Making the Most of Moss

One shady part of our greensward, I realize, I am not completely proud of.

The trouble is, it is spoiled by untidily-scattered tufts of grass. These weedy wisps interfere with what might otherwise be an immaculate and, to borrow George Schenk's word, "immemorial" carpet of pure moss.

There are prejudices and there are prejudices, and the worst are those we don't realize we have. Moss hatred, for example.

It is not often that a book comes along - and in particular a gardening book - that turns over contentedly underground attitudes and stimulates an about-face. But the stoutly American Mr. Schenk, one-time nurseryman and landscaper, now a peripatetic international gardener and highly readable author, has done that to me. And I haven't even finished his book yet.

Come to think of it, I have probably never finished any gardening book. So I felt at home when, in the early pages of "Moss Gardening: Including Lichens, Liverworts, and Other Miniatures" (Timber Press, 261 pp. $34.95), Schenk charitably invites his readers to dig into those parts of his text that most interest them.

But since this extended encomium on the world of cryptogams (mosses to you and me) is not only heartfelt and witty but informative and well-written, I haven't wanted to miss much.

I now realize that I am one of probably many people who have a moss-gardener inside them longing to get out.

Although I'm British, I really do not share the national fetish for lawns that look like billiard tables. I do confess, though, that last summer, when I had a fresh patch of earth in need of greening, the grass seed I bought was the very finest grade and favored by experts who deal in bowling greens. I was tempted to think I should at last bow to convention and try for at least a small area of pristine, smooth, daisyless, exhaustively tended grass.

But now, Schenk-influenced, I am not so sure.

Actually, I think there is room for both philosophies - lawn and moss - in different parts of one garden, and while I still plan to sow more of the finest grass seed, I have started to take out the grass that is spoiling the moss under the trees.

As Schenk says: "Every John and Jane grows grass. Only Nature's chosen grow moss." And, he makes fascinatingly clear, moss can grow in all kinds of places, not just where your lawn once was.

Though he expounds five ways of "growing moss," the most practical seems the "let it be" approach. If moss is there, don't discourage it. If it arrives, welcome it. I have in my time been a moss-discourager of the sort to make Schenk shudder: vicious with a wire brush on paths and walls that the spores of various mosses have found sympathetic.

And I still have (in common with one alpine gardener Schenk mentions) a conviction that moss does take over and finally displace, if left to itself, some of the more seductive little alpine plants that like to creep along the earth.

IN the end, it's all a matter of priority and how you choose to look at things - and of what you decide is acceptable as horticulture. Schenk does not dodge the fact that moss gardening is, for all its laid-back appearance, hard work. Yet he also believes that areas of moss are a delight of what he calls "visual gardening," which, "at its best, negates the need to garden physically." He calls "moss viewing" a "natural calmative" and (of course) mentions the "moss-muffled temple gardens" of Japan.

But the mystique attached to these gardens, suggesting that moss can only be cultivated by those who are initiated in the subtleties of Zen or live in a state of monastic contemplation, is happily broken by the dirty-fingernail matter-of-factness of Schenk's discussion. He is an experimenter, frank about his failures and modest (well, fairly) about his successes. He even says that one of the many excellent photographs in his book shows a patch of moss that has been tidied up especially for the picture.

Schenk knows that too-perfect photographs are a clich of the gardening-book genre, making the rest of us depressed about the state of our gardens. But Schenk is a pragmatic idealist: He makes me feel I can try some mossy experiments, and that it is just a plant, after all.

Although the Japanese have a unique sensitivity for moss, being of another nationality is not an inevitable disqualification. Several of Schenk's photos show the gloriously lush mosses, lichens, and liverworts that clothe the fountains of the Villa d'Este in Italy, and another, taken by Pamela Harper, shows the oceanic undulations of the moss-carpet under the beeches at England's Savill Gardens.

I am hardly alone in counting the experience of this surprising moss-scape near London as utterly memorable. Sadly, "memorable" is the right word. This silvery-green eiderdown of plant life near London - and its beech cover - have gone, the victim of unusual storms.

But Schenk describes the Savill mosses at length: He is not deterred by absence. His heart, like that of anyone who had the privilege of seeing them, has been made to grow fonder. Naturally.

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