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annual gardening, annual garden design
POLLUTION CONTROL

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Elisabeth Ginsburg
You need this in your perennial border.

Everyone in this day and age seems to be allergic to something, and some people seem to be allergic to almost everything. I have the usual array of allergies—certain molds, pollens, dusts and danders. I also have another allergy, one that I think is quite common, but virtually undocumented. I am allergic to shopping malls.

My daughter will corroborate this. Whenever I visit a shopping mall, I end up with a headache. Now, this may be because I generally shop in the company of a soon-to-be-adolescent, or it may be because I have a well-documented aversion to spending money. It may be because I can think of a hundred better ways to spend my time. I choose to think that it is all those things plus one more—a reaction to the noxious fumes floating around in the climate controlled confines of most shopping malls.

All of this makes me think about indoor air quality, and ways that it can be improved. You can certainly remedy the situation with an array of air purification devices. You can also do a surprising amount of good with plants, and they are generally cheaper and more attractive.

The people at NASA, when not launching humans into space, have studied the effects of plants on indoor air quality. Not surprisingly this study was also partly underwritten by the Associated Landscape Contractors of America. While some may discount the findings because of the fiscal presence of this special interest group, I think the results are compelling.

Scientists conducting the study placed various popular specimen plants in sealed chambers, just as many employers do every day with human beings. The plants were then exposed to various gases that are commonly found in indoor environments. The leaves of some of the plants removed low levels of atmospheric pollution, while the roots removed and degraded pollutants even before they accumulated. Certain varieties of plants were especially good at removing gases such as formaldehyde and benzene. Formaldehyde is in a million products, especially the particleboard used to make office and other furniture, foam insulation, household cleaning products and the adhesives used for floor coverings. Benzene is a solvent present in gasoline, printers’ inks, paints, plastics and rubber.

By now you should feel the urge to rush to the garden center and buy some of these life-giving, pollution-controlling green wonders for your home or office space. The question is, what should you buy? After all, an ugly plant is an ugly plant, even if it does contribute positively to the indoor environment.

The good news is that if you choose you can do the job with good old heart-leafed philodendrons (Philodendron scandens oxycardium). These green leafy plants have been a pot mainstay for years. They are not the most interesting denizens of the horticultural world, but they are decent looking. They also tolerate less-than-optimal light conditions, making them more likely to survive in dim interior spaces. Golden pothos, another vining plant that succeeds well in pots and hanging baskets, is also a champion pollution controller that survives on what the experts call "diffused light". It has the added advantage of variegated leaves. Unlike philodendron, it will not put you to sleep.

Lots of people like big plants for big accents. If you are among them, get a corn plant (Dracaena fragrans). As the name suggests, the foliage of these specimens is reminiscent of the foliage of sweet corn. As for size, they can grow to be six feet tall, cleansing the air of formaldehyde all the while.

Suppose however, that you really want something that flowers. English ivy, another air cleaner, is green, but it doesn’t do much for the soul. The NASA study demonstrates that flower lovers can also breathe easier. All those poinsettias that blossomed so recently on coffee tables all over creation are good at getting rid of formaldehyde. Gerbera daisies, which you can get in just about any grocery store, take care of both benzene and trichloroethylene, which is found in printing inks, paints, lacquers, varnishes and adhesives. If you have a stark, modern decorating scheme you can take comfort in the fact that Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum), with its dramatic bracts and big green leaves also helps neutralize benzene and trichloroethylene. It’s a winner in low light situations too.

Chrysanthemum lovers have another reason to be glad. In the NASA tests, common florists’chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum morifolium) proved to be a triple threat, taking on formaldehyde, benzene and trichloroethylene. Reserve a few of your precious sunny spots for them.

For even greater effectiveness, put some activated carbon (available at garden centers and mass merchandisers’ plant departments) in the bottom of the containers when you repot your plants and invest in a fan to help with air circulation. Use two potted specimens per 100 square feet of floor space in the average home or work area.

I may never learn to get excited about philodendron, but now, as I inhale the fumes from the printers ink in the new catalogs, I know that my lungs will be grateful for the one holding court in the corner of the room.

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