Let's Make A Moss Garden
In coastal areas where there is constant humidity from fog, mist and rain, mosses can be pernicious weeds that must be kept under rigid surveillance and controlled with commercial moss killers. But this garden nightmare of the maritimes is the stuff of dreams for those of us who live in drier climates and want to grow mosses. We watch moss thriving in its woodland habitat and covet it for our own private backyard enjoyment. So we carefully collect some, plant it and lavish it with tender loving care - and then probably watch helplessly as it slowly dies.
If you've read my article, you are now probably puzzled because I said that one of the most interesting things about moss was that it was virtually indestructible, that you could get new moss plants to grow from even dried and crumbled pieces of old moss. Now I'm saying that transplanted mosses are delicate souls, ready to wither away at the first cold breeze. This seeming contradiction is resolved when we remember one incontrovertible fact about nature: the importance of habitat to survival. So the secret to growing mosses successfully is being able to duplicate almost exactly the moss's original habitat.
This is not as easy as you might think, as I have discovered to my chagrin. Although I was able to enjoy as many as 35 collected species of living mosses throughout one summer in my own moss garden, only about a third of them continued growing the following spring. In three years I'd be lucky to have half a dozen species left, and they would be indigenous to the neighbourhood anyway. (These survivors, of course, were in the same habitat as before transplanting.) Nonetheless, in theory at least, you could revive the "dead" mosses from the garden if you replanted them in their original home.
For the novice and experienced bryologist alike, success can be slow. There are some rules, but there are many variables. Here are some things to consider:
Make your garden as natural as possible. Ideally, it should contain a variety of soils with a few rocks, limestone and granite in separate areas, with some rotting wood as well. It should be well shaded for most of the day and protected from the drying effect of wind by shrubbery or suitable plantings (next to a board fence helps).
As any gardener knows, squirrels will come and dig up anything freshly planted as soon as you are out of sight. Raccoons also like to flip over pieces of moss for the slugs that gather under them. So I make wire netting cages to fit over parts of the garden. These protect the plants from wildlife. However, mosses are very sensitive to chemicals and the galvanized wire sheds hostility on them with every rain.
Mosses should be watered every day, but most tap water is chlorinated and that is also inimical to health. I understand if you let the tap water sit in the watering container for 24 hours, the chlorine dissipates. I settled for 18 inches of wire fencing all around my moss garden, and sprinkle them as much as possible through vegetation overhead. Rainwater is best for watering.
Try and duplicate, as nearly as possible, the natural habitat of each moss. One that needs an alkaline soil will soon die in an acid soil, or on contact with an acid rock like granite. The same is true of acid-loving species in a limestone habitat. Until you get to know your mosses pretty well, I'm afraid it's a case of trial with lots of error. One of the most positive things you can do to make mosses thrive is to put fertilizer in the soil. They need lots of phosphates and absorb it on the lawn, starving and crowding out the grass.
One problem I haven't solved is earthworms. They come up at night under a choice cushion of moss and split it in two. Next night they make it three pieces, then four, and push them around like snowballs. That is probably why an English author suggests the best way to grow moss is
outside in earthenware crockery, 3-4 inches deep and glazed inside. These would be planted and then covered with glass to keep the moisture in like a terrarium. Indoors in a terrarium, however, mosses soon mildew and die. This is because, no matter how moist they are kept, they cannot stand a sustained 20 degrees C. very long without withering and rotting. You might have more success with indoor terrariums if you keep the container near a cool window so that the mosses can benefit from the lower nighttime temperature. Outdoors, however, they rest and perk up with the first cooler moist weather, and are at their best in spring and fall.
I built my moss and wildflower garden as a rock garden surrounding a small, plastic-lined pool with a circulation pump forcing the water in a winding route among the mosses. The cement required to set the rocks and form the water course inadvertently turned most of the garden into an alkaline habitat, with the result that I now don't have much chance of success with acid-loving mosses!
A moss garden, in spite of its problems and demands, is a great satisfaction to its owner for its many little successes.