Connolly: Much to love about moss

For every person who has ever asked, "Why is there moss in the lawn?" I would invite them to consider a different question.

Why is there lawn in the moss?

Moss, in my book, is a completely lovable plant. Given a little moisture, it is green. When it lacks moisture, it doesn't die. It requires no digging; it likes to grow on compacted acidic soil. It abhors mowers and rakes. Deer don't eat it. It loves shade.

Instead of eliminating moss, those of us who manage yards - particularly deeply shady spaces - should consider this ancient member of the plant world an asset.

But why do moss and grass grow together so often?

"Moss is a perfect seed bed, soft and moist," says Jessica Budke, a bryologist who earned her doctorate at the University of Connecticut and currently does research at the University of California, Davis. "That's how the grass gets started. If there's grass thriving in the moss, it's probably getting too much sun. You may want to increase shade.

"Spring and fall are great seasons for improving moss cover," adds Budke. "Moisture is abundant and temperatures are cool."

Here are six steps toward a velvety green carpet of moss:

1. Pick a site in the shade, the more the better. (Also see point 6 below.)

2. Remove grass and weeds. If moss is already growing, the simplest way is to gently hand-pick the weeds. Do not rake! I have personally used white vinegar to kill grass and weeds, particularly young shoots in the spring. Vinegar is acidic and doesn't harm the moss or the soil. Other non-persistent weed killers, such as those based on pelargonic acid or limonene, may also be effective.

3. Dial down the pH: Mosses thrive below 5.5. And while our southern New England soil tends to be very acid, it never hurts to test. If pH is too high, garden centers supply soil acidifiers.

4. Spread moss around the bare areas. The most famous method is the "moss milkshake," in which the plants are blended with water, beer, eggs, or buttermilk. You might wonder, why does this work?

"If you put a philodendron through a blender," says Budke, "you have a dead philodendron. But with moss, each living cell is capable of growing a whole new plant. That's why the blender works." Ingredients such as eggs provide adhesive for the cells until the plants develop.

She adds that while this might be fun to do, "I really recommend transplanting patches of moss from other parts of the yard. I've seem more success with that approach."

For commercial sources, Connecticut's own Sticks and Stones Farm in Newtown offers moss soil as well as moss trays. And Moss Acres in northeastern Pennsylvania is one of the oldest and best known sources of moss and moss equipment in the country. (Links below.)

5. Keep moist with rainwater or distilled water. "Tap water can be deleterious," says Budke. "Other plants can filter unwanted minerals and substances, but moss has no roots or vascular system. It absorbs everything directly through the cells."

6. Clear away leaves. "Matted leaves make it too dark even for moss," says Budke. "And as they decay, leaves encourage fungi - which discourages moss."

One leaf-removal method calls for tulle or bird netting spread over the moss garden. After the leaves fall, lift the net gently and carry them off. Alternatively, use a leaf blower. Remember, the moss garden is a rake-free zone.

Growing moss on slopes is tricky but there are options. For instance, spread moss patches or a moss-shake mixture on sheets of wet wool felt. Let the moss become established on the felt. When coverage is satisfactory, move the moss-felt sheets to the sloped area and secure them with rocks or earth staples. Wool felt will eventually biodegrade and - if all goes well - leave behind a carpet of moss.

Budke says the British Bryological Society offers a free "Moss Growers Handbook" on the Internet. Other good books include "Moss Gardening" by George Schenk, "The Secret Lives of Mosses" by Stephanie Stuber, and "Gathering Moss" by Robin Wall Kimmerer.

Finally, people sometimes ask how to grow moss on rocks. "That's actually a bit tricky," says Budke. "Only certain mosses grow on stone, so make sure you've picked the right species. Or leave the stones out in nature and keep them moist - it may take time, but the right moss will show up."

FIND MOSS ACRES AT WWW.MOSSACRES.COM AND STICKS AND STONES FARM AT STICKSANDSTONESFARM.COM/MOSS-STONE-SHOP/

KATHY CONNOLLY IS A LANDSCAPE DESIGNER, GARDEN WRITER AND SPEAKER FROM OLD SAYBROOK. HER "DESIGN, PLANT AND MAINTAIN YOUR FOUNDATION GARDENS" WORKSHOP WILL BE HELD ON OCT. 12 AT THE UCONN EXTENSION CENTER IN HADDAM. EMAIL KATHY@SPEAKINGOFLANDSCAPES.COM FOR MORE INFORMATION OR SEE HER WEBSITE WWW.SPEAKINGOF LANDSCAPES.COM/CALENDAR.

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