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.