Mad About Moss—The Simple Art of Moss Gardening
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?
Fast-forward to a chilly April morning 12 years later. Pulling on the season's first pair of garden gloves, I stepped out into the side yard onto a scruffy, balding plot of weeds scattered with yellowish tufts of vestigial turf grass. Despite some clumps of budding lily-of-the-valley and a chartreuse row of ferns unfurling along the side of the house, the yard—after a decade-plus of neglect—was not a pretty sight. And something needed to be done.
From the start, reviving the green-grass lawn of yore seemed out of the question. First, it would take hours of maintenance per week, and with almost two acres of flower, fruit, and vegetable gardens to attend, time was what I had the least of. It would also take a lot of soil amendment, since the Catskills are naturally acidic and moist. If I limed the soil enough to please the grass, the acid-loving rhododendrons, trilliums, pinxter-bloom azaleas, and other natives along the edge of the lawn would protest. And it would take more sun than I was willing to give it—I like the privacy and "woodsiness" that the fir trees' droopy old branches offer.
Taking the path of least resistance, I decided to nurture what was happiest there already. I was content with the woodland shrubs and ferns growing along the edge of the house and along the bank that rises in the back yard—my only problem was with the lawn, or lack of it. As I kneeled down on the greenest patch and peered closely at it, I saw that most of what was green there was not grass at all, but moss! Hmmm....
Weaving the Carpet
After 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.
I even broke down and purchased a book—by gardeners' consensus the book—Moss Gardening: Including Lichens, Liverworts, and Other Miniatures, by George Schenk (Timber Press, 1997). In addition to pages devoted to appreciating and cultivating mosses in Japanese gardens, alpine gardens, bonsai plantings, containers, and other places, the book had just what I was looking for—a chapter about growing moss carpets. Schenk waxed poetic about the sensuous attractions of moss that go beyond the visual—especially soft, cushiony expanses that invite you to walk barefooted on them.
Schenk describes no fewer than six methods of starting a moss carpet, including starting from scratch and preparing the soil for the natural colonization of moss from self-sown spores (a long-term project); transplanting moss, either in large sheets or in small, spaced-out plugs; and nurturing preexisting mosses in an area naturally hospitable to them. After gazing at two color plates in Schenk's book—a shady patch of mossy ground before and after it had been relieved of stringy tufts of pale grass and tree litter—I set a goal of 50 square feet by summer's end and started picking up pinecones.
Hand-pulling blades of grass 'twixt thumb and forefinger, along with the occasional Ajuga plant, could be considered tedious work, but compared with the frantic pace my usual chores demand, it was an exercise in meditation. After removing every strand of grass, wild strawberry, and hawkweed shoot from the first square yard of ground, I was perversely gratified to see that the lawn was predominately moss and that my job would be time-consuming but not Sisyphean. I became obsessed with weeding my plot and started looking for opportunities away from housework and garden hoeing to sit and pick awhile.
Once I actually got down on the ground, I had the usual revelations folks report when they get really close to the earth and can see more of what goes on down there. As I watched countless spiders, beetles, and earthworms take evasive action from my fingers—as opposed to the ants, which skittered purposefully toward me in attack mode—I noticed that I didn't have just one kind of moss growing in my yard. Despite the wonderful photographs in Schenk's book, identifying species proved difficult—even experts admit that distinctions between mosses are often hard to make without a microscope—and I was satisfied if I could narrow a moss to its genus. In the low spots, especially near the sump-pump outlet, Sphagnum and several species of haircap moss (Atrichum) grew in abundance. A tiny knoll six inches higher in elevation was covered in ferny Thuidium. There were even more varieties of moss growing in microenvironments such as on the exposed roots of the spruce trees and on the laid-stone foundation of the house.
A Gathering of Mosses
In addition to nurturing the species I found growing naturally, I experimented with transplants: I covered some hard-packed bare spots with platter-size sheets of Dicranum 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 velvety Dicranum, 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.