Plant a Moss Lawn

Where a lawn won't grow, plant moss—no mowing, no fussing, no problem.
Article: Steve Bender

How would you like a lawn that stays green and beautiful year-round, is native to your area, grows just fine on bad soil, and needs hardly any weeding, watering, or fertilizing? You'd love it, you say? Then don't grow grass—grow moss.

That was the decision Barbara and Richard Urquardt made when they nestled their house amid a verdant forest and ancient stone outcroppings atop a huge hill in Raleigh, North Carolina. They wanted a lush carpet to cover the site's poor, rocky soil and provide vibrant, year-round color, but it also had to be native and grow in shade to complement the indigenous plants and rock formations. That meant one thing—moss.

Enter David Spain and Ken Gergle of Moss and Stone Gardens in Raleigh. For more than 10 years, they've been designing shade, water, and moss gardens. Their philosophy is to work with nature, not against it, and to reduce the collection of moss from the wild by teaching people how to grow it at home.

For most moss lawns, David and Ken use three or four different kinds. Here, however, they planted about 15 types. Some are clumpers (acrocarps), but most are flat spreaders (pleurocarps). Mixing species provides a seasonally changing collage of different shades of green—blue-green, emerald green, mint green, dollar-bill green, and golden green.

The benefits of mosses are aesthetic and practical. On the aesthetic side, they give the garden an aged look, as if everything has been in place a long time. They also combine superbly with shade-loving perennials, such as hostas, wild gingers, hellebores, ferns, trilliums, lilies-of-the-valley, and heucheras. On the practical side, they act as a moisture-retentive mulch that reduces erosion and needs very little maintenance.

What's Cool About Moss
Moss is a special type of plant called a bryophyte. It doesn't have true roots, flowers, fruits, or seeds. What you're seeing as you look at a mat of it are leaves and stems that directly absorb water and nutrients. Moss spreads vegetatively and also by spores. It doesn't keep grass from growing; rather, it grows in places that grass won't, such as in shade or on rocks and tree trunks.

Moss needs two things to grow: daylight (not direct sun) and moisture. Take one away and it shuts down. The more often it gets water, the faster it grows, but it doesn't need deep watering. Just give two minutes of water a day in early morning to keep it growing constantly. That's only a tiny fraction of the water a grass lawn needs.

Getting Started
For beginners, David recommends two of the fastest growing and most widely adapted spreading mosses—sheet moss (Hypnum sp.) and fern moss (Thuidium delicatulum). They are available by mail from mossandstonegardens.com and tripplebrookfarm.com. Supply the right growing conditions and many native mosses will show up on their own. To learn more about moss gardening, visit mossandstonegardens.com.