Garden Design

Transform Your Garden with Moss

Emerald green, rolling mounds, stillness enticing, and barefoot begging, mosses are finally getting the recognition they deserve.

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.

Local garden design, David Spain with Moss and Stone Gardens, creates a green oasis of calm in this Raleigh Garden/by Ken Gergle Photography

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, needs no fertilization, plus it will eventually knit together, suppressing weeds.

Moss gardens suggest primal, ancient wisdom, desired by many, transforming the suburban yard into a tranquil respite. Their palette of green unites the elements of the landscape and highlights it’s features.

Most mosses prefer a moist, shady spot with an acid pH range between 5.5 to 6.  Although most mosses prefer shady woodland settings, there are others that like a range of climates from Bryum argenteum growing in desert regions and 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.

As a nonvascular plant, so primitive they get what they need from the environment – 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.

As a lawn replacement for shady locations, as the ground cover in a woodland garden, or even used in decorative dish gardens, mosses are gracing more home gardens today than ever before.

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

For lawns, the spreading forms are generally recommended for their ability to a form a seamless carpet. Sheet moss (Hypnum imponens), woodsy mnium  (Plagiomnium cuspidatum) and fern moss (Thuidium delecatulum) 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 recommended to increase the chances of a moss liking its location, forming a dominant colony.

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

In spite of a preference for moist sites, we 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, watching 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 on the leaf surface. Mosses convert sunlight into chlorophyll, but because moss is on such a small scale, even the tiniest leaf can inhibit their potential. As such, keep mossy areas free of long standing debris.

As a young plant, while mosses are establishing, it’s recommended to weed by hand, carefully removing a young weed so as not to disturb the colony.

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

In planning a design, moss gardens tolerate occasional foot traffic, but are not as delicate as they look. 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.

Helen Yoest, owner of Gardening With Confidence™, is a garden writer and wildlife gardener in Raleigh.  Catch up with Helen via her blog at www.GardeningWithConfidencecom/blog.  Helen can be reached at

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