Why We Love Moss (III)

Our Fascination with Nature’s Green Carpet

By Debra Knapke

Many of our plant preferences are shaped by early experiences in the landscape or in the gardens of our parents or grandparents. Moss holds a place in my memories of the small woods by my childhood home. Bright green cushions appeared after rains and then disappeared during dry summers.

I seriously doubt that I thought about where moss belonged, but I knew that it was a part of the moist woods of my youth and that I liked it.

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Nature’s design: moss covering the ground under Jack-in-the-pulpit and other woodland native plants, Cedar Bog in Urbana, OH, April 17, 2004

A moss garden works best when it follows nature’s example. In the above picture, this community of plants is situated in a part-shade, moist location. Some mosses will grow in full sun but only in wet sites.

The picture below is a sphagnum peat bog that was designed for the Heritage Garden at the Ohio Governor’s Residence. It represents the kettle lake bogs that were created approximately 11,000 years ago by retreating glaciers. The sandy, acidic soil – which is kept wet – supports the plant community of cranberry, sphagnum moss, pitcher plant and grass pinks (native orchid).

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Sphagnum bog in the Heritage Garden at the Ohio Governor’s Residence, Columbus, OH.

This garden was the inspiration for my own small bog which is in a 30” wide by 12” tall, double-walled plastic bowl. The cranberries have become the dominant plant in my bog, but the live sphagnum moss and pitcher plants are visible in winter when the cranberry leaves turn their deep mahogany color. The “soil” is a combination of rehydrated dried sphagnum and silica sand which has a neutral pH. If you wish to build your own bog, avoid using gray builder’s sand which is fractured from limestone and has a high pH. Golden to orange sand is made from acidic sandstone and would be appropriate for a constructed bog. Last note – live sphagnum moss is difficult to find as suppliers need to have permits to harvest it.

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The cranberries are usually consumed by my resident squirrels. The few I have harvested are delicious.

From the realistic to the sublime… during a trip to Japan my appreciation of moss became a passion. The beauty of the Japanese garden style is a testament to attention to detail; the placement of plants, rocks and all elements are thought out and expressed in a harmonious creation. My words fall short of the physical, emotional and intellectual effect of what I experienced while viewing these built places. My pictorial vignettes may help.

Below is a moss garden which is kept pristine by many workers. This type of garden is not for the beginning designer or gardener and can only be successful in moist climates. Watering large expanses of moss from a hose is not a noble activity.

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Moss forest landscape at Shugakuin Rikyu Imperial Villa, Kyoto, Japan.

Time slowed, thoughts expanded as we strolled up these stairs from the Silver Pavilion to the Philosopher’s Walk.

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Moss gardens at Ginkaku-ji (The Silver Pavillion), Kyoto, Japan

The evocative Zen Gardens are minimalistic in nature. Ishidan is an interpretation of a sacred place. The center rock and moss mound represents Mt. Horai. The other two rock/moss elements represent Crane Island and Tortoise Island. The arrangement invites contemplation. Two viewing decks allow visitors to sit, rest, meditate or whatever one does when seeing a garden that asks you to think differently. Moss in this garden gave me a green place to sink into.

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Zen Garden, Ishidan, at Daitoku-ji, Kyoto, Japan

I thought about trying to recreate similar gardens, on a much smaller scale, on the long plane ride home. But I realized that those gardens are not my context, not my culture. Instead I have nurtured areas in my garden where moss appears; low areas where water settles and dew collects.

Another Japanese garden style is the centuries-old tradition of bonsai which started in China and was copied by Japanese artisans. This tableau represents and is called “Roan Mountain.” Two Chinese junipers and an azalea (middle) tower over a moss-covered ground. These miniature landscapes are a more reasonable goal for most gardeners for using moss and for capturing a small part of the Japanese garden spirit.

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Bonsai at the North Carolina Arboretum in Asheville, NC.

One last expression of moss covered ground comes from Vancouver where moss forms the floor of the garden. It coats the rocks and any structure that will support its growth. Moss also changes the quality of sound in a garden; it absorbs sound and seems to signal that you are in a gentler environment. We soften our voices accordingly.

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Moss path at a private garden in Vancouver.

In my early gardens, I loved when moss showed up, not understanding that this often indicated an area that did not drain well either because of compaction or being at a lower elevation where water collects. I protected those areas and watered them when they became dry. I was shocked to discover that some gardeners feel that moss is a problem and needs to be eradicated.

For those of you who do not want moss in your garden, here is one strategy for banishing moss from your garden if you are dealing with compacted soil in a moist, shady site. Dig up the area to loosen the soil; add compost. Plant a tree or shrub that is appropriate for the light quality and soil moisture conditions. Woody plant roots are thirsty and will compete with moss for the moisture in the soil. The addition of herbaceous plants will also help with a high moisture situation. If moss returns, consider it to be a groundcover and learn to like, if not love, it.

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Moss taking advantage of our wet winter.

Michael showed moss lovingly tucked in between the bricks on his pathway. Here, moss is growing in the cracks of our asphalt driveway; a testament to the tenacity of this beautiful plant that seeks moist moments in the garden… and elsewhere.

Wishing you tenacity and joy!

3 responses to “Why We Love Moss (III)

  1. Thank you for the information about moss. I had previously considered it to be a weed. I see it differently now. I’d love to hear more about the cranberry bog. I want one!

  2. You are welcome! Learning about live sphagnum and its associated plants and animals has been fascinating. The bog pictured (in flower) is six years old. I started another one two years ago and it is maturing differently. I would be happy to answer any questions you have about creating a bog.

  3. I’m hooked!!!!!!!!!!

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