Mosses grow along a dividing line. On one side stand people who are indifferent to them – or downright hostile. Across the line, people like me can’t get enough of those lovely plants; we’re trying to keep them happy, so we can keep them growing.
That’s because we know there are few gardening pleasures more keen than what you get from mosses. Soft, firm, beautiful, like ground clouds, mosses invite you to walk barefoot, caress them with your feet and hands, get close enough to inhale their fragrance – a fresh combination of earth, sea and grass. As a design element, mosses create a lush, clean background for shrubs and trees. Moreover, they can choke out weeds, don’t waste water, don’t appeal to deer and, once established, escape even blue-jays, squirrels and other rodents.
I’ve enjoyed mosses all my life, mostly in woods. But, over time I knew the woods were not enough; I needed to make them a large part of my garden. Like so many pleasures cultivated in life, this one would require work.
Oh, what long, hard, sometimes strange, satisfying work it has been.
Moving to Connecticut from Georgia in 2001, I got something I’d always wanted: a blank canvas, 2 acres growing nothing I wanted to keep. Gardening on half the property was my plan, and I knew what I had to do:
First, kill the grass.
Easier said than done, but I was motivated. So, as neighbors worked tirelessly to kill the mosses and sow grass seed, I began scraping the ground, one space at a time, digging out grass and weeds, then covering that space with newspapers, cardboard, old clothing, anything, as long as it was biodegradable. I covered these materials with mulch, mostly pine bark, sometimes straw or pine needles, hoping they would add to the soil acid mosses love.
This of course was at the same time I was furiously planting the acre – six “rooms” of trees, shrubs, herbs, sedum, grasses and other perennials. Twelve-hour work days were short days during this period.
Naturally, my moss quest here in Connecticut recalled other efforts in other gardens.
In Atlanta, for example, where I gardened in the 1990s around a Victorian home on a small lot, I tried mightily to grow mosses. Once, no, twice, I made a paste of spores and water, combining it with all manner of ingredients, including molasses, yeast, eggs, buttermilk, set the concoction out in the sun until it stank real loud, then painted it onto rocks and soil. Then I spray-watered this mess several times a day for two or three weeks. I waited.
Several times, I harvested mosses from woods whose owners I knew, brought them home and planted them in shady spots – just like the ones they’d come from. I chose my poorest soil, the kind I thought they favored. I kept them free of leaves, which may smother mosses; they certainly hide them. Again, I watered and waited.
As with the concoctions, these formerly thriving mosses, carefully dug and planted, just sat there, neither spreading nor looking particularly good as I released them from intensive care. Now, I know mosses can go dormant and will perk up with a good shot of water, but these did not look worth keeping. I went back to cultivating Scotch moss and Irish moss, which of course are not real mosses.
So, it was with a history of failures I set out to moss up my Connecticut garden. While this was not my first effort, I realized that, at age 60, it just might be my last, as I knew this garden would be the garden of a lifetime. This time, I had to get the mossing right.
First, kill the grass.
A few words about grass. I like looking at grass as much as the next gardener; I just don’t want to grow it. I do enjoy seeing grass and smelling its fresh-cut fragrance at someone else’s place. But mosses are my sustainable lawn.
Back to the killing. Visitors to my garden may have noticed the edges of the Hartford Courant or The New York Times peeping out from covers of pine-bark mulch or pine needles bagged in the fall. Alas, following some grass- and weed-killing recipe, I sometimes used half-an-inch of newspaper when one section would have sufficed. The result of over-papering: After several years, scraps of old newspapers would occasionally blow across the garden, showing snippets of ads with prices that had long ago faded, even if the newsprint hadn’t. Don’t let anybody tell you that newspapers aren’t here to stay.
Similarly, during a walk through the garden, it was not unusual to see a button or zipper on the ground, reminders that they’d once been part of a shirt or pair of pants cum grass-suppressor.
As time went by and the killing materials became part of the earth, little splotches of moss appeared. But not enough and not fast enough. So, I (again) began harvesting from woods. This time, the woods were mine. Bryologists, the botanists who study mosses, say there are as many as 12,000 of these prehistoric plants known botanically as bryophytes. I counted about six varieties I got from myself, including one of my favorites, resembling little pine trees and hair cap, known botanically as Polytrichum commune. Another I like a lot is campylopus: velvety, bright green and tough, often found growing in sun-baked sidewalk cracks. Then, there’s cushion moss, pale, silvery-green, resembling . . . a cushion.
I got a lot of help from my friends, too, and from people attending speeches I gave – along with contributions from strangers who’d heard on the grapevine that some guy wanted mosses. More than once, I came home to black plastic bags filled with mosses, deposited next to the garage. Also, there were folks who just wanted to get rid of theirs, in favor of fancy lawn grass. As one neighbor-friend told another, when I’d taken his unused stones for my wall, leaves for composting – annnd his unwanted moss: “Lee is always looking for stuff people are trying to get rid of.”
Every year, my mosses were multiplying, but the process felt too slow. So, in 2009, I began acidifying the soil with all deliberate speed, using cottonseed meal, peat, vinegar, iron, aluminum sulfate and sulfur granules in places I had not mulched. This assault did away with the grass in one season (summer), opening the way for mosses to start up and spread without competition from grass. New ones grew from spores traveling from here and there, producing a mosaic that only nature could make look so good, so fast.
Ironically, I have always had one small space that has grown moss from the beginning of my time on this land. It’s hidden away, behind the garage, undisturbed, safe. I had piled poor soil up, making a knoll and hoping for a moss garden. Winter came, and by spring, mosses had begun there, spreading so fast that, in a year or so, I couldn’t tell where I had put the few clumps I tossed onto the pile. This spot has remained constantly mossed on its own, richly colored in greens and grays with no watering except rain.
This little space reinforces what a friend told me when he watched me put so much effort into attracting mosses to all the other spaces. Do nothing, he urged. “They show up when they want to, when it’s time.”
Maybe. I do believe in the practice of doing nothing in some situations. And mosses might have appeared as quickly if I’d done nothing. But it would have seemed longer. Einsteinian, you know. So, I did it the hard way.
To be sure, the war on grass is not over; I still have a lot more ground to moss. For now, however, I can say I fought the grass, and the moss won.
As did I, getting a priceless view from the windows: mosses, long- and short-haired, dark- and light-green. Grayish. One glows reddish when the sun hits it just right. Another’s mustard color. All are a feast for the eyes. And the soul.