The Mossy Greensward
Lawns don’t have to be grassy
Shade, deep shade, surrounds my house. It is pointless to battle this situation and try to grow a traditional sun-loving bluegrass lawn here under ancient oak trees. So instead of fretting about wild moss invading the lawn’s grass, long ago I decided to remove the grass (I buzzed it all away with a weed whacker) and enjoy and encourage the moss in all its natural glory. There’s no mowing, no fertilizer, and no pesticides—simply a velvety blanket of green which made its own way into my once-patchy lawn.
Now well established, my moss lawn is beautiful, setting off a rock-rimmed shade garden. Pathlike, the moss can be walked on, but it is not the right surface for the wear and tear of ballgames or crowds. It reminds me of childhood days spent near a woodland stream, especially when I walk on it barefoot.
Moss grows worldwide in many climates. Perhaps the most famous moss gardens are the tranquil carpets under the trees of Japanese Zen gardens at the Saihoji and the Gioji Temples in Kyoto. These ancient gardens are minimalist in nature, composed of well-placed stones, trees, and water. As the monks observed hundreds of years ago, the mosses which find their way into the gardens, unplanned, enhance the serenity of the sites and make themselves welcome.
Here in the Delaware Valley, we live where forests are the natural way of things, and mosses are, too. You can look for moss and plant it, or you can let it find your site. You can even buy it from a few rare dealers in the moss business.
Mosses sprout from ever-present spores which drift around on the wind or are carried by water until they settle on the right kind of place to anchor and grow. Most types thrive on acidic soil. Mosses also like damp rocks, tree roots, and fallen logs, in the company of ferns and other shade-loving plants.
Some mosses prefer more sun or a different type of soil or rock than others. They need some amount of light and are killed by a solid layer of fallen leaves or other debris. They require moisture for circulation of nutrients and for fertilization which leads to viable spores. Yet mosses can go dormant for a few weeks during the dry days of summer, freshening up rapidly after a rain or a light misting with the hose.
This is not to say that moss gardens are carefree. In a landscape, moss is the bottom layer, growing below the grasses and non-woody plants, and below the shrubs, vines, and trees. All of these will crowd out or smother moss if given the opportunity, so it is your job to keep the “carpet” clean. This can make you crazy because nothing is hidden in moss—every acorn, fallen leaf, cicada wing, maple seed, clover flower, and tuft of grass will show.
The care of moss is quiet when done without gas or electric power. The main tasks are weeding, sweeping away fallen leaves and debris, and patching holes in the moss layer for a smooth, consistent look. My best tool for moss cleanup is a whisk broom—not too stiff—and a dustpan, plus my fingers for hand weeding. A blower works but is noisy. In a pinch I give the moss lawn a haircut with the weed whacker.
It is not hard to patch moss because tufts, hummocks, or sheets of it can be lifted off a rock or the ground where it is growing in one place and moved to a new site. It needs only minimum soil, and can grow on bare rock. Moisten the moss and moisten the soil or rock where you want it to grow and press it down (green side up). Alternatively, make slurry of watery clay or mud for the mineral base; yogurt, beer, or vinegar for acidity; and tiny crumbs of moss as starters. Paint or pour it onto the flowerpot, rock, sculpture, or ground where the moss is wanted. Keep it moist by spraying it with a little water twice a day for a week or two.
Even moss is subject to pest damage. In spring I found bare patches and browned crumbs of moss scattered around. A rabbit jumped out from the garden down to the moss, grazing and chomping until its mouth could hold no more. It repeatedly returned to its hideaway before coming out for another mouthful. I caught the action on video! I never saw this happen again, but birds sometimes scratch or peck around in moss, going after little wormy critters which creep around under there.
Weeds self-sow into moss, but so do desirable shade plants such as ferns, foxglove, and columbine, which can be left to grow or be transplanted. Some gardeners are still anti-moss but pro-moss attitudes are gaining. There is serenity in looking at the small things of nature that you find when tending your moss and letting it grow.
Moss Gardening, by George Schenk. 1997.
Timber Press, Portland, OR