets. They
    are colorful, cheap to
    get and they can be
    moved around easily.
    You can stake a tomato plant
    up in it very well."

    An extremely important aspect to not overlook for any outdoor planter is that it must have a hole in the bottom. You or a drill-owning friend can drill one if you use a plastic bucket, as Farmer Connie mentioned, or similar container without drainage. Should it rain on your plants, there will need to be a place for the excess water to go, or the containers will flood.
    If you're interested in container gardening, there are extensive gardening books available for people who live with limited space. Even if you live in an apartment, you may be able to enjoy home-grown fruits and vegetables by using something as small as a window-box. You might be amazed at what can grow in a container!

    Upside Down Planters

    Upside down planters can be either purchased or homemade, and are typically intended for crops of tomatoes or peppers exclusively. Rather than growing from the bottom up, the concept is to grow from the bottom down, thus eliminating weeding and hopefully limiting some of the pests that crawl onto plants. You can find pre-made upside-down planters, but many people also make their own with the use of a large plastic bucket or ceramic pot.
    This type of planter didn't produce a bumper crop of tomatoes as promised in 2007 (it yielded a lone tomato), but one thing I did like was that while all the conventionally-planted tomato plants got covered in ghastly green hornworms, this plant stayed free of them. It was likely only coincidence, but in 2008 we're going to replant in this planter and give it more sun and fertilizer to see if there is better success. And that's one good thing about gardening--you can learn and improve upon your garden each and every year. Stay tuned!

    Big-Time Gardening

    Do you have a lot of room and experience? Or, forgetting experience, a lot of time in which to research? And, lots of friends who like free food? If so, you might be ready to make the plunge into starting a "real" garden.
    Catalogs are very tempting (and seed/plant companies always seem to know we'll be the most tempted for fresh produce in the midst of winter--that's when they send them!). Unfortunately, they rarely include information on the conditions needed for growing specific plants. You should always research growing conditions of a species before making an impulse buy. In the case of trees and shrubs, you may also want to evaluate how the plants will contribute to or detract from your yard aesthetically. Arnida, for example, uses sunflowers for a dual purpose. They serve for both beauty and function! She says, "Produce doesn't always look nice, but if you like sunflower seeds the flowers look good for a long time and the seeds can be roasted and eaten or saved to plant again the next year."

    Others' Gardens

    Do you want fresh produce without any of the planting and cultivating work?
    Perhaps you have a friend who has a small in-ground garden--or even a farm. If so, many people are happy to share some of the wealth, because larger gardens tend to produce much more than the typical family can consume. A while back, our family wanted green ketchup. Where else can you get green ketchup except from green/unripe tomatoes? My mom's friend told us to feel free to go into her backyard and pick as much as we needed. You may feel awkward asking--don't. You can certainly offer a gift or money in exchange, but chances are they'll just be happy to get rid of some of the extra produce! (If you end up using the produce for canning, a kind gesture is to offer a jar of whatever you make.)
    Even if you don't have a friend with a mini-farm, you can enjoy the farms of others. Many farmers, especially small-time ones, let people come in and pick their own produce in a process called "U-Pick." The website has listings by region for several countries--you're sure to find something somewhat nearby!
    While this costs money, you'll likely save from in-store costs. Another bonus is that the produce is less likely to be covered in a preserving wax, as it often is in the store--and, yes, that wax can be food-derived.
    Yet another place to check--and this won't even require picking your own produce--is the local Farmers Market. You can search for one in your (US) state at While this technically eliminates any form of farming on your part, from planting to picking, it's a great way to support the local growers in your area.
    Yet another concept--a rather new one that is gaining in popularity--is CSA, short for Community Supported Agriculture. Farmers sell shares of future crops. Some will even allow members to go to the farm to help pick the harvest. You can learn more about CSA by visiting, or look for one in your area at Picking the fruits/vegetables yourself should be done only with the "okay" of your doctor.

    Native Gardening

    If you feel that you don't have a green thumb, native plants are ones that can typically do pretty well on their own. Blackberries, huckleberries, and raspberries, for example, can potentially grow on their own in a darkened wood. If you decide to give up the hobby, birds can enjoy the harvest.
    In order to get the best yield, you will need to research what species are native to your area.

    Shade Gardening

    A common misunderstanding is that all produce crops need high amounts of sun in order to be successful. We have berry bushes that produce a lot of delicious fruit despite being in dark shade and weedy conditions in the woods. Nothing is done to these plants--they do all the work on their own, and having fresh blackberries is our reward!
    Aside from woodland fruits, you might try leafy vegetable plants that don't produce fruits, such as cabbage and lettuce. With plants that produce fruit, it is not a given that no fruits will grow, but they will likely be smaller and with little, if any, yield. I once planted a slew of cucumber seeds in the shade, and ended up with one cucumber and one plant! Planting sun-loving plants in the shade doesn't mean that no plants will grow, but that they likely won't produce the actual crop you're looking for. It may be worth a try if you are unsure about the amount of sun your yard receives and have a season to spare. Sometimes we must experiment a bit in order to learn what will work best. That's the nice thing about gardening being a hobby rather than a career--it's okay to make mistakes! My cucumber fiasco didn't hurt anyone, and I had a lovely two-inch cucumber to eat!
    Arnida agrees with experimenting to see what works. "Don't give up! I have had plants die, but I just try again next year. It is part of the fun to try new plants and see how well they grow . . . or don't grow! If plants don't do well, you may need to do some research to find out why. It may be that they need shade or full sunlight and they are just in the wrong place in your garden. Don't worry if the only place you have to plant is in a few pots indoors or out. Plants can grow everywhere if they have the right conditions (water and sun or shade). Remember that if your sunlight source is through a window it can be a lot stronger. Take this into consideration when you decide where to place your plants and what plants you decide to grow. You can always move them away from the window a little each day before the strong sun comes or compensate by watering more often."
    Typing the word "shade" into a gardening website may yield some interesting results as a starting-point for garden planning; just be sure to watch out for terms that won't apply, like "shades" (meaning, colors) and "nightshade."

    A "Real" Garden

    A "real" garden could perhaps be described as any formal garden, where a plot of land is dedicated to growing specific crops. This type of garden has the most possibilities, but it also has the most upkeep, from planting to preventing pests. One of the most important requirements for a "real" garden is plenty of sun! As you can see in the photo above, the fruit trees and garden crops are all receiving direct sunlight.

    "Just as important as
    having sun is having
    a way to water the garden
    should it not rain--
    and trust me, it
    never rains when
    you want it to, and it always
    seems to rain when
    you don't want it to."

    Perhaps some of the most appealing seeds now making a comeback in gardening catalogs are the "heirloom" varieties. Some growers consider plants that have been around for 50+ years to be heirlooms, while others take a 100+ year antiques-definition approach. Regardless of the definition, heirlooms are generally produce where seeds were developed and passed down along family lines.
    While heirloom varieties exist in various produce, tomatoes seem to be quite in vogue right now. Families may find these varieties to be especially fun to grow since they come in various colors, including green, yellow, and purple, and many have stories that go along with them, which are fun to learn and repeat to friends. The "Mortgage Lifter tomato" has one of the most beloved histories. (You can read an article about this specific tomato on the Living on Earth website (outside link):
    Non-heirloom tomatoes are also great for first-time gardeners. According to Christan, "tomatoes are really easy as long as they have enough sun. I've had some wild ones these past two years." Arnida has some advice for people who are growing cucumbers and tomatoes. "They need stakes to keep them upright. You have to keep an eye on them when they start to grow fruit, because they can be heavy and need to be tied to give them support. Yarn or wire twist ties are good for this. Don't tie them so tightly that the branches break, or you will lose your veggies! If the vegetables grow on the ground they rot easily."

    "Any kind of treatment
    for bugs should be done
    in the evening after the bees
    have stopped working for the day
    so you don't kill them
    by mistake. Oh, and we don't
    spray peppers at all
    because they don't like
    it and shrivel up. We just put
    up with having some insect damage."

    Now What?

    If you're convinced that you want to start gardening, you may wonder what the next step is! The prospect may even seem overwhelming. Where is a good place to start?
    Christan says, "Start with something that interests you. I started with tomatoes because I have full sun on the house and I love popping a fresh cherry tomato into my mouth. I could snack on those all day! I enjoy the whole process of germinating the seed, watching it flourish, and then enjoying the 'fruits of my labor!' It gives me pride in succeeding and happiness watching my children eat the freshest vegetables and knowing where they came from."
    For wannabe green-thumbs with no concept of what they want to grow, it's inspiring to simply order as many free gardening catalogs as you can from big-name companies (many have easy mailing list sign-ups online). Full-color catalogs are especially helpful. Mail-order companies tend to ship catalogs in the winter months. While this may seem odd, it's a good idea to look them over and even place an order during the winter. Catalog companies are notorious for being slow to ship seeds and/or live plants, so it's important to get your order in early, before the spring rush. If starting seeds indoors, you may even want the seeds and starting supplies by February or March, depending on your location! So while it may seem silly to begin getting gardening catalogs in the mail around the first of the New Year, this is totally normal and to be expected . . . and, now that you have decided to start gardening, you'll be grateful for them.
    However, catalogs can't be the end-all to your research. You'll need to know what will grow in your area, and probably want to choose specific plants that you feel are compatible with your lifestyle. This is where the Internet comes in handy. By using the seed catalogs as a guide, you can further research specific varieties on various gardening sites on the Internet, and see if they will grow well under your specific conditions in your local "hardiness zone."
    If it's spring-time or summer-time, you may wish instead to head to a knowledgeable local gardening center and ask for a beginner's plant like a strawberry or tomato plant; or try planting a few inexpensive garden-variety seeds and seeing if they come up (lettuce, for example, can grow in late summer/early fall). By choosing local plants from a local nursery, you'll ensure that the plants are ones intended for your locality. It's hard to fail with a soon-to-be-producing strawberry or patio tomato plant.
    Whatever gardening hobby you choose--even if it is only thumbing through gardening catalogs or supporting your local farmers market--we all hope you will develop a taste for "homemade" produce.

    This article and accompanying photos are copyright 2007 by Melissa J. Taylor, and may not be reproduced or redistributed. FAST is not responsible for any results of reading or using this article. Always speak to your allergist about allergy concerns. A hearty thank you to everyone who contributed: A., Christan, "Farmer Connie," and J. Melissa Peeler.

    This website is for personal support information only. Nothing should be construed as medical advice.