Despite the unseasonably warm days we have enjoyed this January, we are still very much in winter. Around the garden, warm-season grasses are brown and brittle, the branches of deciduous trees are bare, and herbaceous perennials are decidedly dormant. There is no winter dormancy for a gardener, though, and our team of horticulturalists remains busy. On a given day you may see us tucking in bulbs, pruning trees and shrubs, laying down mulch, cutting back perennials, and, of course, pulling winter weeds. There are many plants, in fact, that tolerate winter’s cold and continue to bring welcome green to the garden, and the most luxurious green of all belongs to our moss gardens.
Winter is one of the best times to admire the moss, which remains earnestly green throughout the seasons, but becomes especially verdant during our wet winters. We have cultivated several moss gardens on our grounds, located in the Asia Garden, Japanese Garden, and the Container Garden.
Walking through the property, though, you will notice that moss has volunteered throughout, growing on stones, pathways, trees, and seemingly everywhere, if you look carefully.
The mat of green we observe is often not a singular “moss”, but a cohabitation of bryophyte species-- “bryophyte” being the term used for non-vascular, terrestrial plants, like mosses, but also liverworts and hornworts. Like the vascular plants we are most familiar with, bryophytes photosynthesize, and require mineral nutrients, carbon dioxide, and water. Unlike vascular plants, bryophytes lack a cuticle, and absorb water and nutrients directly through their leaves. They do not have a root system, rather a mass of root-like rhizoids, which anchor them and do not move water or nutrients from the substrate. They also do not flower or produce seed, reproducing instead via spores and vegetative fragments.
For gardeners interested in cultivating their own moss, winter is a good time to begin! Mosses make an excellent lawn alternative in troublesome areas where grass seems to pout, and they pair nicely with ferns and small wildflowers in woodland gardens. Furthermore, mosses require little of the standard maintenance. The moss lawn can be established on poor and compacted soil, does not require fertilizer, does not need to be mown, and has few pest or disease problems. The cultivation of moss does, however, require the removal of debris (we periodically blow out our moss gardens, but sweeping with a soft broom will suffice), and weeding. And, while mosses can be surprisingly resilient to drought, they flourish and look their best when kept moist, and so will require irrigation.
But where to obtain moss? It’s likely that you already have some, if your site is appropriate, and it’s possible to begin by simply encouraging the moss that has volunteered in your garden. To quote Robin Wall Kimmerer from her book Gathering Moss (Oregon State University Press, 2003):
"Mosses appear in a lawn when conditions for moss growth are better than conditions for grass growth. Too much shade or water, too low a pH, soil compaction... discourage grasses and let mosses grow. Better to... pull out the remaining grass and let nature build you a first-rate moss garden."
However, for more immediate gratification, moss may also be gathered (with permission only!) or purchased in flats. Remembering that moss grows readily from fragments, a prepared area of bare ground may be “seeded” with small sections of moss (be sure to take your cues from nature, and choose the right moss for the right location-- a moss found growing on a tree, for instance, is not a strong candidate for growing on soil), and tended until they fill the desired area. A mild winter day, when the ground is somewhat fudge-y, is a perfect time to transplant your propagules, securing them in place with a hearty “smoosh!”
For further reading and inspiration, I recommend Annie Martin’s The Magical World of Moss Gardening (Timber Press, 2015), and the George Schenk’s moss classic, Moss Gardening, Including Lichens, Liverworts, and Other Miniatures (Timber Press, 1997).
By Carson Ellis, Butterfly Garden Curator
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Central Daylight Time Hours:
9 a.m.-6 p.m.
Central Standard Time (Winter) Hours:
9 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
We are located at:
750 Cherry Road
Memphis, TN 38117
(Between Park & Southern)