That special feeling that comes when you walk through a moss-covered forest can be recreated right in your own backyard. My guest this week, moss expert Annie Martin, aka Mossin’ Annie, takes us into the magical world of moss gardening and explains the simple steps to creating your own homegrown moss garden.
Annie is the owner of Mountain Moss Enterprises, located in the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina. She provides innovative landscaping alternatives featuring environmentally-friendly mosses. Mountain Moss Enterprises advocates the joys of moss gardening, and its “Mossery” researches moss cultivation techniques. The business is licensed to harvest native mosses and is certified to sell moss plants commercially.
A native of Asheville, North Carolina, Annie has been fascinated with moss since childhood. She became a moss artist, using forest driftwood enhanced with moss in attractive arrangements. She also replaced grass in her yard with native mosses, which she had to learn how to grow intentionally. To expand her knowledge, she made her own observations but also learned from bryologists, the botanists who study mosses and other bryophytes.
Annie’s obsession with mosses expanded into new horizons in 2008 when she founded her business, turning her passion into her profession. She is committed to rescuing mosses from destruction and creating moss gardens with an intuitive blend of artistic approaches and effective horticultural methods. She finds that not only is moss aesthetically appealing, it has environmental benefits as well. Annie also has a book, “The Magical World of Moss Gardening,” from Timber Press.
Annie says part of what prompts us to create gardens is how it fills our spirits, and mosses definitely do that, and they are so special in terms of their botanical characteristics. If you have ever been in a forest of moss, you know what Annie means. It’s a different kind of feeling, and it’s hard to put into words. Annie wants you to know that you can have that feeling in your own yard, easily. She created her lush moss retreat over asphalt in the dead of winter with some fill dirt.
Most grass lawn lovers consider moss a nuisance that they have to kill. I for one was always surprised at how vigorous moss was. But then I realized that if the moss is hardy and wants to live where grass doesn’t want to grow, why fight it? I needed to embrace the moss rather than try to make something grow there that didn’t want to grow. I’ve come a long way over maybe 20 years or so since that point in my life, and I’ve developed a tremendous appreciation for moss.
Adding moss to the landscape is also a topic I covered in an episode of my Emmy Award-winning public television show Growing a Greener World. Check out that episode here to learn some surprising facts about moss and see how it can be incorporated into almost any landscape, sun, or shade.
Moss Has More Variety Than We Realize
“I have my moss radar on all the time,” Annie says. “I could probably spot some right outside your house or in the cracks of a sidewalk in New York City because mosses are truly everywhere.”
Where she lives today, Pisgah Forest, is the rainiest area east of the Rockies. “We are really a temperate rainforest, but even so there will be days when it’s hot or when it’s dry and that can extend into a period of time and there could actually still be a drought.” Still, moss thrives.
Lime is often thought to kill moss by making the soil more alkaline, but Annie points out that there are mosses that love alkaline soil. And some are so versatile that they will tolerate either alkaline or acid soil.
Moss can replace lawn and can also be applied to patios, walls and water features. There is sun moss, shade mosses, those that can grow upright and those that can’t, those that are less tolerant of heat, and those that can handle direct sun.
The Unique Characteristics of Moss
Mosses have been on Earth for 450 million years and are the oldest living land plants, along with their cousins in the bryophyte category, liverworts and hornworts. Most land plants fall into the vascular category, which means they have lignified tissues that conduct water and minerals, but moss is an exception. Mosses have characteristics that make them totally different from other plants, Annie says.
Mosses have stems and leaves, but they do not have roots. They have what are called rhizoids, which anchor the plants but do not transmit water or nutrients. Instead of the flowers were are accustomed to, mosses have sporophytes, and instead of seeds, they have spores.
Mosses can reproduce both through sexual reproduction, via sporophytes, and through asexual vegetative reproduction. The latter method means that moss will grow from a fragment of a plant.
Mosses are incredibly hardy. They can survive through cataclysmic disasters, and some species are the first plants to appear after a fire. Their rhizoids are surprisingly effective, keeping plants in place through high wind, snowstorms, hailstorms, sub-freezing temperatures — you name it. Established moss colonies don’t wash away.
Moss for Erosion Control
Because moss doesn’t let go once it is attached to a surface, it is a useful tool for reducing erosion. Annie says one of the best species for erosion control Polytrichum commune. It is an upright grower with exceptionally tall stems of a foot tall. Its rhizoids grow straight down, about as deep as the moss growing aboveground is tall.
Mosses are also effective at capturing stormwater runoff. The leaves of moss trap water and absorb it in a way that vascular plants can’t keep up with.
Moss Is Self-Sufficient
Moss gets its nutrients and moisture from the rain and air. You’ll never need to fertilize it. And moss isn’t reliant on any sort of chemical supplements or interventions whatsoever. Whether it’s pesticides, herbicides or fungicides — they don’t need any -icides at all. And moss tastes bad to deer, which is welcome news to gardeners who face deer pressure. Moss is unbothered by insect pests too, while providing habitat to beneficial insects.
Moss for Carbon Sequestration
Moss is an air cleaner: Sphagnum peatlands sequester more carbon than all of the world’s rain forests, Annie says. Sphagnum is a genus that includes more than 200 species of moss, and Sphagnum mosses cover between 2 and 3% of the world’s landmass. One-third of the world’s soil carbon is sequestered in moss.
How to Start a Moss Garden
Anie recommends starting with a small focal feature rather than trying to cover 1,000 square feet off the bat. And a large project will go much more easily if the land has existing mosses to utilize.
The first step is to clear the area of grass and weeds and remove debris such as leaves and acorns. Next, rather than loosening the soil, pack it down. Walk right over it. Then with a three-pronged digger, just slightly incise the surface. (Only Polytrichum, with its deep rhizoids, will require you to dig a hole to plant it.)
You can plant just tiny bits of moss, and they will spread. For quicker results, Annie uses “moss mats.” These are 6-by-6 sheets of geotextile fabric covered in moss. The fabric can go right over weeds or grasses that are difficult to remove, or the moss can be removed from the sheets and directly applied to soil.
Acrocarpous-type moss, which stands in upright mounds, will not spread horizontally, though its spore dispersal via wind and critter activity will help the moss reach new areas of your garden. For expansive growth horizontally, you need pleurocarpous moss.
For immediate gratification, plant moss densely. Site upright colonies right next to each other, and use pleurocarpous mosses with interweaved edges, creating a patchwork. This will cover the entire area with no waiting for the moss to grow in. The next important step is to water the moss thoroughly with a hose, under soggy, Annie says. She does not recommend wetting moss before installation, which can create more headaches than anything else. Next, walk over the moss, especially on the seams where plants meet.
For slower results but at less cost and with less work involved, use hand-size pieces of moss, which Annie calls “cookies.” The individual pieces can lay flat on the ground, but if on a hillside or a windy location, the pieces should be pinned into the ground with a twig. In between the cookies, spread fragments of moss that has been shredded apart. Once the fragments, or “frags,” are down, water them in and walk over them.
Reproducing through frags occurs in nature as well, Annie points out: Leucobryum moss, which is shaped in a mound and called “pincushion moss” reproduces asexually when leaf tips flake off.
Annie does not recommend the blender or “milkshake” method. She calls this one of the biggest internet moss myths there is. It just doesn’t work well. Moss that’s been through a blender will probably wash away, she warns.
You can use frags exclusively instead of solid colonies, but Annie says the problem with a 100 percent frag method is they are liable to blow or wash away.
If you have existing colonies, you can help them spread by raking them. The same final steps apply: water the frags and walk on them.
“Every planting method requires this watering and walking, and that’s what will help the rhizoids to attach,” Annie says.
Help newly planted moss thrive with supplemental watering several times per day. Each watering session can be quick, but the frequency is necessary because moss dries out quickly. Part of the reason mosses live together in colonies is that it helps retain moisture. Once plants are established, they will probably survive with no supplemental watering, but they may appear stressed from time to time.
Weeding is another concern. Keep on top of it to give the moss the opportunity to colonize. The good news is, while hand weeding, any moss fragments that come up can be reused.
“I practice ethical standards and responsible land stewardship and all of the rescues and harvesting of mosses that I do,” Annie says.
The harvested moss is brought back to the Mossery to be preened, cleaned and cultivated before it is sold to the public.
She does not encourage going into a park or forest to take moss, and she notes that there has been a moratorium on moss harvesting in national forests for more than a decade. Good places to rescue moss include neighbors’ properties, abandoned sites or the edge of a parking lot, according to Annie.
I hope you feel that you have a better understanding of moss gardening after listings to my conversation with Annie Martin. If you haven’t listened yet, you can do so now by clicking the Play button on the green bar near the top of this post.
Do you practice moss gardening, intentionally or otherwise? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
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“The Magical World of Moss Gardening” by Annie Martin
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