Moss Plants: Shade Alternative to Lawns

If You Can't Beat Them, Join Them!

Image of sphagnum moss.
Sphagnum moss is an excellent choice for wet, shady areas. David Beaulieu

Taxonomy, Botany, and Use for Moss Plants

There are various types of moss plants, and their taxonomies differ. A couple of examples are Sphagnum cymbifolium for sphagnum and Polytrichum juniperinum for haircap.

Moss plants are classified as Bryophyta, making them distinct from most vegetation you will find in your yard. They develop spores rather than seeds for reproduction, and they do not possess true roots, instead deriving their nutrients and moisture from the air.

Because they are low-growing and can form dense mats, these shade plants can be considered an alternative ground cover for landscaping and planted as "shade gardens," in lieu of traditional (that is, grass) lawns.

Plant Characteristics

Ground moss plants are low-growing. Some, massed together, give a smooth appearance, including rock cap (Dicranum), fern (Thuidium), and the aptly named "cushion" (Leucobryum). Others have a relatively spikier appearance, including haircap and sphagnum. Both types can be used in shade gardens, depending on the look that you are trying to achieve.

USDA Growing Zones, Growing Requirements

Recommended zones for planting will vary, depending on the type of moss that you are interested in. Many are quite cold-hardy, but the Spanish type (Tillandsia usneoides) is a denizen of the South, grown in USDA planting zones 9-11.

Most types require shady spots, making them ideal constituents of shade gardens.

They also like moisture. Many types not only tolerate, but require compaction in the soil beneath them -- just the opposite of lawn grass and of most specimens sold at nurseries. Moss plants like a soil with a pH that is acidic (5.0 - 5.5).

How to Get Rid of Moss Plants in Lawns

Many people consider these plants to be a weeds, when found in their lawns.

If you wish to get rid of moss plants, it is easy enough to do so. Its very presence in your lawn sends a clear signal as to what your lawn is lacking. Simply provide your lawn with what it is lacking, and you will be able to cultivate grass in the areas now occupied by this "weed" (except perhaps for shady spots, unless you find a suitable shade-tolerant grass). Provide your lawn with the following if you are battling moss:

Common Misconception

Sphagnum moss (see picture) is not the same thing as "sphagnum peat," although both are harvested for use in the greenhouse trade. Sphagnum is harvested live. Nurseries use it as the "chinking" for hanging wire baskets (it has a similar use in log-cabin building). Sphagnum peat is harvested as dead material at the bottom of peat bogs. Sold by the bag, it is mixed into soil to improve aeration and water retention. Sphagnum moss is commonly found here in New England (U.S) growing in the woods around swamps; not surprisingly, then, it works well as a lawn alternative in shaded spots that have wet soil.

More Tips for Using Mosses in Landscaping

Some domestic uses are suggested by nature. In the woods, "rock cap" is just that, serving as a tight-fitting cap for boulders. Not surprisingly, the idea is carried over into rock gardening. Shady spots in the woods are often home to moss plants, suggesting their use on the landscape in shade gardens. Moss plants, in general, require not only a shady spot, but also moisture, making them a natural choice for the perimeter of a water feature on the landscape.

With its emphasis on minimalism rather than showy blooming specimens, Japanese gardening easily accommodates moss plants, as do the "wild" or "natural" landscapes that are growing in popularity among Westerners. But any shady spots of the landscape traversed via stone walkways or patios are fitting areas, too. Moss plants can be grown in between the cracks of the stonework, thereby functioning not only as a decorative element, but also as a living "mulch" of sorts.

Finally, this wild ground cover can be used as an alternative to lawn grass in shady spots, where grass refuses to grow. Considering how often they grow in lawn areas problematic for grass, they readily suggest themselves as just such an alternative. If you can't beat them, perhaps you should "join" them, right? Most lawn grasses have difficulty with the very conditions in which this "weed" thrives:

  • Soils with an acidic pH
  • Soils that are compacted
  • Shady spots -- which are ideal candidates for conversion into shade gardens

Another often-despised plant that works well as a lawn alternative for those looking to think outside the box is the lowly clover plant.