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Grow moss -- on purpose?

Instead of fighting moss in the yard, gardeners should try encouraging it to grow.

By April AustinCorrespondent to The Christian Science Monitor / May 15, 2008

Natives: William Cullina, director of horticultural research for the New England Wild Flower Society, has written a new book that includes native mosses, such as Dicranella heteromalia, pictured above on rocks. Many people try to rid their yards of moss, but for damp, shady spots where little else will grow, it can provide a soft emerald carpet.

Courtesy of Debra Strick/New England Wild Flower Society


Moss is the “first responder” of the plant world. Along with lichen, it moves in to stabilize areas destroyed by fire or other disasters. It comes equipped with shallow roots that trap water and particles, staving off erosion. In home gardens, however, its eagerness to colonize can frustrate gardeners.

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William Cullina favors moss in the garden. So much so that he includes it in his latest book, “Native Ferns, Moss & Grasses.” It’s third in a series on native plants, following his first guide on growing wildflowers and his second, on trees, shrubs, and vines. Mr. Cullina (pronounced kul-EYE-nuh) directs the horticultural research program for the New England Wild Flower Society in Framingham, Mass.

While many gardeners appreciate the beauty and utility of ferns, and still others are discovering the versatility of grasses, people tend to be less enthusiastic about moss. Cullina understands this reluctance to embrace moss in the garden. It’s one thing to encounter it covering a fallen log on a hike through woodlands. It’s another to find the plant insinuating itself into lawns and flower beds.

Each year, homeowners resort to treatments to discourage moss. Cullina says unless the conditions are changed that moss favors – shade, compacted soils, and high levels of moisture – trying to get rid of it is a waste of time. It will just grow back. “You’ll find moss under any turf grass. It’s a symptom, not a cause,” he says.

Just as suburban gardeners have been rethinking large sweeps of lawn, people may need to rethink plants that have been largely ignored. Cullina wants to get people excited about moss and thinking about how to use it to best advantage. “Moss gives a patina to the garden, a sense of age,” he says.

Moss also offers “a subtle variety of texture and color, a visual sophistication,” Cullina says. He points to Japanese gardens, where the play of texture is more important than bright flowers: “The serenity and simplicity of green on green allows you to notice detail.” Color can be overdone; too much is distracting.

Designers recognize the tranquil qualities imparted by moss. In New York, the atrium garden enclosed within the New York Times Tower, which opened in November, features an elegantly simple arrangement of seven paper birch trees and 6,000 square feet of native moss. Canadian landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander chose common haircap moss and fern moss to create lush cushions of emerald green.