Tuesday, March 3, 2009

A closer look at mosses

A typical Finnish coastal forest with grey granite cliffs, mosses, heathers and pine trees. Photo by Karl-Dietrich Bühler, in "The Scandinavian Garden" (2000).
KK
I probably am genetically predestined to love mosses. When I was small, I loved to sit on the grey granite cliffs and moss-covered rocks of the coastal South-West Finland; looking at the ants in work, climbing over the different mosses like in a miniature forest. In the autumn, cranberries gloved with their bright red globes like small lanterns on the mosses. I still can feel the smell of sun-warmed moss on the grey granite cliffs, combined with the luxurious smell of small, orange or brown chanterelles, peeking up between the mosses. And in my garden in Saltsjöbaden, I could not see any reason for taking my neighbour's advice of replacing my emerald green moss carpet with a new roll-on lawn turf despite repeated "hints" from him.
K
Rock cap moss (Dicranum) growing on an old fence in Clyde Hill, near Seattle.
KKMMoss-covered azalea branches at the Azalea Walk at the Washington Arboretum.
K
For years, most gardening advice concerning mosses has been about getting rid of them. But recently, this beautiful and hardy plant that has been around for at least 450 million years, has become more popular as an alternative to the traditional lawn. Maybe the great interest in Japanese gardens, where mosses have traditionally had a prominent place, has influenced us aesthetically.
K
Moss path at the Seattle Japanese Garden at Washington Arboretum.
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The Japanese Garden at Butchart Gardens on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada.
K
As a fact, mosses are a lovely and sustainable alternative to lawns in shady or half-sunny areas with slightly acidic and compacted soils - so they are the complete opposite to other garden plants. Moss plants do not possess true roots (and how could they, used as they are to growing on cliffs and stones...). Instead they derive their nutrients and moisture from the air, and therefore they don't need any fertilizers. They are drought resistant (even here, they are used to drying out totally on cliffs and stones), and a small splash of water can restore them to health within minutes. Although mosses require moisture, a moss lawn needs only a small fraction the thousands of liters (or gallons) of tap water (beyond rainwater) that a suburban grass lawn needs annually. Mosses grow fast and hug the ground, so they prevent soil erosion. Deer don't tend to eat them, but birds sometimes peck insects from moss and can therefore damage the looks of a moss carpet.
KA moss-covered Ganesh in my neighbourhood greets me every time I walk past it... it really seems to have a personality of it's own.
Tove Jansson, one of Finland's most successful writers (whose books about Moomin have been translated into twelve languages), wrote about mosses: 'Only farmers and summer visitors walk on the moss. They do not know and it cannot be said often enough that moss is the most sensitive plant there is. You step at it once and the moss recovers in the rain, but the second time it does not. The third time you walk over the moss it is dead.' My experience tells me otherwise; mosses are actually quite tolerant of walking and they do recover quite fast. But I totally agree with Tove in admiring these velvety, humble plants.
K

14 comments:

Barbee' said...

I admire mosses greatly so I enjoyed your interesting post very much.

The Intercontinental Gardener said...

Hi Barbee, nice to hear from you! The Eranthus/ winter aconite pictures on your blog we really beautiful. I have them in my garden in Sweden too, and love their little, bright faces coming up from the brown soil.

camellia said...

I was so pleased to read this post! I love mosses too, they're a fairytale carpet. Subtle, soft, delicate and beautiful. I loathe the roll-out turf of lawn, and can't believe they treat it to get rid of mosses! I wish I had acidic soil here so I could grow it, but it's really, really chalky (will try to get rid of most of the boring lawn though...)

The Intercontinental Gardener said...

Camellia, I just thought of two alternatives for moss that can be grown on limey clay soils.
"Irish moss" is one of my favourites, so you could probably try it as it grows on clay; check out Sagina subulata, http://gardening.about.com/od/gardendesign/ig/Plants-to-Walk-On/Sagina-subulata--Irish-Moss-.htm.

Another option is Arenaria verna; http://www.bluestoneperennials.com/b/bp/ARVAS.html, which also forms mosslike groundcover.

I love them both, they are almost as soft as mosses and have tiny little flowers too. I had Sagina subulata between limestone slabs in my garden in Sweden and it really thrived there.

Gardeness said...

Moss has been growing on me (no pun intended!). I haven't quite figured out how to use it, though, other than in my grass! These are wonderful photos, Clearly I need to further explore the Arboretum.

Slottsträdgårdsmästaren said...

Vilket härligt inlägg med spännande bilder. Jag gillar verkligen mossa!

Rajee Sood said...

I really enjoyed your post ... back in San francisco... I used to try and grow it in pots to put on my coffee table ... and used to love the moss growing on all my pots ... sadly I now have moved to a part of India where the tropical heat just kills them...but up on the hills ... it is fairy tale (as Camellia put it...)paradise with the mosses all over ... thanks soo much for sharing this post... love the photographs...

The Intercontinental Gardener said...

Gardeness, thanks for your comments. I still have the moss garden in Bloedel reserve to explore, so more mossy things might be coming soon.

Slottsträdgårdsmästaren: härligt att få besök igen, och roligt att höra att du också är en "mossmänniska"...

Rajee: nice to have you visiting! Moss really is decorative, and the climate here suits mosses perfectly. I would love to see the mountains (and mosses...) in India!

Karen said...

Love moss, wish I had more of it here. Too much sun, I guess. "Finn Family Moomintroll" is a favorite book, I need to read it to my daughter and see if she will like it too. Could that moss-covered elephant be a statue of Ganesh? I think he is supposed to look after writers, among other godly tasks in Hinduism.

camellia said...

Thank you very much for exciting tips. It's funny, how I, as a Scandinavian, associate mosses with either woodland or stony/rocky areas (perhaps not so surprising, that's how they grow naturally in our countries). My garden here is a flat square, the trees not woodlandish at all. However much I love moss, when I walked around the garden other day, musing at the possibility of introducing moss, I found myself thinking it would look "planted", or even staged, in a garden like this. Having said that, I found a Isotoma fluviatilis on your tip page, not a moss, but a ground creeper, which really got me going. That could work very well here. Off to check availability...

The Intercontinental Gardener said...

Karen, it really is Ganesh (or Ganesha, the remover of obstacles, both material and spiritual, and the god of letters and learning (amongst many other fine things, I had to check out this). Next time I pass him, I might give him a little flower; it might help keeping the letters flowing... I just like this Ganesha so much, he looks very exotic here, but at the same time so calm and "dignified".

Camellia, exactly; sometimes it is better to create the "essence" of ones idea, if the original one does not suit the situation. Maybe we can see some pictures from your "mossy" garden without moss in the future...

Tina said...

Hey I haven't dropped by in awhile but love your post on mosses. I too love them. Something that was ever present growing up in New Zealand. I still remember a hike I did while I was at University up through the mountains in New Zealand - before we left the tree line we went through a very magical landscape with bare trees dripping in moss and moss on the ground. It was quite surreal and has stayed with me.

The Intercontinental Gardener said...

Hi Tina, so good to hear from you again. I would love to visit New Zealand to see the landscape and plants, somehow we never got there while living in Melbourne (too many babies during those years...). I love your pictures of the meadows there, they really make want to travel!

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