Instead of turf, try a more lush look by growing a moss lawn. Moss lawns are soft, require minimal water and maintenance, and never need to be mowed. Moss can grow just about anywhere, except for arid environments.
“If you love a beautiful expanse of green as a ground cover, you can have that with moss,” says Annie Martin, a.k.a. Mossin’ Annie, a professional mosser from North Carolina. “A moss lawn is not totally carefree, but it’s not nearly as much work as a conventional lawn. It's also much better for our environment."
Meet the Expert
Annie Martin is a professional mosser from North Carolina. She owns Mountain Moss, a company that installs moss lawns.
Martin’s company, Mountain Moss in Pisgah Forest, NC, has installed moss lawns as large as 1500 square feet at Camp Merrie-Woode in Sapphire, NC.
If you are frustrated by the difficulty of growing grass in certain areas of the yard, consider these tiny bryophytes as a ground cover.
Find the Right Site for a Moss Lawn
Sun exposure is a big consideration in site selection.
“In general, moss prefers cool over warm temperatures within a given site,” says Martin. “So it is really important to determine the year-round sun exposure. Sites with lots of broadleaf or needled evergreens stay shady all year, but leafy canopies in the summer can have sunny 'windows' in the spring, fall, and winter that create hot spots.”
For areas that are sunny part or all of the year, species selection is important. “Some species are perfectly happy in sun,” says Martin.
“Wind and rain patterns are really important, too,” says Martin. “Look for eroded areas where you may have to take extra steps to secure new moss and areas where you want to mitigate extensive stormwater runoff.”
Martin says she has planted steep hillsides with moss patches and successfully secured the patches with tiny twigs. “Moss stands up very well to rain on a hillside once it is established,” she says. “It can also help reduce erosion.” Moss holds a great deal of its own weight in water. Polytrichum and Climacium mosses are good choices for erosion-prone areas, as well as Thuidium, according to Martin.
Contrary to what many believe, moss can tolerate light foot traffic. “It does not hurt the plant to be crushed,” says Martin. In fact, she recommends walking or sitting on newly installed moss daily to help the plants attach to the growing surface.
Choose the Right Moss Plants
Annie Martin suggests several mosses for special circumstances.
If you want moss that emulates the height and appearance of a lawn and has a high tolerance for foot traffic, Atrichum undulatum offers a solution. (Common names include big star moss, crane moss, crown moss, and starburst moss.) Although an upright grower, it provides a consistent height for a horizontal expanse of translucent green. It prefers shady, moist soil. A close relative, Atrichum angustatum, is less choosy about soil conditions.
Some mosses can actually handle a bit of mowing if you want the flat look of a lawn.
“Beautiful Polytrichum commune can be tamed with an occasional visit from whirring blades,” says Martin. “This moss also excels at holding erosive slopes due to its deep rhizoids.” (Some common names are haircap moss, awned haircap moss, blue moss, and blue hairy cap.)
Another versatile species is Leucobryum glaucum (pincushion moss or white moss), as well as its relative Leucobryum albidum. These species grow all over the globe in a wide range of temperature, sun, and soil conditions.
For waterlogged areas or storm water control, plant Climacium americanum (tree moss).
For drier areas with plenty of shade and acidic conditions, use Dicranum scoparium (mood moss, windswept moss, broom moss, footstool moss, or cushion moss).
Finally, Thuidium delicatulum likes shade but tolerates the sun. It thrives on many different surfaces and is a good choice for moss lawns.
Get Ready to Grow a Moss Yard
If you want to succeed with a moss lawn, stop using lime on the area. Lime raises soil pH, which makes the area more conducive to grasses and weeds. Many mosses grow best in low pH (acidic soil), but you do not necessarily have to use acidifiers either.
“While most moss thrives in acidic conditions, some species are rather indifferent to this factor,” says Martin. The key point is that many other plants grow very poorly in acidic soil.
Be sure to have a consistent water source. Martin uses overhead oscillating sprinklers for home gardens and misting systems for larger installations. Use a timer, in either case, for a "set it and forget it" approach. Spray for two to five minutes, three times per day during dry spells.
As for the water source, Martin says that tap water is fine. “My lack of concern about tap water is based upon practical experience. In over a decade of moss gardening for myself and others, there has never been a negative experience from using tap water.”
Burk, Cathy. “The Benefits & Ecology of a Moss Lawn.” The Nature Conservancy & The Cornell Lab. Yardmap.org. N.p., n.d. Web.