Green tongue liverwort, broom, hook, frecklepelt, and sickle. Not potions and characters from a Harry Potter novel, rather common names for just a few of the gorgeous mosses, liverworts and lichens that populate the temperate rainforests and coastal ranges where I live. Moss, in particular is beautiful, practical and righteous in the home garden. I believe that if we all knew just how alive and essential moss is to natural systems, we wouldn’t be so quick with the power rake and power washer. What’s not to love about a soft, deep, vibrant green carpet that mulches naturally, retains and filters water, sequesters CO2, keeps weeds at bay, provides valuable natural habitat for insects and invertebrates, and requires little to no maintenance?
Even in winter and devoid of annuals, this garden remains luscious and green thanks to a moss mulch carpet
Moss is pre-historic, dating back over 450 million years, and can be found in one form or many on each of the seven continents. Moss is winter-hardy as it contains a natural anti-freeze, allowing it to bounce back even after being trampled flat when seemingly frozen. Moss does not need to be mowed, is not invasive (prolific, yes), and provides unparalleled natural erosion control. With its gorgeous pelt and low profile, moss acts a lush unifying force in a permaculture garden, softening edges and combining elements in a way that no other planting or installation possibly could.
Frozen moss trampled along this well-travelled footpath springs right back to life with the sun
I have always been drawn to moss, and was fortunate enough to wade waste-deep through it, in the magnificent old growth forests of the Clayoquot Sound Biosphere Reserve on Vancouver Island. Between the heady, ancient aroma that my footfall released from the living forest floor, and the super-oxygenated, antimicrobial phytoncides exhaled by the trees, it was all I could do to stay upright. In small doses those same elements live in my home garden, gifting me in wisps and puffs as I go about my business. These gifts are available to anyone who sees the value in letting nature takes its course, in the shade or part shade of the tiniest of gardens.
A salmon carcass left by a black bear feeds nitrogen down through the moss, to the trees in the old growth rainforest
I have raised vegetable beds, and several large container beds in full sun, and for many reasons, they do not contain any moss. The pollinator turf, lawn, part-sun beds, and ground-level beds that surround them however are home to masses of mosses of all kinds. I encourage this arrangement because I water far less, I weed not at all, and it is just so damn beautiful. In all of our ground level gardens and borders, regardless of what trees, ferns or perennials grow there, the soil is covered almost entirely by moss and naturalized ground covers like wild violets, bloody dock, false lily of the valley, bleeding heart, foam flower, and lady fern. The moss is encouraged to spill over onto pathways and pavers, covering rocks, terra cotta pots, and anything else slightly porous that stands in its way.
If you have no moss in your garden but would like some, it is very easy to propagate. First, make sure conditions are favourable and that the starter site isn’t too sunny or dry. Established moss can take quite a bit of sun, but you won’t get great results if you start out there. Damp, part-shaded soil on the ground or in a pot, works well as a canvas. Porous or rough surfaces like garden statuary, stones, bricks, pavers, work very well also. Search your neighborhood or town for some beautiful, healthy moss — check north-facing courtyards, wooded areas, aging wood piles — and take a few handfuls home (without damaging its environment). Shred or break the moss up into very small pieces, and mix it vigorously into some yogurt of buttermilk to form a loose slurry. Paint, rub or drizzle the moss mixture onto your target area, and wait, keeping the area lightly misted.
Mulching a trellised pathway with moss instread of woodchips keeps the area cool and looking beautiful
Soon enough, you will see a greening up. Be sure to keep your surface evenly moist but not soaked, until the moss is well established. I’ve done this many times on terra cotta and stone pots, and garden statuary, most particularly when the addition of something new and unblemished would look out of place in the gardens of our 72 year-old home. Watering high-traffic, moss-covered areas like the pathway above with a four to one mixture of water and buttermilk, in the spring and as needed, will help keep the moss happy and healthy.
Most recently I packed starter moss slurry onto both sides of a very long raised lavender bee berm built over a swale that I created around the perimeter of our boulevard. The lavender berm is rather like a 12″ high hill of living soil that sits directly overtop of an 18″ deep dry well that runs along the edge of the boulevard, set back from the road only 2ft. The installation is just one year old and still quite fragile as far as soil erosion goes.
Covering this raised berm with moss adds structural strength, prevents soil erosion, and discourages dogs from digging
We’ve been having trouble with neighborhood dogs walking over the berm and breaking down its walls. To fortify the soil structure and create a living green ‘crust’ of sorts along the entire surface of the berm, I’ve been adding an extremely watered down moss slurry fairly regularly. Patches of lovely green are starting to grow here and there, and I am certain that within another year the berm will be dog-friendly — covered entirely with moss, providing both habitat and structural integrity.
After just a few months, the moss slurry works its magic and patches of green appear along both sides of the berm
It seems counter-intuitive to plant moss on a sunny lavender slope, but since the berm is made up solely of organic compost mixed together with small cracked gravel, the moss grabs hold nicely, much as it would on decaying wood or the forest floor. Moss has no roots, rather it grabs hold with tiny foot-like rhizoids, absorbing water and nutrients primarily through its leaves, where it stores them until needed. Mosses are extremely resilient plants, happy to set up just about anywhere they can find water.
Ferns, goatsbeard, and bleeding heart pop up through the moss in the back garden, brightening its cool darkness
In her fascinating book ‘Gathering Moss – A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses’ author and Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology, Robin Wall Kimmerer, uncovers the magic, mystery, and life-giving nature of moss. “One gram of moss from the forest floor, a piece about the size of a muffin, would harbour 150,000 protozoa, 132,000 tardigrades, 3,000 springtails, 800 rotifers, 500 nematodes, 400 mites, and 200 fly larvae. These numbers tell us something about the astounding quantity of life in a handful of moss.”
In the small and dark back corner of our yard, where birds and squirrels nest in the hemlock and spruce, and the moss grows seven decades deep, there exists another world. I sit on the ground and inhale the ancient, heady aroma, and count my blessings.