As someone who grew up in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles in the 1960s and 70s, I am no stranger to air pollution. I recall days when we were required to stay indoors at school because the air quality was so bad. And, no, we did not have air conditioning. It was awful. Luckily, I had a great 6th-grade teacher, Ms. Melching. She would dim the lights and read to us about blizzards. It helped. But the polluted air gave us headaches and respiratory problems.
Plants need clean air to grow and thrive too. But it can be hard to recognize the damage caused by air pollution. It often looks like disease, heat stress, mite feeding, nutrient disorders, or water stress. If you’ve ruled those out, it’s time to consider air pollution.
Types of air pollution
Air pollution is estimated to cost US agriculture over one billion dollars annually. This damage can be chronic or acute. The smoky yellow skies from fires or fumes from a chemical spill fall under the acute category. More likely, your plants are feeling the effects of long-term exposure to low levels of pollutants from industry, power generation, and vehicles. The most common pollutants include nitrogen oxides, ozone, peroxyacetyl nitrate (PAN), and sulfur dioxide. Ammonia, chlorides, chlorine, and fluorides may also be in the mix that’s choking your plants.
The most common signs of some of the major pollutants are as follows:
Protecting your plants
Healthy plants are more able to protect themselves, so keep them well fed and watered. Also, the damage is most likely to occur during warm, humid days with no wind. Monitor air quality in your area and give your plants a light shower from the hose on days with poor air quality.
You can also help your plants (and yourself) by learning about the industries currently or recently active in your area (or upwind). And think about how you spend your money. Are you supporting companies that protect the environment or opting for the cheap stuff? It’s up to you, but we're all breathing the same air as our plants. Just sayin'.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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