Moss Garden

There are a number of ways to handle landscaping problems. Sometimes it comes down to the easier way versus the more labor intensive solution. A soggy spot in the yard can be drained and filled in so you can plant roses or you can get the weeds out and plant Joe Pye weed and a pussy willow or two. The first solution requires digging drainage ditches and probably bringing in top soil. The latter might mean a day or so of weeding, spraying herbicides or weed-whacking, depending on the area and your preferences.  On the whole, maintaining the area as a haven for damp loving plants is going to be a lot easier than modifying it for plants that would be a lot happier elsewhere.

Damp shaded areas, especially around homes in wooded settings, often produce crops of moss. These areas usually have a low pH, poor soil, and are compacted due to various types of traffic.  If you mow them and continually scrape the area it aggravates the situation resulting in further harm to the grass and not damaging the moss one bit. Once it gets started moss will kill off the struggling grass that is attempting to grow in a location that was never meant to support grass.

You are not without options here. You can start a campaign to kill all of that dratted moss. Remove it physically, scraping it or raking it off the affected areas. Liming the area will help raise the pH and will also desiccate the moss to a certain extent. There are commercial products that will kill moss.  None of this is going to be very helpful if the conditions that encouraged moss growth in the first place are not rectified. Moss puts off millions of spores and is a very tough plant, so no method is going to remove it to the extent that it will not regrow in an area that suits it.

The first step in making an area unsuitable for the growing of moss is to identify the problem.  If the area is very shady you might remove trees or at least do some pruning. Excess moisture problems can be solved by draining the area by ditches or perhaps increasing the slope. Get in some heavy equipment and re-grade that section of the yard. If it is an area that has compacted soil, preventing grass roots from getting proper aeration, dig it up and keep the kids off of it.  These are all solutions that are going to radically change your landscaping and maybe your lifestyle, so why not just give up and put in a moss garden.

Mosses are Bryophytes; the only other members of this phylum are lichens and hornworts.  If you have ever seen a hornwort you have probably mistaken it for lichen or even a moss. They are all nonvascular plants meaning that they have no circulatory system. Nutrients and water are passed from cell to cell via osmosis, so all of these plants are small. The part of the moss that you see is the sporophyte generation. It is the equivalent of the plant part of a vascular plant. The slender stalk and capsule are the equivalent of the sexual parts of the flower. This is the gametophyte. It produces the spores from which the mosses reproduce, although mosses can also grow from cellular division.  This is why you can throw moss into a blender, scatter the resulting glop and have moss grow.  Since the sperm needs water to travel mosses will only reproduce sexually where sufficient water is present.  They may grow in somewhat dryer areas but they won’t produce the capsules.

There are thousands of types of mosses that grow in various habitats. Even the experts have difficulty identifying them specifically.  Moss Acres, a company in Honesdale, PA, divides them into 4 practical categories. All, I’m sure, are available in the local woods, if not exactly the ones described the general types.  Sheet moss (Hypnum) is light green the most versatile of the available mosses. It will tolerate some foot traffic and is ideal for growing between bricks or flagstones or in establishing a moss lawn.  It prefers a shady location but will take some sunlight. Sheet moss can be peeled from where it is growing and moved to a similar location. It can also be ground and made into a moss “milkshake” for larger areas. It is the easiest to transplant.

Rock cap moss (Dicranum) is found growing on stones or boulders in the woods. It prefers a deep shade location and is best transplanted onto stones, although it can grow on soil. Rock cap moss will burn if subjected to any sunlight and is best transplanted when the trees are in leaf so it has some protection while it becomes established. Transplant it either in clumps or by grinding and making slurry. Grinding it encourages faster growth.  It is especially important to keep this one damp and clear of debris. Water retention gels are suggested if watering is a problem. Rock cap moss has been used in “green roofs”.

Cushion moss (Leucobryum) is a lighter green moss with a silvery cast. It grows in clumpsthat resemble soft cushions. It prefers shade but will tolerate some sun. Cushion moss likes a sandier soil than the other mosses.

Hair cap moss (Polytrichum) also prefers a sandier soil but should be transplanted with some soil. It puts down structures that resemble roots and these should be transported with the moss. Hair cap moss will take a moderate amount of sun.  When transplanting mosses it is important to observe where and how they are growing and move them into a similar situation.

While moss can be transplanted in sheets, strips or clumps an easier way to start it growing on pots or rocks is to make slurry and paint it on. This is also a good way to cover larger areas. There are many different recipes for making this slurry, the simplest is just using a blender to combine buttermilk or yogurt with moss until it liquefies. The following is a more complicated recipe and seems more appropriate for growing moss on the ground although it can be thinned down for painting on surfaces.

Place the following in a blender:

1 quart of buttermilk, 1 Tbsp. corn syrup, 1 cup beer, 2 cups finely chopped, freshly harvested moss and a cup of brown evergreen needles. The evergreen needles are optional and the moss can be replaced by purchased spores. Use more beer if a thinner mixture is desired. Blend until liquefied and paint or spread over a surface. It is important to keep the moss damp until it is fully established. Moss is fairly slow growing so be patient.