What can grow on poor compacted soil, in sun or shade, with no fertilizer, has no problems with pest or disease; and still will look beautiful year round?
Why mosses and other bryophytes, of course….
Bryophytes are hardy, ancient non-vascular plants. They remain with us in abundance despite their long history covering the soil of planet Earth. And their appearance often appears magical when they begin growing in the most impossible and most inhospitable spots.
Soft expanses of moss exude serenity and calm. They offer respite from an often chaotic world. They allow us to simplify our gardening effort; providing sanctuary for the weary gardener while helping to heal our planet.
Mosses utterly fascinate me. These miniature plants simply appear, unplanned and unplanted; sown by nature’s hand. Like a thick plush rug, they carpet the soil year round, remaining green even under a blanket of snow or glaze of ice.
And every moment they clean carbon dioxide and pollutants from the air we breathe, returning these elements to Earth.
But a moss carpet takes time to grow; many years in most cases. Allowing nature to create the moss garden, unaided by the gardener’s hand, can be an uncertain proposition because those tiny bits of moss must compete with other larger, stronger, more weedy vascular plants.
My experiments with moss gardening in containers have been mixed. While some have survived and colonized the pot, others have not.
The moss turns brown. Birds raid the loose pieces for their nests. Squirrels push the moss aside to dig for nutty treasures, leaving it to desiccate in the sun.
The longer we live in this garden, the more I value moss as a ground cover for paths, slopes and areas which remain in deep shade. It is an affordable, practical option to ‘finish’ areas which otherwise would remain muddy for much of the year.
When I saw Annie Martin’s The Magical World of Moss Gardening, published in early September of 2015 by Timber Press, I knew this lush ‘how to’ manual could teach me the techniques I needed to cultivate mosses on a larger scale in our garden. And it has proven to offer as much inspiration as it has instruction. The photos alone opened my eyes to possibilities for using mosses in the garden which I wouldn’t have imagined on my own.
‘Mossin Annie’ takes us on garden tours around the United States; from her own and others she has created near Asheville, NC on to Oregon and California; as well as to the centuries old moss gardens of Japan. In fact, one of the gardens Annie photographs grows in Chesterfield County, Virginia. In showing us these gardens, Annie demonstrates the three main ways to establish gardens and design with mosses.
The first, simplest way also takes the longest time. Norie Burnet, a Chesterfield County teacher with a wooded suburban property and little budget for gardening, allowed nature to plant her moss garden for her. She waited for airborne spores to take hold and colonize those areas she prepared for moss, then meticulously watered, weeded and groomed to give the moss every chance to thrive.
She has invested 25 years of careful tending and designing to help those mosses grow exactly where she wants them. Now she enjoys an exquisite shaded garden, beautifully carpeted in many species of moss, which she can easily maintain herself.
A second method for establishing mosses gives the gardener a more active hand in selecting and placing mosses to create beautiful designs with their textures and colors. It also speeds the process considerably. This is the method I’m experimenting with this year.
Rather than waiting for moss spores to colonize the garden, we speed things up a bit by transplanting moss where we want it to grow. This works best in areas where moss can and will grow naturally, using native species of moss. But moss from other parts of the world sometimes may be transplanted if their needs are met.
Ordinary unamended, compacted garden soil works best here. First clearing away every weedy vascular plant, we rough up the surface a little, then firmly press small bits of moss onto the prepared soil. Annie recommends pieces the size of one’s hand, but smaller bits will work. These are laid into a patchwork with spaces left between. The transplanted moss will take hold and grow. Eventually it will send its spore into the surrounding areas.
The mosses need moisture and time to grow. Daily watering is key to keeping them alive and growing during the crucial time when they are taking hold. Firm pressure to give them a good bond with the soil is needed, too. First, pressing them very firmly into place when planting. and later walking over them regularly to maintain that contact.
Here is where I had problems. No matter how firmly I might push my little transplants down, some bird or squirrel will come behind me and flip it! Some tasty morsel surely is under that moss! And the birds appreciate my help in tearing the mosses for them to line their nests!
The remedy is to pin each piece of moss into place with toothpicks, small broken sticks, or metal pins. I used the same U shaped metal pins we keep for making evergreen wreathes. These hold the mosses securely and allow them a chance to grab into the soil below.
This has been a major problem in my outdoor containers, too. Agitation of the moss transplants from animals interferes with its growth. But also, the potting soil itself isn’t a good subsoil for moss.
Potting soil is too light, and the perlite in most mixes makes it nearly impossible for moss rhizoids to grow into it. While moss spores easily colonize moist potting soil, transplanting mature pieces remains a challenge.
The size of the hunks of moss, and the size of the spaces between are determined by how much moss you have to plant and how quickly you need the ground covered. Which do you have in more abundance, time, moss or money?
The third method for establishing a moss garden is the fastest and gives the most immediate satisfaction. After cleaning and preparing the site, one simply rolls out the already growing moss. Annie owns a moss garden landscaping company and raises large sheets of moss already growing on landscaping fabric, which her crews will roll out on your bare soil, for a price, and anchor into place. Voila! Instant moss garden!
She, and others around the world, also grow moss in nursery flats. It is possible to buy many varieties of moss, mail ordered from a nursery, by the square foot. These smaller mats are then torn into designs or laid whole to carpet the area.
All methods require careful attention for the first several months as they attach to the soil below. They must be kept clean, with fallen leaves, sticks and other garden waste swept away so light can reach the moss. Vascular weeds which take root in the moss must be plucked. They compete by shading out the moss and absorbing the moisture it needs. Tears in the moss must be mended; stray bits pushed back into place.
Perhaps you’ve heard stories of ‘Moss Milkshakes’ as a method for getting mosses to grow on rocks or clay pots. I’ve not yet tried this method. Annie discourages it and explains she has had little success. One breaks up hunks of living moss into an old blender, and adds some combination of buttermilk, yogurt, or beer….. This whole mess is whirred into a thick slurry and painted on to a porous surface, kept moist and shaded, and at some time in the future moss begins to grow. It should work.
Most mosses can regrow from any part of the plant. Like the arm of the starfish, even the tiniest bit of leaf or rhizoid is enough for the whole moss to grow back in the right conditions. And the gardener’s challenge becomes to provide those right conditions consistently enough and long enough for the moss to colonize and establish themselves on the new surface.
This may be something I experiment with in the coming weeks. Mossin Annie shares very detailed and useful information about moss gardening in her beautiful book. But search as I may, nowhere can I find instructions for growing a flat of moss, or for growing one of her large sheets of landscape fabric based moss. Those must be trade secrets!
And that is what I would like to learn. I’d like a few beautiful homegrown flats of the mosses already native in our area, ready to lay on the ground, to embellish our now growing moss gardens. Because part of the art of designing moss gardens is the interplay of various textures and colors of mosses growing next to one another. Flats of ready moss are the artist’s palette for a moss gardener; and like everything else in the garden, must be bought if not ‘home grown.’
And it all takes time. Annie makes clear that the moss gardener must think in months or years to see a vision grow into place. Even buying her moss mats to carpet a shady corner of the garden, one must still wait for mosses to grow up over rocks or stumps, trees trunks and walls.
Like with all gardening, it unfolds in its own time. We can perhaps speed the process a little with our efforts. We can aid and encourage nature in her natural course. But ultimately, we wait for the miracle; with enough patience to finally witness its unfolding.
Woodland Gnome 2016