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Laurie Silvia scoops out gravel between sidewalk stones and replaces it with moss patches on a winter day at her Old Lyme home. (Photo courtesy of Kathy Connolly )
Laurie Silvia of Old Lyme is glad for the moss that has replaced a struggling lawn. (Photo courtesy of Kathy Connolly )
Professional moss grower Annie Martin offers this advice for newly planted moss: “Step on it.” (Photo by Chuck Landrey courtesy of Kathy Connolly )
Moss patches should be thawed and pressed onto rough surfaces. (Photo by Chuck Landrey courtesy of Kathy Connolly )
The crew at Mountain Moss patches together a moss lawn on a cold day. (Photo courtesy of Mountain Moss )
Annie Martin make a mid-winter moss rescue from a roof that’s about to undergo repair. She reminds us that moss should never be taken from parks, conservation land, or any public space. She is a licensed plant harvester. (Photo courtesy of Mountain Moss )
Fire moss (Ceratodon purpureus) displays its brightest red sporophytes in winter. Fire moss is one of several that grows well in crevices between stones. (Photo courtesy of Annie Martin, Mountain Moss )
This haircap moss (Polytrichum commune) is an excellent selection for a lawn area. (Photo courtesy of Annie Martin, Mountain Moss )
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If I told you there’s something green sparkling in the February sunlight just outside your door, you might be tempted to take a look. Don’t be disappointed when you find moss. It sometimes pays to notice the familiar.
A few years ago, Laurie Silvia of Old Lyme noticed the mosses in her yard and began to experiment with them. She always liked the look of velvet green intermingled with stepping stones.
“I picked up moss in small tufts, scratched the sand out of the crevices in the front walk, and tucked the tufts in between the stones,” says Silvia.
Never having planted moss, she was pleasantly surprised by how easily it worked. Then she got another surprise.
“I found I could add moss any time of year, as long as there wasn’t snow on the ground,” she says.
According to professional moss grower Annie Martin, who operates Mountain Moss (www.mountainmoss.com) in Brevard, North Carolina, these plants have antifreeze. In her book, The Magical World of Moss Gardening (Timber Press, 2015), Martin explains that ancient mosses developed phenolic compounds that have seen the plants through more than a few ice ages and continue to do so in our more temperate times.
As a result, moss doesn’t automatically go to sleep in fall.
“As long as the surface is moist and exposed, moss photosynthesizes all year,” says Martin. “In winter, the plants absorb bright filtered light below bare tree limbs. They even photosynthesize under snow.”
Moss doesn’t mind moving to frozen or semi-frozen surfaces as long as the surface is rough.
Go Ahead, Walk on It
Martin adds a fine point, however: The transplant will be more successful if you thaw the plants first. Moss lacks roots. Hook-like structures called rhizoids anchor the green sprigs to soil, rocks, or a host of other materials.
“Thawed, the rhizoids can attach to the new location more easily,” she says.
Martin says we should walk on newly placed moss to speed the attachment. It’s also a good idea to anchor the patches with twigs, toothpicks, or another means to prevent wash-outs. Martin doesn’t recommend “moss milkshakes” (shredded moss bits mixed with liquid and spread where moss is desired).
In Old Lyme, Silvia found through trial and error that this low-growing velvet greenery was her ticket to a simpler yard care routine.
“We tried to grow grass for years. Finally, in frustration, we stopped adding seed, lime, and fertilizers,” she says. “Nature took over. Now, the area is mossy all the time.”
Silvia says the “lawn” spreads a bit every year with no help.
Doug Clark of Guilford, likewise, about five years ago decided to let moss take over some of his yard, and he’s happy that he did.
“At first I did not do much, I just let the moss grow naturally. I tried to avoid mowing over the moss,” he says.
He then started to increase the acidity of the area with a soil amendment.
“Moss seems to like that, and other ground plants don’t,” he says. “I was hoping to give the moss the strength to out-compete some of the other stuff growing there.”
So far it’s worked out very well, he says. He notes that a lawn full of moss might not be ideal for a family that engages in vigorous physical activity, like playing catch or running through sprinklers.
“But since we don’t have small children around, that’s not a problem for us,” he says.
He loves that it’s green year round, and not just one shade of green.
“We must have several different varieties because there are different shades of green in different sections of the property,” he says. “That’s another thing I like about it, that it’s not all the same shade of green. And in warm weather, it’s soft to walk on barefoot.”
After becoming enamored of the mosses that were part of his lawn, Clark decided to read an inspirational book called Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Kimmerer is a botanist with a Native American background and heritage who both conducts moss research and, in her way, strives to listen to these little plants on their own terms. She won the 2005 John Burroughs Medal Award for Natural History Writing.
Martin says you can expand a moss lawn in winter.
“Place the patches very close together, even overlapping. Make sure they have some moisture, walk on them, and anchor them,” says Martin.
She also offers an important reminder: “Never take moss from parks, conservation land, or any public space.”
Martin summarizes, “It may be cold outside, but there are advantages to adding moss in winter. It’s a great time of year to identify the bare spots in the landscape and fill them. There’s less competition from weeds and grasses and there’s usually more than enough moisture.”
For many of us, there are also fewer demands from those other members of the plant kingdom, the hungry, thirsty, temperamental flowers and veggies, for our scarcest resource, time.
Kathy Connolly writes and speaks about landscape design, land care, and horticulture. Reach her through her website: www.SpeakingofLandscapes.com.
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