Adventures in laissez-faire gardening: growing a moss garden

The last time I wrote about a moss garden, it was in the context of what I like to think of as Daoist gardening: stumbling on a perfect, more or less untrammeled spot, erecting a temporary mental frame around it, and recognizing it as a garden in need of no actual horticultural interference. This seems to me to be the only form of gardening in full accord with the ancient Daoist principle of wu wei (effortless doing) as described in the Dao De Jing and Zhuangzi. The spot in question was on a talus slope about a half-mile from the house. It looks like this:

view of the moss garden

Ten days ago I decided to try something a little less Daoist and start a moss garden closer to home — right outside my door, in fact. A 25-square-foot patch bounded by the house, the front stoop, a concrete sidewalk and a brick walk has been getting shadier and shadier as the spicebush I planted there some 15 years ago has grown up. Additional shade is provided by the house to the northeast, a stone wall a few feet away to the northwest, and beyond the wall, a flourishing lilac. Last year when we scraped and painted the house, we compacted the soil everywhere we stood. This spring, some of these areas failed to revegetate immediately — especially in the shady spot under the spicebush.

At first I was worried. For at least ten years, the spot has been covered with a beautiful variety of speedwell (Persian, perhaps? It was a volunteer), which I encouraged by weeding out all competitors except for some top-heading garlic. It was a carpet of blue every May. But now the speedwell, true to its name, has jumped the walk and established a more flourishing patch in the sunnier part of my garden. And then I started to notice that the bare patches were turning green. So I started pulling out the speedwell and garlic and noticed little patches of moss coming in all over. My usual, laissez-faire approach to gardening involves pulling out all the grass and a few other undesirable plants and seeing what comes in, augmented by a few intentional plantings from time to time. Why not pull out everything except the moss, keep it weeded and watered, and see if the moss takes over?

moss garden 1

Heavily compacted, naturally acidic soil is the perfect growing medium for moss. To help things along, I fetched a heavy iron tamping tool from the shed and compacted the entire site as much as I could. By removing the existing groundcover, of course, I’ve made the spot more susceptible to drying out, so this commits me to daily watering until the moss takes hold. It’s become an after-dinner ritual.

I did some web research and turned up an intriguing-sounding technique for getting moss established: collect bunches of it and toss them in a blender with diluted beer or buttermilk, blend just enough to create a slurry, and spread it with a spatula on bare patches. I’m glad to know there’s a fall-back plan in case my laissez-faire approach doesn’t work. But I’m already seeing a faint haze of green in some areas that were brown a week ago — look in the center of the following photo:

moss garden 2

When I was a kid and heavily into vegetable gardening, I loved the central mystery of it: how you buried this dead-looking little seed and a plant would come up. Moss is in a way even more wondrous, since it lacks seeds and flowers altogether, doesn’t make a clear distinction between stems and leaves, and seems inescapably plural. Not coincidentally, I had written a poem about moss just a couple days before I made the decision to dedicate a portion of my front garden to it. So more than anything, this is an experiment in what one might call poetry actualization. I’ll keep you posted.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

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    1. Oh yeah, I remember that from when you linked to it four or five years ago! I see they use the beer-in-the-blender recipe for their moss grafitti, but they fail to mention that you would have to use species of moss that grow on rocks.

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  1. I love moss and this will be a wonderful project both in the development and in the final mossy green creation

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  2. There’s much to be said for going with the flow, and your moss gardening will I’m sure pay dividends. Our lawn, treasured for for being a pleasant place to throw frisbee for the dog and to play croquet and have picnics on, became so sodden two winters ago that it gave up the ghost on grass and became almost entirely moss. But we fought back. We hired in a terrifying ‘scarifying’ machine that dragged out the moss and left the place looking as though it had been a battle ground. More grass seed was scattered and in time it returned to something approaching what a lawn should look like. We’re not lawn perfectionists here. Plenty of buttercups, clover, speedwell and daisies to give it that slightly unkempt look. And the Jackdaws and rooks descend from time to time to gouge deep holes as they forage for leatherjackets. It’ll never be a lawn of verdant, clipped perfection. But with the moisture-retaining moss vanquished, it’s good to be able to walk on the grass without sinking to the ankles in water. Not that we’re short of moss elsewhere. This is Wales after all, and the rain makes sure that there are plenty of mossy corners.

    I like your recipe of moss and beer! We’ve recently had some plinths made to take sculpture in the garden. They’ve been finished in lime render, and the plan now is to make a ‘soup’ of rotted horse manure and yoghurt to slather over them, which will encourage green growth on the surfaces. I’m looking forward to this with inordinate pleasure!

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    1. PS. Unlike your moss/beer mix, I don’t think I’ll be making the manure/yoghurt soup in the blender. A bucket will have to suffice! (-;

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    2. Yeah, long-term I will need some sort of small sculpture for this spot. Being dirt poor though (or actually dirt rich, as I like to think of it), I’ll probably have to either make my own or be content with some charismatic found object such as a cool-looking boulder, ideally with moss already on it.

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  3. Have to say that you all are making me hungry!
    Wondering if I’m really a Moss in Disguise?
    I am ‘inescapably plural’, that much I know.

    Great stuff–thanks, Dave and all–

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    1. Ha! I’m kind of hungry here myself, but that’s despite and not because of Clive’s recipe. Glad you liked the post.

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  4. This is so cool! I love your garden already. Some toney gardening book advised painting new terracotta pots with a yogurt/compost mixture, but I like your moss-‘n-beer-in-a-blender idea a whole lot more, and I’m going to try it in some spaces between rocks in my own garden.

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    1. Cool. Let us know how it turns out. The rest of my garden is pretty chaotic, but this corner near the door should end up looking pretty orderly — a lawn that never needs mowed!

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  5. Kia ora Dave,
    Great project. The first photo struck me with a very New Zealand feel to it, as climbing in the forests here the mosses and lichens can be just stunning. What a great way to create a natural landscape, and might be perfect for my somewhat boggy and unruly backyard. Just let it go wild.
    Cheers,
    Robb

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    1. Hi Robb, glad you liked that photo. Yeah, with most of our yards here, we’ve done just that — let them go wild. Of course, it helps that we don’t live in a neighborhood or on a public road. Most neighbors probably wouldn’t bee too understanding.

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