On April 5, 2023

Ask a master gardener: Why you should embrace moss

By Nadie VanZandt

Do you spend a lot of effort to get rid of the moss you find in your lawn? Knowing the benefits of moss may convince you otherwise.

Mosses belong to the bryophyte group of the plant kingdom. At 450 million years old, they are the oldest recorded living plants on earth and are found on every continent.

Mosses differ from the usual flowering plants. While they have stems and leaves, they lack roots, flowers or seeds. Instead of roots, mosses have rhizoids, whose only function is to anchor the plant to a substrate. In place of flowers, they have sporophytes, which are small stalks ending in tiny pods filled with spores, not seeds.

Mosses reproduce naturally through spores dispersed by the wind but also can be reproduced manually by transplanting.

Incredibly hardy, mosses survive harsh conditions including fires, intense winds and very cold temperatures. They thrive under blankets of snow.

Mosses get all their nutrients from air and water through their leaves, so don’t need fertilizers. Moss leaves absorb ample amounts of water that they slowly release into the ground and air. In addition, their anchoring rhizoids tether them to surfaces preventing them from washing away, ideal for erosion control.

Like all plants, its plant tissues store carbon, which helps reduce carbon dioxide in the air. As moss does not grow in areas with high air pollution, it’s a good indicator of air quality.

Moss offers a healthy habitat for wildlife. Many beneficial insects live inside or under moss, providing a source of food for many amphibians, reptiles and birds. Some birds use moss to build soft nests for their hatchlings. Another interesting benefit is that moss offers an ideal moist breeding site for the fireflies that enchant our summer nights with their twinkles.

Mosses grow in all soil types in shade, partial shade and sun. Sun-tolerant moss can grow in alkaline soil with a pH above 7.0 while most mosses found in dense shade prefer an acidic soil pH between 5.0 and 5.5.

Growing moss is likely to transform a neglected damp, shady area into a charming element in your landscape.

You will need to source moss that grows in a similar light condition and soil type as your target area. You can purchase it, or better yet, find local naturally occurring moss to transplant from your own yard or from a friend’s property.

First, check your soil pH to determine whether it needs to be adjusted. If needed, acidify the soil by spreading some elemental sulfur (according to packaging instructions) before planting.

Clear the area of weeds and debris. Compact the soil by using a tamper or by walking over it. Then, lightly etch the compacted soil with a cultivator or tine hoe.

With a flat tool, such as an old kitchen spatula or masonry trowel, scoop up sections of existing moss with enough soil to protect the rhizoids. Tear sections into pieces, spread these evenly over the prepared area and press into the soil. Limit traffic for a year and keep the area moist with regular watering until the moss takes hold.

Don’t let this initial watering chore deter you from growing moss. Once established, moss can tolerate drought.

Moss is relatively low maintenance. No mowing, aerating or fertilizing is required. You only need to weed and keep clean of debris. Just pull a weed, pat down the surface and place a piece of moss over the bare spot. Hand pick litter or use a leaf blower on a low setting to scatter dead leaves away.

While softening your carbon footprint, you can upholster your problem site with a lush natural velvet.

Nadie VanZandt is a UVM Extension Master Gardener from Panton.

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