If you are looking for an eco-friendly alternative to grass and seriously feel the winter doldrums when your greenery turns brown with the changing seasons, a moss garden might be right for your yard.
“It’s a plant that doesn’t die back in the winter time,” said Annie Martin, aka Mossin’ Annie, owner of Mountain Moss Enterprises and author of the book “The Magical World of Moss Gardening.” “I like to see vibrant green and see continued reproductive cycles that are immune to the negative effects of temperatures.”
Martin is quick to explain, though, that mosses are not just green — they can be “all sorts of jewel tones,” such as gold, copper and crimson. For a long time, moss was seen as a pest for lawns. Now there is a movement to bring the lush, fluffy natural carpet back to yards.
“Nurseries and garden centers and lawn care professionals were once focused on eliminating moss,” said Matthew Wallhead, ornamental horticulture specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “Now, there’s more interest in native plants and eco-friendly landscapes.”
Mosses also help to sequester carbon, filter water and prevent erosion or damage from flooding.
“Moss may tend to perform better in certain situations where other plants such as turf might not do as well,” Wallhead said. “It looks nice and it can add an interesting aspect to landscapes.”
Where to grow moss
Typically, moss tends to thrive in cooler, moister areas, though the exact requirements for water and shade will depend on the type of moss you grow.
Wallhead said to look for shadier locations, such as forest understories, partially wooded areas and woodlines, or the transition zone between your yard and a shady forest. If your property lacks these resources, Martin and Wallhead suggested growing on shaded stone wall, around the skirt of a tree or on the north side of a building.
“The sun passes along the southern portion of buildings,” Wallhead said. “The north side is generally cooler or shadier.”
Wallhead said to pick a spot where the soil is on the more acidic side. “As long as the growing substrate is below [pH] 7, it should be fine,” he said.
Mosses could, in theory, grow alongside vegetables without harming them, but neither Martin or Wallhead necessarily recommend it for the health of the moss.
“Many of the conditions [vegetables] would prefer would not be the same growing conditions that the moss would prefer,” Wallhead said. “It’s not necessarily going to compete with the plants for nutrients, but if it were completely covering the soil surface it could change the flow of water.”
The stability of the surface also matters. Wallhead said that sandy soil that shifts often with the wind and water can prevent the moss from anchoring down well.
Wallhead said that when it comes to geography, moss will thrive in areas that do not have high wind, high intensity light or dramatic swings in temperature or humidity. For this reason, plus the percentage of forested land in the state, Wallhead said Maine is especially conducive to growing moss.
How to choose moss for your yard
There are thousands of species of moss that come in a variety of different colors and textures. Martin said that there are some mosses that are better for first time growers because they grow more aggressively than others — Thuidium delecatulum and Dicranum scoparium, she said, are especially good for the Eastern part of the United States — but in general, she said to choose your moss species based on your level of sun exposure.
“I’d choose it more so on what is your sun exposure,” Martin said. “Certain species prefer only shade, but there are a lot that can live in the shade or partial sun. If you’ve got a variety of sun exposures, you could use different species.”
Martin said to watch your property carefully to see where the sun shines. Be especially cognizant of how shading changes on your land during seasonal changes when leaves fall off deciduous trees if that applies to where you live.
Where to get moss
Make sure you purchase moss from a reputable dealer that specializes in selling moss rather than going to a garden center.
“Avoid purchasing mosses that are dried up, dyed green, preserved mosses, like the ones available at garden centers and craft stores,” Martin said. “Inevitably, they have been acquired illegally. The abuses in the moss industry are beyond belief.”
If you cannot find a source for moss near you, Wallhead said it’s relatively easy to collect and propagate.
“If you know a property that would allow you to collect some, that’s probably the easiest way to do it,” Wallhead said.
If you are collecting moss, Wallhead said to make sure you know who owns the property where you are gathering it.
“If collecting to propagate make sure aware of local governances on collecting plant material and not taking it from parks and public spaces,” Wallhead said.
Wallhead said to collect moss by raking it up or collecting clumps and then transplanting them to a new location by pressing the fragments into the soil surface and keeping them evenly moist.
“One of the things that’s really important about mosses is that they grow from fragmentation,” Martin said. “They have asexual properties that are part of their normal life cycles of reproduction.”
To propagate moss on soilless surfaces like a stone wall or a stump, Wallhead said to mix the moss with buttermilk and water, which help moss rhizoids glue themselves to the surface, and paint or spray the mixture onto the surface where you want the moss to grow.
How to start moss
Martin suggested starting with a plot that is at least 2 feet by 2 feet, but she said moss is generally able to grow even in small space.
“You don’t really need any space. That’s the beauty of it,” Martin said. “You can even do it in containers.”
Wallhead said to remove all weeds and unwanted plant material before you establish the moss. Make sure your moss garden receives adequate moisture.
“Watering would be the number one thing that needs to be addressed,” Wallhead said. “What is mainly important is that it’s going to have adequate moisture and the surface where you’re going to grow it is fairly steady.”
“[Moss needs] brief watering cycles several times a day,” Martin added. “Do three cycles maximum of three minutes each. There’s an advantage to putting it on an automated system.”
Because of their water filtration properties, mosses can also be watered with rainwater or greywater.
“Rainwater isn’t necessarily particularly clean, but it’s not going to bother mosses,” Martin said. “They’re tolerant of heavy metal toxins. There’s one species that is first to come back at copper mines. Mosses can also be watered with greywater.”
Moreover, pesticides are not really necessary to maintain your moss garden.
“They are truly green environmentally,” Martin said. “They require no fertilizer. They are immune to most insects, so no pesticides are needed. They also taste bad to deer.”
In general, a moss garden is a low-maintenance and beneficial addition to your yard.
“They tend to be very low maintenance and quite forgiving,” Wallhead said.