Bzzzz July 16th, 2019

It always baffles me when I see numerous products for killing moss lined up on the nursery shelves. Maybe there are places where moss is so unwelcomed that killing chemicals are needed. But none of those places are around our garden.

There is something peaceful and relaxing about moss-covered spaces. Mossy gardens seem to invite the visitor to linger and ruminate. I expect moss gardens to be quiet.

Green lawns–a different swath of green–are attractive. But they are clearly artificial. Moss, on the other hand, always seems wild, even when it is cultivated. That’s because you can’t just toss down some moss seed and have a moss garden a few weeks later.

Moss takes time.

Moss garden entrance after 8.5 years

Moss garden entrance after 8.5 years

We started work on the moss garden in January 2011. For many years the name “moss garden” was aspirational. Our son said that for the longest time it looked more like a beach than a moss garden.

Now, eight and a half years into the experience, we truly have a moss garden. And, in fact, we seem to have reached some sort of critical mass of moss because it is now growing in areas we hadn’t originally planned as a moss garden.

We now have a mossy pathway to the moss garden in the woods. Moss is growing under the two big zelkovas in the back yard where no grass will grow. Moss has taken up residence in the side yard, near the outdoor shower.

The process of establishing the moss garden started with clearing undergrowth in a part of the woods next to our house. Once that was accomplished, our son, on summer break from college at the time, hauled in and spread several tons of stone dust.

To introduce moss, I experimented with the buttermilk/moss solution loads of internet “experts” say will quickly grow moss. All I accomplished was ruining a perfectly good blender and giving the woods a sour milk smell for several days.

What seemed to work best for me was transplanting moss from other areas of our property. I lifted some bits in sheets by gently lifting it with a spade and pinning the transplant to the stone dust with a landscape pin. Other moss I just crumpled up, spread around, and stomped into the stone dust.

One time, a dear friend from Rhode Island came to visit and brought a whole suitcase of the clumping moss I had seen and envied near her home. Parts of it even survived!

Now that the moss is well-established, we have begun the process of refining the design. We have added hostas, pachysandras, and ferns. Many of the ferns are wild ferns we have moved from other parts of the woods and grouped together to make a more impressive stand of ferns. I have added pond stone cobbles to help define the edges. The stones have the added benefit of discouraging critters from unearthing newly planted hostas. I think the critters are searching for worms and bugs in the freshly-dug earth.

We have planted hostas, ferns, and pachysandra along the moss garden edges. Maintaining the hostas requires regular application of spray to deter the grazing deer.

We have planted hostas, ferns, and pachysandra along the moss garden edges. Maintaining the hostas requires regular application of spray to deter the grazing deer.

If you are interested in establishing your own moss garden, here are suggestions based on my trial-and-error experiences.

  1. Expect the process of growing a large area of moss to take several years. Moss doesn’t grow quickly, so patience is your greatest asset.
  2. Completely clear the ground where you want to grow moss. You will want to start with a blank slate to invite the moss in.
  3. If you decide to put down a base layer of some sort to deter weeds, do some research to make sure the material will be moss-friendly. We were fortunate that the stone dust we bought from a local excavation company proved to be hospitable. Even so, I think that we put down a much thicker layer than was actually necessary. It took some time for the stone dust to settle in and get packed down enough to be moss-friendly.
  4. Regularly sweep or blow off leaves, sticks, and other debris so the moss doesn’t get covered and smothered. Gently prick out grass, weeds, or seedlings that pop up. Try not to disturb the soil any more than necessary if you are weeding what appears to be bare soil, as there may be some microscopic moss spores struggling to take hold. Once you have moss, pricking out weeds is easiest when the ground is moist. Water if it you need to. Very gently extract the weed and then press down the moss around where the weed was dislodged to put the moss back into contact with the soil.
  5. Consider introducing moss from other parts of your garden. Chances are good that if the moss grows near where you are establishing your moss garden then it will like the soil conditions for the place you want to encourage growth. You can purchase moss from moss nurseries. We decided to use patience and our own moss since there was so much already growing here and there.
  6. Walk on your moss. This seems counter-intuitive to me, but walking on the area where you are growing moss or want to grow moss will help to force moss spores into contact with the soil. In addition, little spores will get onto your shoes as you walk and you will be spreading them around.
  7. Water regularly. Moss doesn’t need lots of water at once. Provide a cool mist a couple of times a day, particularly in hot or dry weather. Most of our mossy progress seems to take place in the fall and winter months. But keeping the moss hydrated in the long, hot summer months keeps it healthy and looking good.

The "moss garden" in 2011, the moss moved in.

The “moss garden” in 2011, before the moss moved in.

I would also recommend two books. My favorite resource is The Magical World of Moss Gardening, by Annie Martin. Martin provides a wonderful overview of the botany and history of mosses, an overview of different moss types, a guide to designing with mosses, and practical advice. She doesn’t pull any punches either, telling the reader that moss gardening isn’t maintenance-free gardening.

Keeping your mosses healthy and happy is essential in achieving lasting splendor. I wish I could say that mosses require zero maintenance, but the reality is that magnificent moss gardens necessitate ongoing attention. – Annie Martin

Moss Gardening, by George Schenk, is another good resource. Schenk that groups chapters by ways to incorporate moss into your garden. Chapters include moss carpets, alpine gardens, containers, and bonsai mosses.

If you would like to see more moss, take a look at some of the fabulous mossy spaces I have collected on my moss garden Pinterest page.

What do you think about your garden? Moss or no moss?

 

 

 

Posted In: Books, Garden Design, Gardening

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Bzzzz July 23rd, 2015

Unless you count the jungle of house plants in my childhood and later college dorm rooms, I started gardening as a vegetable gardener rather than a flower or ornamentals gardener. After all, I do love food. I also come from a family in which practical and useful activities—such as fixing your own car, building a shed or growing your own food—are highly valued.

But even more than that, the intellectual part of me understands that food is grown from the ground thanks to the combination of sun, soil and rain. The romantic part of me, on the other hand, thinks that growing vegetables, herbs and fruits is somehow magic. When I grow a tomato, I can marvel at it for quite a long time before I get around to sinking my teeth into it. The cucumbers I pickle are more than mere jars of food. They are the product of my ability to do magic—to make something from practically nothing.

Down Place Greenhouse

Greenhouse at Down Place

Unlike some of my gardening friends, I have not had the advantage of a garden mentor—a parent or grandparent to show me how to stake tomatoes, wrangle rangy strawberry plants or identify which end of the bulb goes up. I have learned about gardening largely from reading books and killing plants. So when I digress from my reporting of my Big Fat English Garden Vacation to sneak behind the hedge and look at the little greenhouses and poke among the uneven rows of nursery pots, just understand that I’m still trying to figure out this whole gardening business. Part of me still believes that if I can just see how these incredible gardeners do things behind the scenes I may learn some secrets that will help transform my own garden into some version of the English ideal. For me, it’s like sneaking behind the magician’s curtain.

So let me tell you about a few of the things I saw there behind the hedge.

In many American gardens I have visited, there is no obvious place where gardeners start and nurture plants before setting them into the ground or potting them up into a pretty container. In some American gardens it looks as if every flower and shrub comes straight from the nursery and gets plopped right into a hole waiting for it to arrive. In others there is a little stash of plants in nursery pots that look shoved behind a garage or under a deck in the hurry to tidy up for visitors. But I haven’t seen a lot of potting benches and even fewer greenhouses.

greenhouse at The Grange

 

greenhouse at Old Erringham Cottage

In contrast, every garden we visited on my recent English garden tour has a place tucked out of sight and around a corner to propagate plants. At one small town garden we visited the gardeners only had space for a small coldframe, but most gardens had at least a small greenhouse.

As you can imagine, a few of the greenhouses were picturesque or even architectural showcases in themselves. But surprisingly, most of the greenhouses I saw—even on the grand estates—were smallish, economical and utilitarian structures. Some were well-swept, quite tidy and visitor-ready, but others were a little bit messy. Oh they weren’t oh-my-god messy, just the kind of messy that happens when there is work in progress. Many times it looked as if the gardener had just stepped away from the potting bench for a cup of tea.

garden work area2

A few of the greenhouses housed tomatoes and cucumbers. If, like me, you are a vegetable gardener then you know that tomatoes and cucumbers like the warm summer weather that we have here in most of the U.S. I suppose the comparatively cool British summers aren’t all that conducive to growing these warmth-loving veggies in the open air, so they become coddled indoor veggies in the U.K.

Some of the greenhouses still had seed starting operations in progress while others had been mostly emptied out by the time we visited in mid-June. A good number of them seemed to have long-term plant boarders on the greenhouse shelves. One greenhouse even had a grape vine as thick as my arm growing through the potting bench, up the wall and covering the ceiling.

vine in greenhouse

Near the greenhouse there were the inevitable compost bins. As with the greenhouses, some were magazine-worthy (for a certain type of magazine anyway) while others were no more glamorous than layered yard waste, but they all had a compost operation going on.

When we asked the gardeners about whether they fertilize, even single gardener said, “Yes!” A couple of gardeners mentioned special tomato food. But most often they mentioned the liberal use of fish, blood and bone. In fact, I saw containers of fish, blood and bone fertilizer in a couple of the work sheds. When I returned home and Googled around to learn about similar fertilizer combinations here in the U.S., there were none. Strangely enough I did find a Miracle Grow (of all companies!) fish, blood and bone fertilizer available in the U.K.

fish blood and bone

Another thing I noticed in the greenhouses were plenty of terra cotta pots, although I didn’t see many actually put to use. The nursery plants were all in those ubiquitous black nursery pots–nothing at all fancy about that.

Potting Shed

Invariably, tools were carefully organized and well-maintained. There was no putting away a dirty shovel or hoe in these English gardens. I can’t say if they were regularly sharpened, but I’m willing to bet that they were and that the frugal Brits know the value of tool maintenance.

tool garage

Birds must be a major problem for gardeners growing berries and currants. But rather than tossing on a stiff (and often tangled) black plastic net like I do here in my garden, nearly all the fruiting plants were caged in proper, neatly constructed chicken wire houses, complete with little doors and sometimes with raised beds. It’s obviously working for them because the currents were gorgeous. We were there almost at peak picking time.

red currents

Berry house at Nyewood House

Come to think of it, the gardeners may have had their fruits protected to keep visitors like me from gobbling them right there by the bush. I mean, I had never had a gooseberry before. When no one was looking I picked and gobbled the first unprotected gooseberry I came across in one of the fancy gardens! Have you had one? It’s an interesting texture and a bit tart. But tasty. I can definitely see making gooseberry jam.

I have plenty of gorgeous photos of the actual gardens. I took 1,977 photos during my week-long tour, so it’s taking me a while to figure out how to share them. Check back!

A note about the photos: I haven’t identified the location of most of these photos. There is certainly nothing shameful about well-organized tools or greenhouses. But these photos are certainly not representative of the beautiful gardens we saw, so I’ll wait to identify the gardens with the pretty photos–to come.

You can read more about my Big Fat English Garden Vacation at:

About Those English Gardens

Did you enjoy this post? Please leave me a comment! I love to hear from readers.

 

 

Posted In: Gardening, Travel

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