Mosses in the garden; good or bad?


Moss growing on my brick patio.

Moss growing on my brick patio.

   There are many moss-like plants.   Sea Moss is actually algae; Reindeer Mosses are lichens; Clubmosses (Lycopodiums and Selaginellas) are vascular plants more closely allied with Horsetails; Spanish Moss is a bromeliad (related to Pineapples); Irish and Scotch Moss are in the carnation family.

     True mosses, in the class Musci; include “true” mosses, peat mosses, and granite mosses.    They are primitive “non-vascular plants,” meaning that they have no tissues for conducting water or nutrients such as the xylem or phloem in “higher” plants.

    Plants that have no vascular tissue cannot grow large.  They need to absorb moisture and nutrients from their surroundings.  Because of this, like lichens, mosses are very susceptible to air pollution.  They need to live in moist places during part of their life cycle.  Mosses may be found on the ground, on rocks and cliff faces, near waterfalls, on rotting logs, and in bogs.  Mosses or other plants that grow on trees are called epiphytes.  There are about 700 species of “true mosses” and about 40 species of Sphagnum peat moss in our region.

    Do you consider moss a pest?  It may be–when it is growing on your roof–Just make sure that you use an environmentally-friendly, “least toxic,” product when controlling moss on structures. 

    Many people in their quest for a perfect lawn will use chemicals to kill moss.  Proper management is a better strategy–Rake the lawn to remove thatch and moss, aerate it to make sure it drains freely and overseed to fill in bare spots.  Irrigate adequately during dry periods to keep the grass healthy but do not let water puddle, follow a recommended fertilizer program, apply lime to keep the pH between 6.0-6.5, and mow grass at the proper height for the species.   In shady areas, turfgrass grows poorly; other groundcovers may be more suitable—mosses, at least, are green! 

    A Moss Garden can be an attractive feature in a woodland garden.  I saw a You-tube video that made it sound easy—all you had to do was acidify the soil!  Mosses grow best at a pH of ~5.5.  To try to encourage more moss, I tried a little experiment in my yard.  After testing the pH of my soil, I endeavored to lower the pH a little more.  The only products readily available for acidifying soil are aluminum sulfate (usually sold for making hydrangeas bluer), and elemental sulfur (often sold for treating fungal diseases).  It was difficult to quantify the results.  The amount of mosses varies dramatically through the seasons and unfortunately, the grass still survived.  The plots treated with the aluminum sulfate, however, appeared to have a little more moss.

    For the best success, you really should start with bare ground in a shady location, removing all the grass, weeds, leaves and debris.   Next, scratch up the soil to loosen it slightly and moisten the soil.  There are two methods for establishing moss in a new area.  You can transplant entire clumps of moss to the new spot or make a “moss milkshake” to spread over a larger area by mixing clumps of moss with buttermilk or beer in a blender (using a few types of moss insures a better success rate).  Just make sure to mist or water regularly and remove any leaves or debris that fall on the moss.  These methods also work well for establishing moss on rocks, in between pavers, in bonsai, fairy gardens, or other special container gardens.

    A Moss Garden is a great project for an environmentalist on St. Patrick’s Day!  After all, is anything greener than moss?

(This article was first published in the Peninsula Gateway on March 16, 2011)


  1. Margaret Kalton says:

    This was the best article I found about growing moss (on purpose) in the PNW. I have a north facing patio that naturally grows some moss — I was looking for information on how to make it grow better. I lived 12 years in Kansas; they were good years. But now that we live in the PNW, I’m SO ready for moss!

  2. Joseph Holzapfel says:

    Can you use the algae/green moss in a vegetable garden instead of say a peat moss? Would it harm your plants to use it as a soil amendment?

    • habitatdana says:

      I don’t see why you couldn’t use algae/green moss in your garden. I am not sure how it might affect the pH of your soil. You may want to do a pH test afterwards. Coconut fiber or Coir is generally recommended as a substitute for Peat Moss, which has traditionally been mined from ancient peat bogs…

  3. Priscilla Schetter says:

    I have it in different part of my yard!
    I like it so going to leave it and see what continues to happen

  4. Jerry says:

    You never anwsered in your blog if moss is good in a garden or plant.

    • habitatdana says:

      Jerry, moss is just another part of the ecosystem. Some people may consider it a weed, if it is growing where they do not want it. But as far as I am concerned it can be a beautiful part of a landscape!

      • ada says:

        Perhaps it takes away water from other plants, for example, if I’d plant some flowers or small bushes? And that’s where it’s bad for the garden

        • habitatdana says:

          Mosses are not by themselves bad, but they may indicate more acid soils, which may not be appropriate for some other plants, flowers or small bushes. It might be beneficial to do a pH test of your soil and figure out what would be appropriate for what you are wanting to grow…

        • Stella Schramm says:

          Moss acts as a ‘green mulch’. It will help to slow the drying out of soil and create a good growing environment for other plants. It does not damage other plants or trees. It also stays green through the winter. While it goes dormant when the soil is too dry to sustain it, it will immediately ‘green up’ again when misted. Since it only grows on the surface, it does not require water saturation, but only surface watering. It also has a disproportionately high beneficial contribution to the environment, compared to other plants and ground covers, in both carbon and ecosystem impact. It requires less maintenance than other types of lawn, and grows best where other types of lawns struggle most. It also can be planted to beautify or add interest to other plants and objects in a landscape, including wood, cement, stone, and live trees.

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