Growing Concerns: Learn to cultivate moss in woodland gardens

So your garden is too shady to grow a decent lawn. You say nothing will grow there except moss? Well, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em! Grass just doesn’t want to grow without enough sun. Moss, however, can live happily in a low-light garden, if it gets a good start and enough moisture. If you’ve ever visited a Japanese garden, you know that moss is an important feature. Nothing sets off ornamentals texturally like a velvety, green carpet of moss. It looks and even feels soothing. People can’t resist reaching down to pet it like a pussycat. An added attribute is that you never have to mow it.

Moss has its drawbacks, of course. It would be difficult to maintain a half-acre of the stuff, and it doesn’t take kindly to foot traffic, much less an impromptu game of touch football. It is dependent upon water for su vival, and so far, this is shaping up to be a drought year. But if you’ve already got moss, why not experiment with making it an eye-catching feature of your shade garden?

Let’s begin by defining moss. It’s a bryophyte, a primitive plant that evolved from green algae. Some 25,000 species are found almost everywhere in the world.

Bryophytes help maintain an ecosystem’s humidity level by absorbing and retaining water. Moss doesn’t flower and produce seeds, it reproduces by spores. It doesn’t have true roots; it obtains nutrients from the air. This is one reason why moss flourishes on roofs..

The old saying that moss only grows on the north side of a tree is not always true.

While many mosses prefer shade, there are some species that survive in sunlight, with little or no rainfall. But let’s get back to the moist gardens of the Pacific Northwest.

Moss can add a wonderful weathered effect to your shade garden, especially on rocks and boulders. Here’s a recipe to try:

Mossyrock soup

1 handful of soft, green moss

1 small carton of plain yogurt, OR 1 cup buttermilk

2-3 oz. potters’ clay (available at craft stores)

Puree ingredients in blender to a creamy consistency. Pour over shaded rocks or boulders. Allow to set overnight. The clay will help it take hold. Mist frequently. You should see moss begin to grow in 2-3 weeks. If it doesn’t work for you, just scrape the whole mess off and start over, experimenting with a little more moss, less clay, etc.

IMPORTANT: Don’t use your household blender for this purpose. Purchase one at a thrift store and don’t ever use it for food, unless you like silt in your smoothies or mud in your margarita. Also, after you’ve whipped up your mossyrock soup, rinse the container right away, or it will cake on.

A few years ago I met a gardener who collected moss from the wild to enhance his beautiful bonsai trees. You don’t have to be a bonsai gardener to use his tips to create a handsome shade garden. Begin with a small area, maybe just a few feet, and if you’re successful, expand to a size you feel can be easily managed.

My bonsai friend lived in the city, so had to gather moss from sidewalks, driveways and parking strips, areas that may have been polluted with oil, gas, herbicides and other nasty stuff. To cleanse as many contaminants as possible, he rinsed the moss under cool water before putting it in a blender with a cup or so of buttermilk. He pureed it to a thick paste, then spread it with a spatula on bricks set in trays of water. He kept the trays on a table beneath a shade tree in his back yard.

In a couple of weeks, moss began to neatly cover the bricks. He kept the trays half filled with water, and misted for additional dampness. Then whenever he wanted moss to beautify his bonsai displays, he peeled it off the bricks and cut it to shape with a craft knife. Clever, huh?

The bonsai guy told me that if didn’t have buttermilk handy, he would substitute beer, and it worked just as well. How about a Michelob with your moss!

If you don’t want to grow your own, just transplant moss from a place where you don’t necessarily want it (the roof, perhaps?), and set it on moist soil in a shady place. Don’t bury it deeply; remember, it doesn’t have roots. Just cozy some soil around it to keep it in place.

Plant ferns or other delicate, shade-loving plants, such as corydalis or dicentra (bleeding heart) around it. Add a handsome rock, and voila! You have a moss garden. They’re especially eye-catching in containers on a shady deck or patio. If you use a container, plants come first, then the moss. Wherever you plant your moss garden, remember to keep it moist, and it will remain green and gorgeous for a long time. And if you peek at it just before dawn, you may well spy a leprechaun dancing a jig on that emerald carpet.

Island County Master Gardener Mariana Graham invites your input at

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