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The Moss Garden in Iowa

May 28, 2012

Wait a minute – you mean Japan? No, not exactly. I mean it’s possible to have a beautiful Moss Garden in Iowa simply by locating the correct micro-environment. Like the Japanese, we have many opportunities to take advantage of microclimates in our own yards and gardens if we just stop a minute and look around! With a little ingenuity one can make almost any sort of garden in Iowa.

I first saw pictures of Moss gardens in exotic books about Japanese gardening, and although I had on occasion stumbled across logs and soil dripping with moss while hunting Morels in the Spring in the Iowa woods and found big patches of moss growing in the oddest places in town, it just never occurred to me to make the effort to cultivate moss.

Yet I had a very annoying little garden spot on the north side of the house, a narrow little space between the sidewalk and some cut limestone and pebbles against the house that was constantly filling up with moss. In fact, I had to fight the moss off! It would grow up over the stems of the Begonias and Impatience I planted there, stunting the poor things. The space always annoyed me, as nothing I did there ever seemed quite right, and the space was sort of an afterthought, the last thing I attended to every year.

So, one day I was in St. Louis and decided to visit the Missouri Botanical Gardens. What a treat! The place is stunning, and any reader who has the opportunity and any interest at all in gardening should go! Water Gardens, conservatories, annuals, exotics, the unusual, garden sculptures, massive Asian style gardens, herbariums, and on and on! Just a stunning place. And there I stumbled upon a Moss Garden hidden on a peninsula under a copse of little trees overlooking the big pond in the massive Japanese Gardens. It was quiet with a stone path leading into a little stone hut where one could sit and admire the carpet-like appearance of the moss, with little red crab apples scattered across it, while ducks and Canada Geese landed on the pond. Each person who came in became instantly quiet, as if they were in a sanctuary of sorts. It was really not just beautiful, but a beautiful thing to experience.

Glass Water Globe Sculptures floating on a pond at the Missouri Botanic Gardens.

A view of the Moss Garden overlooking the pond in the massive Japanese Gardens at the Missouri Botanic Gardens in St. Louis. It is covered by a copse of flowering crab apple trees, allowing in dappled light. Nearby is a stone hut where one can sit and meditate. It’s a stunning view.

So home I went determined to make a moss garden if it was the last thing I ever did. My space for it is not exactly private, located on a public sidewalk, but it’s a very quiet street and a very quiet sidewalk, so it didn’t matter. I turned the soil and raked out the moss that already existed, putting it in a pile. Sticks, leaves, and plant residue was removed and the surface smoothed. The moss was replaced in a patchwork with wide open spaces inbetween. Several missions around town and in the woods located patches here and there of two other varieties of moss which were harvested and brought back to be pressed into the soil in various spaces, adding to the patchwork of color and pattern, as each variety was a little different from the next. Then a trip to the woods for other types, and finally even to an abandoned house or two where I found some really unusual mosses growing on old boards, shingles, and even curtains. (The roofs had caved in, allowing in rain and just enough light to create an optimal moss environment.) If the moss was adherent to a twig or sliver of wood, I just brought the whole thing. Eventually I obtained at least six different varieties of moss, all of which I pressed into the soil.

A freshly planted Moss Garden using patches of Moss harvested in town, in the woods, and from abandoned buildings in the area.

Then it was a matter of watering regularly to keep it moist, though Iowa is a pretty wet place and most of the time I had to do nothing. Moss likes a bit of sunlight, not total shade, and this spot had a short period of direct sunlight in the morning and late afternoon, dappled shade for part of the day, and total shade for part of the day, just about perfect. Plus, it was relatively cool compared to other areas around the house. The biggest problem was the squirrels who, for some reason, seemed to want to know what was under each piece of moss, turning them over repeatedly until I wanted to catch each one of them and give it a good thrashing. Eventually they became mostly bored of their tiresome game, but they still poke around in there almost every day doing some sort of devilment, the little monsters. The other problem was simply keeping grass clippings and what not off of the surface. In order to thrive, the moss has to get air and light, so it has to be kept free of detritus. So from early Spring until late Fall I attend to this task with a little bowl and a hand held brush with soft bristles, going out every couple of weeks and cleaning it off. In the Fall I just let winter take over; the leaves cover it or they don’t, I don’t care. By March 1st, though, I uncover it to find bright green happy moss already expanding on the cold ground. It grows a lot during long periods of cold as long as it’s not January and twenty below. The snow on top of it keeps it warm enough to continue to spread under the snow. Moss is tough. In the summer it can dry out completely and appear to be dead, only to revive itself with late Fall rains. Aside from the occasional sweeping, it’s not difficult to manage. It gets so thick weeds can hardly get through it.

A nearly mature Moss Garden.

As a final touch, one can add stones, boulders, statuary, and an occasional tuft of grass or single flowering plant to the patch of Moss for artistic interest. It’s a very simple but beautiful look that causes those strolling by to stop and ponder for a moment – a bit of Zen for just a moment before walking into the daily insanity of regular life.

Completed Moss Garden with stone statue, Oklahoma Moss Rock, River Pebbles, and colored Glass Pebbles.

From → The Garden

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