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The mighty moss

While these plants appear as delicate as fine lace, time has proven them among the hardiest organisms on our planet.
By Barbara C. Kasselmann

The world of mosses is a miniature world. Tiny plants often grow so close together that they can look like one vast green carpet, but closer examination reveals a covering more closely resembling a forest of miniature trees or dense ferns. Poets have written of moss's mystical beauty, Lapland mothers line their babies' cradles with it, and storytellers weave tales of tiny secret worlds hidden beneath moss carpets.

These tiny, primitive plants hold not only mystery but contradiction. While mosses may appear as delicate as fine lace or ephemeral as a June breeze, time has proven them among the hardiest organisms on our planet. Fossil records show mosses to be 400 million years old, and thousands of species thrive from the Arctic tundra to temperate bog to tropical forest.

In New England, mosses crawl all over forest floors, climb granite mountains, and spread through swamps and parklands. Today, however, it is home gardeners who are coming to appreciate these lovely gems. With little need for watering, mowing, or fertilizing, an inherent love of northeastern soils, and an environment-friendly disposition, mosses are ideal for the backyard landscape. They can reward even a novice gardener with a thick, lawnlike carpet or with intriguingly gentle accent touches among rocks and flowers.

As one might suspect from a plant that has survived hundreds of millions of years and the tromping of reindeer, mountain hikers, and crocodiles, mosses are tough _ once they take hold. The trick is to find the right moss for the right place and make sure it gets off to a healthy start. Once a moss becomes established in its new home, all you have to do is sit and watch it grow.

The ideal way to start gardening with mosses, according to landscape designer Christine Cook, is to use moss that's already there. ``Let nature take its course,'' she says.

Look around your yard for mosses _ under a tree, perhaps, or growing around some rocks. Mosses already established in your area are comfortable there, and just need to be encouraged and given space to spread, says Cook, owner of Mossaics, an Easton, Connecticut, landscape-design firm specializing in mosses. You can dig up little plugs and move them within your own yard. ``This method is a little slower,'' she says, ``but the moss garden will be a lot tougher. It is a meditation in patience.''

If just watching moss grow requires a little more patience than you possess, you might want to purchase a few starter plugs and introduce them into selected spots in your yard. Rather than trying to create a large instant moss garden, however, start with just a few 3-inch-by-3-inch patches. Covering too large an area will invite slugs and worms to flock under your nice, new carpet. They will, in turn, attract a host of racoons, skunks, and other creatures that can tear a new moss garden to shreds overnight.

Timing, as always, is everything. May _ when soil is damp from melted snow and spring rain, and when trees have developed a nice canopy of leaves and the entire growing season stretches out before you _ is ideal for putting in new mosses. Transplanting can continue through summer.

Survey your site, keeping in mind that with a few exceptions, most mosses require shade, acid soil, and good moisture.

``What is your canopy?'' asks Cook. Large, deciduous trees like oaks, maples, and beeches provide plenty of the cool, damp shade that mosses love. Birch, black cherry, and shagbark hickory are other good canopy trees. Evergreen trees present a problem because the needles they drop tend to suffocate moss.

Soil is the next important consideration. Mosses generally prefer acidic soil with pH levels of 6.0, 5.5, or lower, in which New England is rich. Kits for testing pH levels are available at garden centers, but professional soil testing labs are preferable. Be sure to take samples from different parts of your yard to assure accurate readings.

Mosses love to be kept moist, but too much moisture without any sunlight can cause mold. Don't forget to consider, too, how much traffic your moss will have to endure. Some moss varieties can handle footsteps several times a day; others want steppingstones to save them from the constant tread of human feet.

Moss can provide an expanse of mowing-free green in a yard or a pincushion of emerald, celadon, or burgundy in a rock garden. Of the countless varieties of mosses, only a few are hardy in this growing region, and each provides particular characteristics that can serve different gardeners and different gardens.

Cook recommends Plagiomnium cuspidatum. It grows well with other mosses, she says, and provides relatively fast coverage in shade to dappled-light conditions. If you keep it weeded, she says, you will have a magnificent moss carpet within two years. ``It's a wonderful lawn alternative to walk barefoot on,'' she says.

Polytrichum commune, also known as ``hairy cap moss,'' is another popular regional moss that can take light traffic and likes dappled light. Hairy cap grows about 6 inches high and looks like little stars. A great companion for this moss is the Leucobryum glaucum, or pincushion moss. This species' fine texture and celadon color make it an excellent contrast for the darker, velvetlike carpet mosses.

Mosses can provide not only a carpet or a cushion but a cloak for a rock, a skirt for a tree, or a creeping accent scarf for an old stone wall or log. Their decorative and functional uses in today's gardens seem limited only by the inhibitions of the gardener.

Mosses play many different roles around the world. In Denmark, for example, mosses are used in face creams and cough drops; the Japanese long have used moss extensively in contemplative gardens; in northern Europe, beds of compacted sphagnum moss become peat, a major fuel source. Moss prevents erosion, provides peace and solace in cemeteries, and lines the nests of orioles, thrushes, and ruby-crowned kinglets. The plant is so absorbent it was used as surgical dressing in both world wars.

In earlier times and other cultures, mosses were sometimes attributed with mystical properties.

Perhaps the most magical use of mosses is for the construction of tiny fairy houses, which mysteriously appear near the bases of trees in the forests of the world. These little houses, often but 3 inches tall, sometimes contain tiny furniture, carpeting, and dishes.

In the United States, fairy houses have appeared in the mountain woodlands of Appalachia and have, for a long time, been a part of the legends and lore of Monhegan Island, off the coast of Maine. Wherever these tiny moss dwellings are constructed, their builders carry out their work in secret, keeping the houses' origins mysterious.

Despite mosses' ancient history and universal appeal, they have begun creeping into the home gardener's repertoire only over the last few years. Most true mosses are not widely available at local stores and garden centers, although there are a few catalogs and mail-order centers that stock them.

Tripple Brook Farm at Southampton, near Holyoke, carries about six types of mosses. One of only a few moss merchants in the country, it sells most of its products through its catalog or Web site. Tripple Brook specializes in a wide variety of plants hardy in this climate and growing zone, with an emphasis on organic farming and natural gardening practices.

``More and more people are calling and wanting mosses,'' says Ruth McCormick of Tripple Brook. Demand, coupled with the plants' beauty and availability on the farm, triggered Tripple Brook to add mosses to its offerings.

McCormick is a fan of Polytrichum commune. ``It makes a beautiful ground cover _ just like velvet,'' she observes, ``and it's so easy to grow. Moss will spread well if it likes the conditions, but mosses can be finicky _ they grow where they want to grow. You can't just plop them in the ground,'' McCormick cautions. With the right type of soil and the right growing conditions, however, mosses will thrive.

While McCormick says that she is not surprised at the increased demand for mosses, she is surprised that so few places sell them.

One other New England source for true mosses is Sticks and Stones Farm in Newtown, Connecticut. Sticks and Stones specializes in mosses and other native materials and helps customers create unique garden environments. The 60-acre farm includes wetlands, beaver ponds, upland ledges, and hillsides, as well as Zen gardens and miniature stone gardens. It also sells a variety of handmade planters and garden ornaments.

Many area nurseries, including Tripple Brook Farm, sell Irish and Scotch mosses, which are not true mosses but look similar and provide beautiful ground cover. Some advise against mixing these plants with true mosses for fear of one invading _ and choking _ the other's territory.

Zoltan Kovacs, perennials department manager at Mahoney's Garden Center in Winchester, says Irish and Scotch mosses have been growing in popularity in recent years. People like to use them for pathways, shady areas, and rock gardens, he says, and their lovely dark-green and yellow-green shades work particularly well with black-marble steppingstones.

Gardening with mosses will generally take a little homework up front, but the payoff should be well worth the effort. Not only will you be able to sit back and watch the moss grow; you will also be able to revel in its velvety feel beneath your bare feet. You might even get in touch with some of the magical, mystical qualities many moss enthusiasts claim the ancient plants possess.

Moss connections:

Soil testing laboratory, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Massachusetts 413-545-2311

Tripple Brook Farm in Southampton, MA 413-527-4626cq, www.tripplebrookfarm.com

Sticks and Stones Farm, Newtown, Connecticut, 203-270-8820no answer/bp, sticksandstonesfarm.com

Recommended text:

Moss Gardening by George SchenkPortland (Timber Press, 1997), $34.95 at the Arnold Arboretum bookstore, Wordsworth Books of Harvard Square, 617-354-5201, and other locations.

Places to see moss gardens:

Garden in the Woods, New England Wildflower Society, 180 Hemenway Road, Framingham, 508-877-7630, www.newfs.org

Arnold Arboretum, 125 Arborway, Jamaica Plain, 617-524-1718

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