Grow Your Own Moss


Grow Your Own Moss

March 25, 2011
Photo by: Ippei Naoi/Getty Images


See also: A World Apart article, A World Apart photo gallery, Explore Kyoto's Temple Gardens, Moss Guide and A Moss Milkshake

Anyone who has happened upon a velveteened log in the woods or glimpsed emerald-draped statuary is likely to be seduced by moss’ color-saturated sumptuousness. But it is essential for those hoping to lay a carpet in their own backyards or coax the spread of an existing patch to understand the quirks of this ancient plant.  Like many 400-million-year-olds, moss is particular about its environment. Shade or semi-shade is usually a necessity. So are a consistent source of ambient moisture and vigilant maintenance to keep it free of weeds and debris (because mosses are nonvascular—no roots—they rely on their leaves for transportation of nutrients and moisture). Experts suggest setting down netting on top of moss in the fall and regularly emptying it of fallen leaves.  Even so, “a moss lawn requires far less maintenance than grass,” says Andy Navage, director of horticulture at the Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island in Washington. It’s not bothered by compacted soil, doesn’t require pesticides, and is remarkably resilient when it comes to drought and cold, going dormant when conditions are less favorable, and rehydrating when things improve. “With a grass lawn you’re looking at mowing once or twice a week,” Navage says. “But with a firmly established moss garden, you really only have to keep the majority of the leaves off and make sure weeds don’t encroach.”  Grass can be tough to keep at bay, says moss ecologist Dr. Robin Kimmerer, author of Gathering Moss (Oregon State University Press; 2003). “Unless the conditions are sufficiently moist and shady, in a competitive situation between grass and moss, the grass is generally going to win.” Moss gardens can be established in three ways. First, by clearing ground and waiting for airborne spores to land. “In the right habitat mosses will naturally colonize.” says Kimmerer, who advocates a let-them-come-to-you approach. Second, by encouraging already-present mosses by pulling out grass and weeds and acidifying (or in some cases, liming) the soil. Third, by cultivating it (see p. 76 to learn how to make a moss milkshake). Though moss coveters have been known to irresponsibly harvest or pull up patches willy-nilly, says Nancy Church, a partner at Moss Acres, one of the nation’s few suppliers of live moss, such practices invite invasive species and could render a particular species extinct in a given area.  Whichever method you choose, you can count on one thing: waiting. “The most important things to understand are the need for an established moisture cycle…and patience,” says Church. 


This article was first published in Garden Design April 2011