Gene E. Bush is a nationally known garden writer, photographer, lecturer and nursery owner. Contact him at

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Mysterious Mosses
by Gene Bush    

Soft, green, lush, touchable, ancient-looking — mosses are beautiful and fascinating additions to nearly any shade garden. And did you know that they have no root systems? Learn more about these underused undergrowths.

Sedum ternatum happily growing on a moss-covered stone. In the background is Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra).

I have long been aware of moss gardens from my enjoyment of Japanese gardens. I can close my eyes and visualize those gardens of simplicity. There are, of course, large expanses of cool emerald-green moss. Perhaps a single cutleaf Japanese maple casts darker green shadows upon the moss. There are dimpled stepping stones with a misting of fresh morning dew creating miniature pools in each stone. Perhaps a rotted log is slowly being painted into the scene as moss begins to creep up and over it. On occasion there will be clipped azalea shrubs in bloom.

Perhaps, as appreciative as I am of moss growing in Japanese gardens, I should have made the transition to gardening with moss in my own garden much sooner. Living and gardening on the north side of a hill, it was inevitable that I would eventually garden using moss. While I do appreciate the Japanese form of design using mosses, I have found my own preferences for use of this plant in my garden. 

Species of Moss

According to the research project “A Checklist of Mosses”, there are about 12,800 recognized species around the world. Many of those would require collecting and studying under a microscope to identify. For the average shade gardener, perhaps a basic selection of three species would be easily identifiable. 

Most easily found in woods is sheet moss (Hypnum spp.), which also happens to have the best survival rate when transplanted. Cushion moss (Leucobryum glaucum) is easily recognized since it forms perfectly round mounds of bright green in miniature. Rock cap moss (Dicranum spp.) can be found growing on stone and reminds me of masses of bright green miniature feathers. 

Cushion moss (Leucobryum glaucum) is seen here covering a brick.
Photos courtesy of Moss Acres

Rock cap moss (Dicranum spp.) covers these boulders and is dotted with ferns.

Mosses Have No Root Systems

When considering use of mosses in the garden, one’s thinking of plants has to be shifted a bit. For example, ferns are responsive to the presence or lack of moisture. Even when dried and brown they are only awaiting water and quickly respond, returning to green. Mosses are not vascular like perennials are, meaning mosses have no root systems. Moisture and nutrients are collected from dust and rain or mist in the air. Having no feeder roots is what gives mosses the ability to grow on rocks and logs.

Growing Conditions

Moss spores are almost everywhere. If conditions are right for their growth, they move in and establish. Different species have different needs, but generally they want neutral to slightly acidic soil pH. Usually hard clay is not a deterrent to mosses. Eastern U.S. woodlands supply enough moisture for them to proliferate. Because they are not vascular they do have a preference for stream-side locations where humidity stays high. Some species grow well in heavy shade, while others do best in more light. Match your garden location to that of your local woods.

The best time to transplant from one location to another would be when humidity and moisture levels are highest and most consistent. Late winter, early spring and fall going into winter works best.

These cast-iron crows sit by a waterfall lined with moss-covered stones.

Helping Things Along

Moss blooming on a stone during March makes a gorgeous vignette.

Mosses are rather slow to establish and spread in the garden. Anytime gardeners encounter a slow-growing plant they try to speed things up. This is why several methods of establishing and speeding up moss growth have been trialed in my gardens.

I moved a carving of limestone into my garden and wanted to age it to soften the stark white of new stone. I was advised to spray it with flat beer to attract mosses. I would consider that a waste of good beer. The carving did turn yellowish for a few months, but years later I still do not see moss growing on it.

Buttermilk sprays have been used several times to attract moss. Moss cannot be mentioned or searched on the Internet without the word “buttermilk” coming up. I have used it on soil, logs and stone and to this date the only result is my wife asking me to stay out of her cooking supplies in the fridge.

Moss shakes, where you make a slurry of existing moss and water, which you then spray or spread on soil or stone, is a workable method to establish moss.

Creating a Moss Garden

Creating your own garden of moss could not be easier. Mark off the area to become your new moss garden and make sure all weeds are removed. A mix of sand and peat moss makes a great growing medium and can be spread over existing soil. Transplanting plugs or divisions on 12-inch centers is the quickest method. Be sure and tamp the transplants in firmly. Or, a gardener can use a mix of moss-and-water slurry to sprinkle or spray on to the new area. Protect with a cheese cloth and water consistently every week to 10 days. Fertilizer is not necessary, but a weak manure tea does encourage mosses. Use caution when applying chemical fertilizer they can, and will, easily burn and kill mosses.

Keep debris and leaves from collecting on moss. If animals dig holes (leaving your moss garden looking like they practiced teeing off for several rounds of golf) simply push the sods back into place and water.

Starts can be obtained from friends who have moss growing in unwanted locations. With permission, moss can be collected from the wild if care is exercised in removing only a very small amount from the edge of an established drift. You only need a very small amount. Better yet, mosses for your garden can be ordered from specialty nurseries. 

Walking fern and moss on a somewhat hollow log filled with potting medium.

My Moss Garden Designs 

My preference for using moss in my shade garden is using the tiny tufts as accents as opposed to larger drifts. I enjoy it most when mimicking nature. The first two uses would be imitating nurse logs and ageless stone. Nurse logs are fallen dead trees that have rested on the forest floor long enough to have begun decaying and new life such as ferns, mosses and immature trees use them as a growing medium. I settle logs into my gardens, fill the cavities with potting medium and transplant ferns and mosses, adding almost instant aging. I could not imagine my water feature without the moss-covered stones that line its path.

Small containers of aged stone or hypertufa with mosses are easily maintained with a minimum of attention and look great snuggled among larger stones along a path.


In my eyes, the stones and logs mosses have chosen to grow on make the best companions. My eyes want to keep the serenity and coolness of moss from being distracted by too much color.

If you care to add ferns, my preferences are for smaller ferns such as maidenhair spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes), or perhaps the somewhat larger Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides). These ferns look great with mosses since they are often found growing together.

When considering color, I like to stay with smaller plants that form tight clumps. Common primrose (Primula vulgaris) with all its hybrids and color forms, along with cowslip (Primula veris), come to mind. Small bulbs used as underplantings work well as moss will not prevent them from emerging.

From State-by-State Gardening May/June 2013. Photos courtesy of Gene Bush unless otherwise noted.


Posted: 07/17/13   RSS | Print


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