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