A typical Finnish coastal forest with grey granite cliffs, mosses, heathers and pine trees. Photo by Karl-Dietrich Bühler, in "The Scandinavian Garden" (2000).
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
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.
Moss path at the Seattle Japanese Garden at Washington Arboretum.
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.