By Judy Stout, Ph.D. / Mobile Master Gardener | CoastalAlabamaGardening@gmail.com
Q: I visited an acquaintance recently and enjoyed all of the uses of mosses in her backyard. This may be what I need for the failed lawn in my very shady backyard. How can I get this look?
A: Mosses are an excellent substitute for grass in areas too shady for grass to grow, and require much less maintenance. The low-growth habit of mosses means no mowing and there is no need to fertilize or use other chemicals. They are visually soothing and give an impression of age and stability. Additionally, you can use mosses to enhance the character of your landscape by growing them on hardscape features such as rocks, logs, walls, containers and garden sculptures.
You can also establish mosses in crevices and cracks of stepping stones and around protruding tree roots. Moss grows well in moist, but not soggy, areas around ponds, waterfalls and air conditioning drains. You can select from a diversity of textures, heights and colors — including many shades of green, white, silver, gold and even red.
Mosses do not have specialized systems to carry water up the plant or distribute food throughout the plant, so they are limited to very small forms. They do not have roots but thread-like rhizoids. Therefore, they attach directly to hard surfaces or grow in shallow soil, or just about any soil.
Basic requirements for mosses are shade (there are some sun-tolerant species), regular moisture, a slightly acidic soil (pH around 5.5), continued removal of competing grasses and weeds, and regular grooming to remove leaves and other debris. Mosses spread by horizontal growth, fragments and reproductive cells called spores. Movement of fragments and spores may naturally establish mosses in new, suitable areas. They may even come into your yard unaided from nearby populations.
To establish mosses on soil, first take a surface sample of your dirt and determine the pH. If azaleas, camellias or blueberries grow well in your soil, it is probably OK for mosses. Beginners should stick with mosses that grow best in shade and avoid a sunny location or bright, sunny spots. They grow best under broadleaf trees such as oaks, tulip trees, tupelo and ash, but not well under conifers. Plantings can also be in the shade from shrubs or structures, so long as there is some filtered sun. It is best to start with small areas instead of large, ambitious plantings.
If you plan to include hardscaping within your moss lawn or plant companion plants, establish these before planting moss. Prepare the planting area by removing any loose leaves or debris such as sticks, acorns or “worm-like” flowers shed by oak trees. Remove all grass and weeds. Moisten the soil but do not make it muddy.
Although mosses can be purchased online, first try those you find elsewhere in your yard, nearby or in woodlands. Make sure the moss you select is growing naturally in conditions of light, soil and moisture like those in your yard. Harvest transplants by gently lifting small mats about hand size, careful to get rhizomes and some soil. Move immediately to your site without allowing the moss or soil to dry out. Place directly on your clean soil and press down firmly to make good contact without air spaces.
To secure the mat in place on slopes, or if you experience disturbance by animals, you may want to anchor the mat with landscape/sod staples. Sprinkle with a brief misting or a gentle spray. Well-known moss expert Annie Martin recommends “wetting and walking” frequently to encourage rhizome growth! It is best to provide a few minutes of supplemental watering, twice a day when there is infrequent rain, especially during the first one to three months. Planting can be at any time of year, but is most likely to succeed in fall or late spring.
An alternative, but slower, method is to break up your mats into smaller fragments and “sow” over the moistened soil surface. If moss is harvested when small upright spore cases are visible, establishment and spread may occur faster. Remember to keep moist!
To plant in cracks, crevices or between stepping stones, crush up moss fragments in your hand and make a moss mud with soil from your harvest site. Press into spaces. Be sure to keep moist as these areas can dry out quickly. If you want moss covered rocks or logs, it is easier to relocate some from another similar site to your garden.
If you want to cover a large area and have the financial resources, you can order sheets of moss or smaller boxes of moss by the square foot from several reputable sources. However, large areas are tough for the beginner and very expensive.
Mossy vertical surfaces — walls, sculptures and container pots — are also attractive additions. If in the shade and kept moist, with patience these surfaces can become covered from nearby moss spore sources or from creeping ground mosses already in your garden. Or, selecting surfaces that are somewhat porous or cracked, you can introduce moss fragments and spores by rubbing them onto the moistened surface. This also takes patience, but you may be surprised to suddenly see small patches of moss growing.
Experimenting with and growing mosses can be a lot of fun. The final, often long-awaited, outcome may be a low-maintenance, barefoot-inviting lawn, landscape or shaded refuge.
Upcoming gardening event
What: Mobile Master Gardeners Monthly Meeting
When: Thursday, Sept. 7, 10:30-11:45 a.m.
Where: Jon Archer Center, 1070 Schillinger Road N., Mobile
Topic: Landscape Design by Rene Thompson
Master Gardener Helpline: 1-877-252-4769 or send gardening questions to firstname.lastname@example.org