Mad About Moss—The Simple Art of Moss Gardening
Plants & Gardens News Volume 19, Number 1 | Spring 2004bbg.org). When my husband and I bought our home in the western Catskills more than a decade ago, the lawn surrounding the house was lush with thick green Kentucky bluegrass, even in the shade of the fir trees on the north side of the house. Our next-door neighbor, who had diligently tended the property for the owners while it was on the market, informed us that the lawn was accustomed to a weekly crew cut to two inches, as well as regular doses of fertilizer and weed killer. We nodded politely and only half-listened to all the advice about lime and dandelion control—after all, how hard could it be to let grass grow?
Weaving the CarpetAfter doing a little Web surfing and library work, I came across an essay by the bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer in her book, Gathering Moss (Oregon State University Press, 2003), in which she offered a solution: "Mosses appear in a lawn when conditions for moss growth are better than conditions for grass growth. Too much shade or water, too low a pH, soil compaction... discourage grasses and let mosses grow. Better to... pull out the remaining grass and let nature build you a first-rate moss garden." I had the ideal conditions—all I had to do was bring out my ready-made moss garden's inner beauty.
A Gathering of MossesIn addition to nurturing the species I found growing naturally, I experimented with transplants: I covered some hard-packed bare spots with platter-size sheets ofDicranum that I'd found growing under similar conditions up the hill from my house. I also put down some cushion moss (Leucobryum) and a brushy clump of "mystery" moss I'd gathered from a walk in our woodlot. Since mosses don't have roots, using rhyzoids to anchor themselves to soil or rock or wood, most species can be gently collected by hand or with a spatula or flat-edged spade and transplanted onto soil that's been minimally raked to give the plant a foothold. The soil can be amended with an acidifier such as powdered sulfur or rhododendron food to give it an optimal pH of 5.5. Since I knew my soil was amenable to moss already, I added nothing. And although I was curious to see if the often prescribed blended-buttermilk-and-moss method would work, I couldn't bring myself to sacrifice my only blender to a botany experiment. Except for one corner where the preponderance of slugs defeated my resolve, by late July I'd hand-picked all the weeds and grass from my 50 square feet, and I was pleased with the result: a landscape of many-hued mosses that was truly evocative of a velvet carpet. Now it was time to think about nurturing and maintenance. In moss gardens like mine in which the moss has been there all along, watering is not usually necessary; some moss varieties may yellow or get a bit crunchy during periods of dry or hot weather, but naturally growing mosses will usually recover. Transplanted patches or plugs of new moss, however, need regular sprinkling or misting until they become established. The Web provides several sources for mail-ordering moss, as well as for starting and caring for moss gardens. With abundant water and shade assured, the only things I had to watch out for were overtreading and debris. Moss is surprisingly tough, and most ground-growing species tolerate occasional foot traffic. A birthday-party incursion of preschoolers with Tonka trucks did only temporary damage to my moss carpet. The only areas where I discouraged walking were on the transplanted spots, and I hope that even they will be safely treadable by next summer. Once a week I spent a few minutes gathering fallen twigs and dead leaves. (Aesthetics aside, since mosses have no vascular systems and they absorb water directly from the air or through rainfall, they don't do well under a mat of leaf litter.) And I did occasionally have to pick out weeds that had sprung up. I used a small, soft-bristled whisk broom to brush off accumulated pine needles from the velvetyDicranum, and after the ground froze, I gently raked and swept the fall's leaf and pine-needle drop. This spring, as soon as all the patches of snow are gone, I'll give my carpet a tonic of manure tea. With the exception of the tufty mystery moss, which, if not dead, sure looks it, all my transplants have thrived. With spot weeding and occasional sweeping of my moss carpet, I should have it made in the shade.
Joni Blackburn is the copy editor of Plants & Gardens News and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden All-Region Guides. Photo of moss by Joni Blackburn, Permission Granted. Illustration: Peggy Fussell