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How to Embrace Moss in the Garden


Velvety green moss is a calming element in a garden. Deer don’t eat it. It needs no mowing. It looks right with casual shade gardens, growing with ferns, rhododendrons, mountain laurel and native wildflowers. It grows on compacted soil and even rocks. It needs no fertilizer or pesticide, and it does well in semi-shade. It makes a soft coating which gives your pots, containers and troughs an old world look. It appears when conditions are right, because native moss spores are in the air everywhere, growing as nature intended when they fall on hospitable ground. In other words, it’s easy.

My own half acre is mostly shade. Long ago I decided that I was fighting the wrong battle and started removing the patchy lawn grass and helping the existing moss instead. I am happy with the low neatness of the mossy areas because of the contrast with the overflowing borders. The islands of calm make the exuberant masses of larger plants seem more wonderful. Some people hate moss and some love it, but more gardeners are giving moss a chance these days.

Sunny areas near my patio are showier, but farther away, paths lead through the soft moss to beds of shade plants which look as if they belong where they’re planted. Early spring bulbs bloom before the deciduous trees leaf out. Ephemeral native plants such as Virginia bluebell, bloodroot, Solomon’s seal, trillium, and Dutchman’s breeches share the beds with hellebores, hostas, violas, astilbe, primula, ferns and many other shade perennials. In between and farther back, azaleas, hydrangeas, fothergilla, deciduous hollies, and other shrubs and trees—both native and non-native—take the garden out to the limit.

Although the moss is, to me, easier than a grass lawn, it took a while to establish—even if it was already growing. Starting by weed whacking the shaded area down to bare ground, I followed up by hand-pulling grasses and weeds that reappeared, leaving the happy moss (whatever kinds appeared) to fill the space and serve as a natural mulch and erosion preventer. I brought in moss transplants from other parts of my yard and shaded driveway to fill things out. I scraped up pieces about 2-3 inches wide with a little fork or my fingers, tamped them down into the lawn, and kept them watered. Spring and early summer are good times to do this because it rains a lot. Once the moss clumps take hold, they thicken up, turn rich green after a rain, and resist weeds. I still do this wherever holes in the moss appear. My grandchildren love to walk on moss barefoot, but when the acorns start falling on it they are offended. 

A bryophyte, moss is an ancient, primitive plant that doesn’t have roots, anchoring itself to preferred surfaces. Nor does it have flowers, fruits or seeds. It spreads both vegetatively and by way of spores that travel on the wind. 

First, it forms a thin layer of what looks like algae. In a few weeks, it becomes mossier. When mature, the simple leaves are just one cell thick. When there is no water, it goes dormant but usually doesn’t die. It can grow even in freezing weather (as cold as 20 degrees). 

There are over 1,200 kinds of moss, and different types fill in diverse niches in the garden and wild areas. Some mosses will grow in sun, some types on rocks and fallen trees, and most types in the shade on bare ground. It can stand light foot traffic, but not ball games and heavy use. 

There are two main kinds of moss. The acrocarpous types make a mounded colony and have upright growth. These rounded clumps are sometimes used in pots or between rocks. The pleurocarpus types form spreading carpets and make good lawns. They settle in faster than the acrocarpous types. Sphagnum moss is one of these. So are many others that will land and grow well for you. 

Though moss has been used in exquisite Japanese gardens for ages, it has recently become popular in crafts and can easily be seen online via searches or with Pinterest. Biophilic interiors employ moss. You’ll find directions for covering baskets with moss, making large moss letters for special events, making terrariums with various types, using moss on green roofs and walls and between pavers and stepping stones, using it to plant or underplant troughs and pots, making a decoration out of a stump or rotten log, even using moss to carpet your kids’ fairy or dinosaur garden. A small trough planted with moss and dwarf hosta looks great. 

Although moss grows in shade, it needs light and water to grow. In nature it can be found in the woods, especially at the edge of splashing streams. It’s somewhat unnatural for an area to stay mossy, because any open spot is more likely to have seedlings from larger plants appear. 

If moss is covered by leaves or garden competition, it will die, so good care means frequently sweeping up litter. I use a soft whisk broom and dust pan for this, not a rake—and nothing noisy or electric. It could be considered a tedious job, but I tend to zone out. 

The only downside is that birds and squirrels sometimes dig under the moss, and I have to patch it up. Once I watched a wild bunny carry away mouthfuls of my moss to line her nest. 

While moss is lovely, it can be a problem when it appears in the wrong places. When it grows on pavement and the driveway, it makes surfaces too slippery to walk on. Bleach will kill moss, but it’s not good for the environment. Recently, I learned that ordinary baking soda works even better and is not as harmful. It can be used next to an area where you want the moss to grow. Sprinkle it on the affected area, wait a few days for the moss to loosen and turn brown, and brush it off with a whisk broom and dust pan. If you have a compost pile, throw away the residue there, and away goes the problem.