Embracing Moss Gardening

Bee Better Naturally with Helen Yoest


Photo Credit: Ken Gergle

Emerald green rolling mounds, stillness enticing and barefoot begging, mosses evoke a special feel like no other plant on earth. Used as a lawn replacement for shady locations, ground cover in a woodland garden, or even in decorative dish gardens, mosses are gracing more home gardens today than ever before.

Primitive plants evolving 450 million years ago (70 million years before ferns and tens of millions more years before the first dinosaur), mosses are finally getting their due.

As homeowners look to less maintenance and more environmentally friendly practices, mosses for a shady spot are the epitome of green. With few demands, moss, once established, rarely needs watering and requires no fertilization. Plus, it will eventually knit together, suppressing weeds.

Most mosses prefer a moist, shady spot. The commonly held belief is that they require an acid pH range of 5.0 to 5.5, but actually, mosses will thrive in a wide pH range, not just acidic. It is more correct to say that other plants don’t prefer pH levels of 5.0 to 5.5, so there is less competition, allowing moss colonization.

Although most mosses prefer shady woodland settings, there are others that like a range of climates, from Bryum argenteum growing in the cracks of sidewalks to Tortulla muralis found in desert regions to Campylopus introflexus growing in coastal regions. Rhizoids, not roots, are what attaches moss to the ground. Because mosses have no roots, amending the substrate isn’t necessary; moss will grow on compacted soil, even clay.


Photo Credit: Ken Gergle

As a nonvascular plant, mosses are so primitive they get what they need from the environment. They receive their moisture from the boundary layer of the soil, rain, dew, and even fog; nutrients and water move from cell to cell by osmosis. During times of drought, mosses go dormant.

Mosses come in both clumping (Acrocarpous) and spreading (Pleurocarpous) forms.

The clumping forms, or the Acrocarps, are generally recommended for borders. They act as living mulch between plants or under trees, in areas where their quilting, mounding, three-dimensional effect can be appreciated.

Photo Credit: Ken Gergle

For lawns, the spreading forms, or the Pleurocarps, are commonly recommended for their ability to a form a seamless carpet. Hypnum imponens (sheet moss), Plagiomnium cuspidatum (woodsy mnium), and Thuidium delecatulum (fern moss) are good choices for shady lawn replacement. These have low profiles, producing spreading, fast-growing colonies, and a prostrate habit. Adding more than one species is suggested to increase the chances of a moss liking its location, forming a dominate colony.

In spite of a preference for moist sites, you can encourage mosses to colonize in places that aren’t naturally moist by lightly irrigating the area to allow for colonization. Once established, mosses don’t need irrigation. Keeping them irrigated will hasten the growth process and add intrigue as you watch various mosses vie for fiefdom. For even more interest, add woodland wildflowers to your moss, such as creeping phlox (Phlox subulata), foam flowers (Tiarella spp.), or Oconee bells (Shortia galacifolia.)

Mosses’ tiny leaves are vulnerable in that they don’t have the waxy cuticles of vascular plants, absorbing rain or dew directly through the leaf surface. Mosses convert sunlight into energy using chlorophyll, but because moss is on such a small scale, even a small fallen tree leaf can inhibit their potential. As such, keep mossy areas free of long standing debris.


Photo Credit: Ken Gergle

Mosses reproduce through spores and leaf fragmentation. Spore season is one of the most magical times in a moss garden. Leaning low to see a stand of moss spores is a rewarding moment, engaging even the most hardened soul.

In planning a design, know that moss gardens tolerate occasional foot traffic; mosses are not as delicate as they look. However, in areas of frequent traffic, stepping stones are recommended.

Adding moss to your garden, being green as it was in the beginning, will garner you a new perspective, making what is old, new again.


Moss has always intrigued me. It seemed to just show up. It fills the cracks between my stone pavers on the north side of my home, adding age and interest.

About half the time I meet people and the conversation turns to moss, they ask my opinion on how to remove it. Most often the questions are about moss lawns. They are bothered because moss is invading their lawns—their words, not mine. When I hear this, an eyebrow usually rises as I pause for the right diplomatic words to gracefully ask, “Why would you want to do that?”

Consider yourself lucky if moss is in your lawn. If it happens, work at removing the struggling grass, and you will have a no-mow, emerald green ground cover, with no pests to rid off; you will not need to remember when to fertilize or have any of the common anxieties associated with building the perfect lawn.

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