Consider air quality as you garden

  • Posted: Friday, August 30, 2013 12:19 a.m.
    UPDATED: Friday, August 30, 2013 12:33 a.m.
The spots on these potato plant leaves is caused by excess ozone.
The spots on these potato plant leaves is caused by excess ozone.

SALISBURY — As gardeners, we may think about the use of land, the quality of our soil, the types of plants we want to grow, the importance of trees, the use of chemicals and the conservation of water. All of these may be things you consider, whether you are a casual backyard gardener, a lover of public gardens or a farmer whose livelihood depends on successful harvests.

But what do we think about as “gardeners” when we consider the air we breathe? How about the air our plants breathe?

Do we know how air quality in Rowan County factors into our personal health?

Do we even know that poor air quality can also be harmful to our plants?

Do we take the time to think about how our personal choices and actions contribute to our poor air quality?

Maybe you already know this, but our region, including our own beautiful and mostly rural county, has some of the worst air quality in the country. It is hard to believe, but proven to be true. Ozone levels measured at two monitors located right here in our own county are above the federal limits allowed. These levels are based on health risks from ozone. And the respected American Lung Association national rankings have for many years given our county an F grade for health risks from ozone.

So what causes ozone? Ozone at ground level forms when heat and sunlight react with fossil fuel emissions and volatile organic compounds. These fuel emissions can be from a variety of sources: from your vehicle, lawn and farm equipment, industry and power plants and construction equipment.

Ozone can also be very harmful to plants. Damage to vegetables and ornamental plants by ozone has been documented through experimental studies. We often may attribute the damage we see to pests or bacterial and fungal diseases when in fact, ozone may be the source. But who thinks of ozone when they are looking at a damaged tomato plant? Not many. Consider that next year when we may have our more typical very hot and dry summer and multiple high ozone alerts.

As citizens we should be concerned for our own health and that of our friends, family and neighbors. But as gardeners do we have a responsibility to do more? To know more? If so, then, what can we do?

It turns out that there are lots of positive things already under way here, and you as a gardener can be a part of it.

First, help educate others about their need to avoid being outdoors at peak times of heat on Ozone Action Days, where authorities have issued warnings. People already vulnerable (such as those with asthma, lung disease and heart disease), as well as children and the elderly, all need to know to not be outside when ozone levels are high. And that also can include you, if you are a farmer or gardener who spends most of the day outdoors, since you may also be at risk due to extended exposure.

Take the time to help remind others to look for the ozone warnings, through local newspapers, websites and TV, all who which have added alerts to their public information from April to October. Or you can go to for the most up-to-date information and to sign up for daily alerts to your phone or computer.

Second, educate yourself, and then pass on to others things that we can all do that collectively help to make a huge difference in our air quality:

• Use electric, hybrid or hand-powered lawn equipment whenever possible. Reduce mowing by landscaping with natural or mulched areas and planted beds.

• Try to mow either early in the day or late in the evening. Evening mowing is not only better for our air, but is better for your lawn. Lower humidity decreases the spread of disease and reduces clumping and clogging of equipment from mulched grass.

• When buying new equipment, consider mowers, edgers, blowers and trimmers that are electric, hybrid or propane, instead of gasoline or diesel fueled. New options that are quiet, cost effective and clean are now being offered by many of our local lawn and garden centers.

• Refuel vehicles and equipment carefully to avoid spilling fuel, and don’t top off. Try to fuel in non-peak ozone times, so avoid 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

• Drive your vehicle less whenever possible: carpool, vanpool, use public transportation, bike or walk. Plan ahead and combine several errands into one trip.

• Conserve electricity at home, at work and everywhere.

• Keep cars, boats, lawnmowers and other engines well-tuned. Use fuels that burn cleaner.

• Keep vehicle tires properly inflated and wheels aligned to save gas and reduce pollution.

• Purchase local products, food and services. Reducing the distribution chain that brings products to our region also reduces vehicle emissions.

• Visit the “Campaign for Clean Air” website for more information on air quality:

Everything we do may have an impact, so just remember to consider your choices daily. Gardeners who love plants also cherish the earth, and our air just could be the most important part.

Shelia Armstrong is a Rowan County Extension Master Gardener Volunteer and a native of Rowan County. She is also Air Quality Outreach Coordinator for the Center for the Environment at Catawba College. The Center’s “Campaign for Clean Air” provides education, free speaking events and useful information to the public. For information about the center visit

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