Velvety carpet lends a distinguished look Moss: Japanese and many others value this ancient, shade-loving plant. It might be able to cover ground where grass refuses to grow.

January 25, 1998|By Ary Bruno | Ary Bruno,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Among the usual multitude of new and improved varieties of flowers, shrubs, vegetables and trees being touted with frenetic enthusiasm, I would like to introduce one of the oldest plants on earth: moss.

If you are one of those frustrated lawn keepers who have been fighting the incursions of moss into a beloved but heavily shaded grassy sward, you had best quit reading this now. What I have to say is in praise of moss.

Perhaps it is time that we discovered mosses. They have been readily appreciated in China and Japan for centuries. In fact, the Japanese have a word for the unique atmosphere of an old, established mossy place: "shibusa."

One of the most visited gardens in the world is famous mostly because of its mosses. This is the Saihoji Temple in Kyoto, Japan.

Little work required

Moss is a thing of quiet beauty and has much to recommend it. It is very low maintenance, for one thing, and needs no mowing, fertilizing or trimming, and very little weeding once it is established. It lends itself well to providing greenery in otherwise daunting places that would be barren without it. What better to adorn the rock-shaded edges of a water feature, woodland pool or the north face of a stone wall?

Besides being nearly evergreen and well-behaved, moss gives a distinguished appearance to the places it makes its home. For this reason, it is much valued by people who have come to appreciate old, well-grown gardens and the comfortable rootedness they imply.

Nature's velvet, mosses give a subtly sensuous mood wherever they are introduced. They soften the cold, sheer faces of rocks and even concrete walls, cloak old wood and trees with gentle, verdant fingers, and throw an emerald carpet across shaded earth where little else will grow.

Mosses almost ask to be touched, to be brushed with the back of a hand, to be stroked like fine material.

Mosses have frequently been given a bum rap. Put ugly rumors aside. They will not contribute to the decay of roofs -- slate, asphalt or wooden -- nor tear away at structures as does Boston ivy. Moss is the meekest of plants. It has not the strength to destroy, and the bad effects often ascribed to it are due instead to the effects of water, frost and sun.

There are hundreds, if not thousands of types of moss. The most common carpet mosses are Polytrichum, Pohlia and Atrichum.

The procurement of mosses in this country is still in its infancy, with the most common method being to stalk them in the wild. Getting a particular one to transplant is a hit-or-miss proposition. The best advice is to seek out those already growing in a habitat similar to the one you wish to put them into.

Generally, mosses prefer shade or part shade. No moss grows in the blazing sun. Moisture is also important, although the absolute need for a constant supply of it varies with the type of moss in question. What is certain is that mosses do not tolerate lime or calcium well. Their perfect pH is 5.5.

Mosses spread to new areas through spores that can travel on the breeze, or via the passing foot or fur of an animal or human. All it asks is that the receiving surface offer a scrap of sustenance in the form of dusty leaf mold, rotted wood or humusy earth and some moisture to get it started.

Gardeners who find that they do like moss often go to great lengths to cultivate it. Where it is not possible to transplant a colony from the wild, the most common method is to encourage the growth of wind-borne spores that may land upon the surface of a statue, urn fountain, rocks or similar objects.

An initial bath of muriatic acid is considered helpful, to provide a favorably low pH.

Dousing or spraying the object or ground with buttermilk or soured yogurt is also said to be effective, especially if one mixes it with a little moss in the blender as a starter. One recipe to induce growth includes mashed slugs. It is wonderful to know there is a creative use for these slimy little beasts. How one is to do the mashing is best left to the imagination, however.

There are certain types of rocks and containers well suited to growing mosses. Stones with rough, pocky surfaces are best. Almost any container will do, from a conch shell to a weathered barn board carved with some soil-holding hollows. Bonsai trays also work admirably.

If you are supplying the planting medium yourself, rather than gathering it where the moss originated, the best blend is one part potting soil mix (without added calcium), one part peat moss and one part sand or fine pebbles. I find that a mix of two parts packaged bonsai soil plus one part fine peat also works nicely.

Cultivating a carpet

If you wish to grow an impressive carpet of moss, there are a couple of methods you can use.

One method is to simply let existing mosses that are taking over a lawn or other area get on with it. Dusting with sulfur will help by lowering the pH. Pulling out lingering grass will speed things up, too.

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