Magical world of moss

Who can resist the pleasure of moss-covered logs or green, misty hillsides on a stroll through the woodlands?   Most likely you will be seduced by this shy, shade-loving green that favors undisturbed spots like the trees, rocks and riverbanks…thrives in misty climates and tends to show up where it likes. 

The Japanese have appreciated the moss for many generations using it in their garden designs, while it has only slowly crept West.  They use it to create spaces of deep tranquility and transcendent beauty.  For them it is a symbol of harmony, age, and tradition; and, is used quite often in Zen gardens.

For those of us that are hoping to grow it and/or add it as a design element to our gardens, it is essential to understand the quirks of this ancient plant.    Moss is an extraordinary plant in the Bryophyta division and has been around for more than 400 million years making it old enough to have predated dinosaurs and tough enough to have survived the ´big foot´ of all kinds of large, prehistoric creatures; and, still it thrives.  It evolved from earlier algae in the sea that could live on land.  Because moss was just getting used to being out of water, it needed to grow in very wet places, next to streams or where it rained a lot.  There was not much dirt yet because there were no plants to decay.  So, moss has ´root-like´ structures called rhizoids for attachment to objects.  Unlike roots on plants, it gets most of its food from the air and water washing over it, instead of through its roots.  Thus, the moss that grows on the shady side of our roofs, loves the water that flows over it to the ground. 

Based on the history of moss, it is easy to understand why moss prefers a shady, moist, compacted soil and nutrient poor and/or unfertilized location.  Lacking true roots, moss takes its nutrients from the air and prefers acidic soil with a pH between 5.0 and 5.5…keep the lime away.  It can grow almost anywhere–shade, sun, partial sun/shade, wet, semi-arid, but best in shade.  You can transplant exiting moss to a new area by adding moisture to it and pushing firmly into cleared, compacted soil…no digging.  Continue placing moss about a foot apart and mist with water when it starts to turn brown.  Buttermilk can encourage moss to spread because of its high acidity.    Moss will continue to spread either by division (digging it up) or by spores.  Maintenance is simple…keep leaves and other objects off the moss and make sure weeds don´t encroach.  Moisten it during long droughts or when it starts to brown to keep your moss green all year long.

At WillowDale a spreading moss ´Pleurocarp´ invited itself into a shady area of my garden around the base of a large Water Oak…weaving its own design around tree roots, rocks and logs.  I complemented it with settle plantings of ferns, dwarf hostas, dead roots, moss face, and one small gnome that resides nearby in a moss covered house.  But the best thing, it´s a lightning bug nursery.  They love the moisture of the moss and lay their eggs in different levels of the moss substrates.   The nymphs develop and eventually become our ´fireflies´ that we like to watch at dusk on a warm summer night.

Moss truly is an extraordinary plant that grows without roots, flowers or stems.  It provides year-round color, excels in difficult climates and soil, prevents erosion, and resist pests and diseases.  It is a magical plant that has survived the test of time!  

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