Moss can be made to grow on various objects in the garden, such as this pagoda. Japanese gardens are famous for their use of moss.
When it comes to moss in the garden, I’m smitten, I’m in love and I can’t help it.
Ever since this group of primitive plants started making its way into my shade garden, I’ve grown more attached and have expanded its use and presentations in many ways. For purposes of simplicity, I’m lumping mosses and liverworts together and referring to them as moss.
Moss has the ability to fit into many garden styles. Japanese, woodland, shade, native, rock, water and tropical gardens all play host to moss in various ways. In Japan, moss has been an integral part of gardens for over 1,000 years.
For too long, moss has been neglected (if not hated) by American gardeners who seem to have an unhealthy obsession with turfgrass, which they desperately try to grow in the densest of shade. With over 400 species of moss in the eastern United States, there has to be at least one that will work in your garden.
Environmental Conditions for Moss
Different species of moss have different requirements; some will even grow in full sun. Moss can make its home on rocks, logs, living trees and the ground. However, for the most part moss loves humid, shady areas with acidic soil that is compacted and slow to drain. In such areas, turfgrass will struggle, if it survives at all. To encourage moss, simply keep the ground clear of weeds, leaves and other debris, and moss will often move in on its own.
With enough constant moisture, many mosses can handle a fair amount of sun. This waterfall receives afternoon sun, yet the moss behind it stays lush and green year round.
Moss derives its nutrients from water that splashes or washes over it or directly from the air, and even though it thrives in moist conditions, it is surprisingly drought tolerant once established. In dry, hot weather, moss will go dormant and become a dull green/gray color. Once moistened with a hose or rain, it will brighten almost instantly.
Transplanting can be accomplished by scooping moss from its current site (it has no roots) and tamping into place in another location. It can also be propagated using the blender (see Table I). Cool, damp weather is best for transplanting and propagating, and moss often grows best in the late fall through early spring.
Moss does not need soil amendments or fertilizer, and, in fact, some fertilizers can be damaging. Most mosses do require being kept free of garden debris, such as leaves, pine straw and dirt, so that they remain exposed to the air. This is often the most time-consuming chore of a moss garden, but I have found that frequent use of a leaf blower does a great job.
Weeds are usually more of a problem while a moss garden is still in its infancy. Once thick and lush, most weeds will have a hard time getting started. I do use a pre-emergent herbicide on my moss groundcover twice each year as I would on a grass lawn. This prevents the usual annual weeds that can appear. For perennial weeds or lawn remnants still present as the moss is establishing itself, I use either a broadleaf weed killer, such as 2,4-D, or a half-strength dose of a general herbicide, such as glyphosate. These chemicals may temporarily discolor the moss, but as any turf-obsessed homeowner will tell you, they won’t kill it.
There are so many species of moss that live in the southeastern United States that only a bryologist could really cover them all. However, here is a brief look at the more common species that seem to work well in my garden.
Thuidium species, often referred to as fern mosses, have tiny, fern-like fronds, which are visible to the naked eye. This low-growing, spreading moss makes a fine groundcover, transplants well and can handle a moderate amount of foot traffic.
Dicranum species, often called broom mosses, tend to be more clump-forming and are found growing as “fuzzy cushions” on rotting logs, near rocks or the base of trees. These mosses do not tolerate foot traffic and are best used as specimens tucked into logs or rock crevices.
Leucobryum species, often called pincushion mosses, form tight clumps that are light blue/gray/green in color. The clumps, which are often very fragile, do not tolerate foot traffic and are best used as specimens with the Dicranummosses to offset their bright green color.
Mnium and Bryum species are also low growing and spreading, making a nice ground cover that can tolerate foot traffic.
Moss in the Garden
Moss that is not as tolerant of foot traffic, such as the pincushion or broom mosses, can be used on paths with protection provided by stepping-stones.
In nature, you rarely find moss growing as a monoculture with one species “ruling” an entire area; such is the same in most moss gardens that evolve naturally. I have identified at least six to eight different species of moss in my own garden, and that doesn’t include the ones I’ve imported. Because many moss lawns will be a blend of different species, they will contain a variety of textures in varying shades of green. This can be a problem for those who want a uniform appearance, as with a turfgrass. If, however, you have imported the moss into your garden or if you are propagating only one type, your moss garden may evolve into a single species.
I have the most pleasure using moss as a replacement ground cover for turfgrass in my densely shaded garden with its compacted, acidic soil. I must confess that my “moss lawn” was not of my doing but was installed by Mother Nature. I have simply encouraged it by removing competing plants and keeping it clean.
I treat my moss lawn like turfgrass, walking on it when I want (it feels like velvet), rolling a heavy wheelbarrow across it and dragging the hose through it. Sometimes this will displace small clumps of moss, which are easily repaired by tamping back into place with my foot. Squirrels present the most aggravation as they dig in my moss to hide and rediscover their hidden treasure trove of acorns.
Those species of moss that do not handle foot traffic make great specimens tucked between rocks, stepping-stones, covering garden statues or used on logs. I have removed moss-covered logs from my woods and used them as accents in raised beds or as edging.
Those logs that weren’t already growing moss make a great home for clumping mosses tucked into the irregular edges. I have even used a small stump positioned upright with clumps of Dicranum resting in the top and sides.
Moss mixes are great as a ground cover or accent around other shade-loving plants. I have found the most enjoyable combination is with ferns. However, moss mixed with other evergreens, such as foamflower (Tiarella), coral bells (Heuchera), barrenwort (Epimedium), lungwort (Pulmonaria) and ginger (Hexastylis), helps to enhance the beauty of all. Moss can even be used around spring ephemerals, such as trillium, Jack-in-the-pulpit and bloodroot.
Getting Rid of Moss
Why? Simply move it to other locations where you can enjoy its special beauty. There is something calming about looking at and strolling through a moss garden.
• Palm-sized clump of moss
• 1 cup of buttermilk or plain yogurt
• 1 cup water
Put the moss, buttermilk and water into the blender and set to puree. Blend thoroughly until the moss clump has completely broken apart and you have green slurry. This can be painted or poured onto the surfaces where you want moss to grow.
This doesn’t work on all moss species, but it’s worth a try for any you want to propagate.
Moss Acres – mossacres.com
Moss Gardening: Including Lichens, Liverworts and Other Miniaturesby George H. Schenk
Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of MossesBy Robin Wall Kimmerer
Designed and installed by my favorite designer, Mother Nature, this moss and mountain laurel grow bonsai-style on a rock outcrop.
Moss makes a great ground cover around ferns and tucked into stonewalls. The variation in color from different species gives a unique texture to this woodland garden.
Using recycled nursery flats is a great way to transplant moss. Kept moist and in the shade, they will remain healthy on the flat for several weeks.
A version of this story appeared in print in Georgia Gardening, Volume II Issue 8. Photography by Theresa Schrum.