Learning To Love Moss

MossEasy to grow and care for, moss can make green carpets under shade trees, provide color and texture to rock gardens, or replace entire lawns.

Moss is most often seen as a problem, not a solution. It’s been called “one of the most persistent and annoying weeds” that occurs in home lawns.” Moss is a weed? I guess you can see it that way if it’s taking over from turf beneath trees or in other shaded and usually moist areas. Getting rid of moss often means improving soil, making it more favorable to growing grass. Just raking out patches of moss won’t eradicate it. Unless grass will take over, moss will come back. And creating the conditions for grass to grow where moss has grown before, can mean everything from working the soil to improving drainage, adjusting pH, even pruning or chopping down trees.

Might it be better just to learn to live with moss?

Not surprisingly, moss’ negative reputation is changing as more and more people discover its use as an alternative to a grass lawn. For one thing, you don’t have to mow it. And you don’t have to weed it (or spray it with herbicide). Moss grows so tightly that weeds don’t stand a chance. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to water it if you live somewhere with moderate precipitation. It may turn yellow or brown between rains but will green up with even just a drizzle. And it will grow in sunlight, though it may not be suitable for a yard in a sunny climate that doesn’t have a bit of shade.

Claims that it won’t grow in high altitude areas can be countered by anyone who’s hiked high into the mountains and seen carpets of moss growing on rocks and fallen trees. High altitude and little water? Moss might grow if you provide it with some extra care. While it can’t survive in the driest climates it can be sustained with frequent light waterings. (Studies have shown that moss needs only a fraction of the water than a lawn requires.)

Certainly moss isn’t for everyone or every landscape. It might just be appropriate in your yard for the place where moss already grows, or where nothing grows, say under that shade tree where the grass has died out. Moss is extremely adaptable and will flourish where soil conditions are poor. Yes, it likes acid soils but will tolerate alkaline soils. And again contrary to popular belief, moss doesn’t need poor, compacted soil to grow. It will do as well on good soil as it does on poor. Moss takes its nourishment from the air and water. Its rhizoids serve as roots, taking in nourishment and anchoring moss to the ground.

Mosses are known as “byophytes,” plants that don’t have true vascular tissue to transmit water. There’s two types: Acrocarps or upright growing mosses, and Pleurocarps, the moss that forms those lush and lovely carpets. Landscapers often combine various types of mosses in a moss yard. This provides color and textural interest. Growing moss between patio pavers makes for an intersting green visual and a sensory thrill when walking. Which brings us to an important question: can you walk on a moss yard? Yes, you can. But moss isn’t appropriate for heavily-used areas and will retreat from footpaths. And no, you won’t want to set up your croquet field or badminton court on such a yard. But walking bare foot on it after a rain can be the most pleasant thing you do all week.

Turning an entire yard over to moss can be time consuming in the hurry-up-and-wait sort of way. Soil preparation requires little more than a good raking. You’ll want to create any contours in the space ahead of planting. Also any other plants that will be included should be set before moss is laid down.

While there are landscapers and dealers who specialize in moss, make sure they can guide you to mosses that do well in your particular area. Best way to guarantee you’re using a moss that’s adapted to your local conditions is to take it up yourself from nearby woods or fields (make sure you have permission to harvest, either from private landowners or public lands such as the National Forest Service). You can cut plugs from what you’ve pulled and scatter them around the space you’ve prepared for the moss. Laying large swaths of moss will hurry things along. Smaller areas, in rock gardens or under tress can be completely covered.

Recipes for “moss paste” that use beer as a carrier are touted as an effective way to plant moss. We, of course, haven’t tried this method as we consider it a waste of good (or even bad) beer. If anybody’s had experience with this method, let us know.

Moss is also used in environment-friendly roofs where it provides insulation and moisture run off.

For us, a little moss in a terraced garden, or among shade-loving plants brings a cooling, aesthetically pleasing look to places that might otherwise be bare. If you don’t live in an area where a full-on moss yard is a possibility, or just want to add a touch of rich, green beauty to your patio or rock garden, experiment with adding moss. You might find yourself becoming obsessed, like this mad-for-moss gardener.

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