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Moss gardens are forever green

Looking for a lawn you don't have to mow or a garden that's a cinch to tend? Consider the easy-care simplicity of a mostly moss garden.
The natural-looking path winds past hostas, a rhododendron, ferns, and rocks.
Jeff Osser relaxes in his tranquil Missouri moss garden.
A tiny fern grows amid a bed of green.
Moss gardens, once established, are nearly maintenance free. Use a power blower or twig broom to remove debris.
A weeping cypress tree's curved trunk adds interest.
This solitary seedling emerges from native moss.

Strolling through Jeff Osser's shady backyard garden is like slipping into a world draped in green velvet. In summer, this moss-carpeted area behind Jeff's home in suburban St. Louis becomes a cool, serene retreat beneath a canopy of trees. In winter, the moss stays green, even under a dusting of snow.

Inspired by sleek, clean lines of Japanese gardens (which often use moss), Osser capitalized on the tendency of his sloping, shady backyard to grow ground-hugging evergreen mosses. Using a shovel, he dug up the heavy clay soil in his 45x45-foot yard to create a totally new landscape.

Every contour you see, I put there," says Osser, an artist who dubbed this project "landsculpting." He spent about a year carving out flat and undulating areas for contrast, placing rocks along pathways and creating a streambed through the yard.

Osser planted ferns, azaleas, and rhododendrons, plus about 100 small evergreen trees. He loves trees with unusual forms such as a weeping cypress, which grows with a curved trunk. Osser pruned his small trees into artistic bonsai shapes.

Easy-care landscape

Because of its spare, clean look, Osser's relatively small yard seems larger than it is. Curving pathways, a bench beside the stream and an 8-foot-long granite bridge spanning the water catch the eyes of visitors. Now that his garden is established, Osser likes to wander the paths. For most of the year, it takes only moments to groom his tranquil creation.

In autumn, maintenance increases when he rakes up leaves that fall from his trees. "Every morning, I go to the garden for about 15 minutes and remove imperfections from the moss," says Osser. "It's such a stress reliever for me to be outside in my yard."

Moss gardens, once you establish them, are nearly maintenance free. There's no need to fertilize, mow, or spray for pests. Osser uses a power blower to remove debris and leaves. But it's also easy to sweep moss with a twig broom.

To have your own mossy haven, you don't need to transform an entire yard, as Osser did. Any spot where moss already grows will do. Be sure to begin your project in early spring.

If you're starting with an area where grasses or weeds still grow interspersed with the moss, you can apply chemical products such as Roundup (first, test a small area with a low dose). Or you can remove the weeds and grasses pulling them out by hand.

Using a shovel or trowel, contour the space you've chosen into curves and flat areas that look pleasing to your eye. If you like, add interesting rocks and shade-loving plants, such as ferns, to your landscape.

Start small

You also can create a miniature moss garden in a concrete trough or other container. Try planting two or three types of moss for a more varied texture and appearance.

It's easy to propagate moss from other spots in your yard. Using a flat-bladed shovel or putty knife, shave off the moss and about 1Ú2 inch of subsoil that it clings to. Pat the moss into place. If your patches don't quite carpet the entire area, don't worry. The space should fill in over the next year or two. A water feature, perhaps a fountain or brook, adds a calming touch to your moss garden.

"Water makes any landscape more interesting," Osser says. "The Japanese also create the illusion of water with dry riverbeds."

Keeping moss content

Experts estimate there are 15,000 varieties of moss, but it may take a magnifying glass to distinguish one from another. Some mosses grow brilliant emerald green, while others are gold, silver or red. You'll find mosses that grow in mounds, some as flat as sheets, and others with tiny, fringed stalks. (For specialty sources that sell mosses, see the box below.)

Moss thrives in acidic soil with a pH of about 5.5 or lower. You can test your soil with kits sold at garden centers or send the soil to a laboratory for analysis.

To increase acidity, apply powdered sulfur to the soil (about 2 1Ú2 pounds per 100 square feet). Or dust the ground with your choice of fertilizer for rhododendrons, aluminum sulfate, or skim-milk powder.

Be gentle

Lightly water moss, daily if necessary, although too much moisture can cause the plants to rot. Water in early morning or evening, so the moss doesn't scorch in the sun. Mist the area for about 15 minutes late in the day if you haven't had rain.

Moss likes shade or dappled light, but if leaves cover it directly, the color will fade. "The main thing," Osser says, "is to keep debris and leaves off moss."

Since moss can't handle heavy foot traffic, you should create pathways. Made of hard-packed earth and small pebbles, the paths in Osser's yard resemble trails you'd find in the woods.

Osser consults with homeowners about moss garden designs. You can call him at 314/650-1085.

Learn more

If you are interested in the plants mentioned in this story, read George Schenk's book, Moss Gardening, winner of a 1998 award from the American Horticultural Society. You can buy the book ($34.95, plus shipping) from Timber Press, 133 SW Second Avenue, Suite 450, Portland, OR 97204 (800/327-5680).

To order moss varieties, contact Tripple Brook Farm, 37 Middle Road, Southampton, MA 01073 (413/527-4626); or Sticks and Stones Farm, 197 Huntington Road, Newtown, CT 06470 (203/270-8820).

Both farms offer free catalogs.

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