Gardening with Moss

The Humble Plants Provide Many Benefits

Despite environmentalists" warnings, Americans spend large amounts of time and money on products that eradicate moss from their manicured lawns. This, along with unchecked commercial harvesting and damage by pollution, has caused a serious decline in the low-profile plant, even though moss is an important component of many ecosystems, from cave walls to the forest floor.

Each year, 17 million pounds of moss is harvested for sale in florist and craft stores across the nation. You may have noticed dried moss glued to wreaths or to the base of a bouquet. But did you ever wonder where it was grown? Not only does moss prevent erosion, but it also provides important nest material for many bird species and serves as a substrate for insects, worms and small mammals.

Grow Your Own

Southwestern Connecticut-based landscape designer Christine Cook suggests a unique way to help counter these trends: moss gardens. HGTV, the home and garden cable channel, points out: "Mosses are fairly easy to grow, unusual to look at, and have become increasingly popular in recent years." Cook, who has been helping people establish ponds and contemplative, native plant and butterfly and dragonfly gardens through her company Mossaics for years, says moss can work very well in many people’s yards.

"Moss is wonderful because it doesn’t need to be mowed and it eliminates the use of pesticides, fertilizers and liming," says Cook, who describes herself as an "ecological" landscape designer. "It also doesn’t need much water or weeding, is evergreen, and deer don’t eat it."

Bryologists, who study moss, do not have an exact date for when this type of plant first emerged, but it may be as far back as 350 to 700 million years ago. "Scientists now think moss was likely the first type of land plant," explains Cook.

Moss can grow in an enormous range of conditions, from sunny to shady and from hot to cold. Moss is classified into 15,000 different species, 1,200 of which can be found in North America. With so many types of moss the odds are there is one that thrives in your conditions.

Scout the Terrain

To create your own moss garden, start by doing a site analysis. Is the land moist enough? Is there enough light? What other plants grow in the area? Answering these questions along with taking a soil test will help you or your landscape designer decide what species of moss naturally grow in your area. You may also find it helpful to speak to a local nursery staffer or botanist about the factors that will most strongly impact the survival rate of moss: adequate moisture, shade and soil pH.

Cook suggests that beginners start with a dry shady moss, because they need little sunlight or water and are the easiest to cultivate. Two popular starter mosses are the lesser smoothcap (Atrichum angustatum) and Plagiomnium cuspidatum, which is often called the "woodsy leafy moss."

Some nurseries carry starter moss garden kits, which contain packages of spores or patches of full-grown moss for transplanting. Moss Acres, located in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, offers a variety of moss garden starter kits on its website, starting at $35. Al Benner, president of Moss Acres, says moss will thrive in shady areas where it is traditionally difficult to persuade grass to grow, including under and around trees and between stepping stones on flagstone paths.

This Moss Can be Yours

After you have selected a suitable area, remove weeds and press spores into little three-inch square plugs, two to three feet apart. When planting the moss spores, do not use herbicides, but add compost or fertilizer. Paul James, host of HGTV’s Gardening by the Yard, suggests applying a buttermilk mixture to the soil to promote faster growth. Mix one part buttermilk and two parts water in a misting spray bottle and apply generously during the first few weeks of growth. Within a couple of weeks you should see the first signs of moss beginning to grow. "Any garden takes about two years to look good," adds Cook.

During the first year, mist the plants with water once a week, but after that nature will take over. Moss holds water in its filaments, allowing it to survive during droughts and long winters. During extreme conditions, moss survives by becoming dormant. Worth reading are three books on moss gardening by George Schenk, including Moss Gardening and The Complete Shade Gardener. If you don’t have the time to start your own moss garden, hire an experienced landscape designer.

STEPHANIE WHITE is a former E intern based in Westchester County, New York.

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