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Moss Garden: Slow Evolution


Building a moss garden is more like home decorating than any gardening I’ve done. At least building this moss garden is.

The idea of the moss garden is to have a beautiful view from my window, where there’s now a bunch of chewed up bits of board and debris amongst the leaves and needles. It has to be a shade garden, since the whole area is loomed over by a ponderosa pine. For those unfamiliar, 100 feet (30 or so meters) is a pretty normal height for a mature ponderosa. So, shade. And did I mention steep? It’s a very steep slope.

The other part of the idea was to have something green to look out on in summer, when everything is sere and dry. I appreciate my dry California dormant season; it has beauty of its own. But there are times when the eye craves green.

Part of the plan is to create a carpet of moss, as I discussed in the last post. But as I slowly piece it together, I find myself running in and out of the house: I want to see how the picture looks, framed in the window. It’s hard for me to tell what’s visible from the window when I’m in the garden, and since it’s such a steep slope, I can’t even tell what it looks like from the window even if I stand in the French drain that borders the house. It’s a little like hanging a picture; I have to keep stepping back to check.

What I thought was the right place to lay the (so far tiny) moss carpet is actually mostly invisible from the window. So I will have to start tweaking it around. But in order to do that, I also have to start pondering where the other design elements go.

Some of those elements involve more moss. As Schenck, my moss gardening guru, points out, one of the easiest ways to get moss from the woods to my garden is to carry away an entire moss-covered rock or log. So when I found this in the woods, I hauled its unwieldy wet heaviness back to my garden.


But while I’ve now got a log to cover up one of the dug-in buried rotting boards which is unofficially terracing this area, I’ve also got a problem. Well, three problems. One is that it’s hard to place this mossy log so that the thickest moss is on display, because most of its moss is on the narrow top section, and I can’t face it toward the window, because the log falls over. The second problem is that, theoretically, the moss is supposed to be oriented the same way it was in the woods. But if I did that, I’d have to dig it into the ground – and the reason I have it on that spot is so I don’t have to dig out the rotting board beneath it. The third problem is, the placement of this log looks real awkward with the mushroom-plugged oak round I’d already placed on the slope as part of the garden.


 To me, this looks posed, artificial. So, more running to the window to ponder and look and wonder what I can do. Not to mention wondering how the native shade plants I have for this area – thimbleberry, salal, native honeysuckle – will look with it. And then I had been hoping to plant some mushrooms in the ground, too. Where do they go? What would make a natural-looking flow?

Moments like this remind me that I am no garden designer. I have no principles or rules to rely on, because I’ve always gardened the way I cook: improv. I think, “Well, that might be good next to that,” and I move things around, and often, with a little tweaking, it works. Or sometimes it doesn’t, but I usually manage to work it out.

This garden is a whole new undertaking. I’m not sure if it’s the nature of the plants, the slope of the ground, or what, that has me so puzzled and at loose ends, so fuzzy-headed, like a rank beginner. But I know I’m learning something. This is how learning feels: slow, sometimes frustrating, with a frightening sense of a Grand Canyon’s depth of ignorance. My own ignorance. And here’s the weird thing: this feeling is a big part of why I garden.

{ 12 comments… add one }

  • Helen at Toronto Gardens January 18, 2010, 8:40 pm

    Pomona, Why not wait till your woodland plants start popping up. I’m sure you’ll find the perfect spot to soften the edges of your finds. In the meantime, looking and thinking are good for the grey cells – and running back and forth is good for the heart and lungs. So have fun!

  • jodi (bloomingwriter) January 18, 2010, 9:07 pm

    I love this! Especially since one of the questions I get asked at talks is “How do I get rid of the moss growing in my yard?” To which I always reply, “Why would you WANT to?” Of course, they are generally the ones who have the weed-n-feed monocultured lawns that look like golf greens. I’ll take the moss any day.

  • Carolflowerhill January 18, 2010, 9:27 pm

    I love the lively green of moss… and often think of shrinking to roam around in the miniature forest. Sounds lovely to create a carpet of moss especially walking upon it without shoes!

  • Frances January 19, 2010, 3:13 am

    Hi Pomona, oh you scored big with that mossy rock! Good one! As for the log, you already know that you are going to have to get a pickaxe and bury the log partway. It’s the only way it will look natural. If the rotting lumber is right where you want it, you might also have to get a saw, and maybe someone to help you. Or put it somewhere where you can dig more easily. Or prop it with more rocks, with moss on them. Or,… well you get the idea. It’s going to be great! :-)

  • Nancy Bond January 19, 2010, 6:24 am

    And here’s the weird thing: this feeling is a big part of why I garden.

    Precisely. I think your ideas are wonderful. Remember that Nature has no hard and fast plan, but neither does she make mistakes. Anywhere you put these beautiful pieces, they will be perfect and will likely gradually settle into their own comfortable spot anyway. :) Moss is so common around here, people consider it a nuisance. I love this idea.

  • Deborah at Kilbourne Grove January 19, 2010, 8:11 am

    I love moss too, I cannot understand why peoples would want to remove it. I have a tiny little patch in a shady spot by my front steps. Spent an hour weeding the grass out in the fall. I am hoping that it will spread this year. Please keep us posted on your progress.

  • Pomona Belvedere January 19, 2010, 11:48 am

    Helen, good idea – but two problems: 1) in my area, we have rain only in winter, so if I want my moss to settle in well, now’s the time, and 2) I’m introducing the woodland plants – the whole terrain’s so chopped up from construction that pretty much nothing’s growing there now. I agree with your approach, just can’t do it here. Perhaps that’s part of my confusion.

    jodi, you and George Schenk could go on a crusade for moss, his attitude is the same as yours, and extends to moss on roofs (his informal studies show that the roofs last about the same length of time with moss or without).

    carolflowerhill, I love the moss forest image! Once I start looking at the microcosm, I often start shrinking to fit into it, too.

    Frances, yes well the idea was to AVOID a lot of work by laying the log on top…but I think you’re right…oh well, so much for fantasies…

    Nancy, thank you for your words of wisdom and your usual excellent observations about nature. I think the great thing about gardening is that you and Frances may both be right.

    Deborah, may your moss flourish. My neighbor, a demon gardener, suggested an experiment: he has some sulfur, an amendment which makes soil acid. So acid that it might be something that moss likes and nothing else does. So if you’re looking to increase moss and decrease other plants, you might experiment, too.

    Glad to find so many fellow moss lovers, maybe we can all work to spread the news.

  • Steve January 21, 2010, 6:13 am

    Frances is correct, by the way. You’ll have to settle that board just a bit under the ground. Don’t forget, either, that the evaporations from the soil underneath carry properties that that moss enjoyed where it was. Clay, for example, will emit different properties. LOL, now I am making things complicated. Here’s what I did once, long ago, in British Columbia – I laid down a piece of plywood and protected the floor underneath with some plastic. I gathered some rock and old small logs, branches and bark and then gathered a ton of moss and made a moss garden right smack in my living room. A little spritzing now and then and I got this strangely evolving reward – stuff began growing everywhere. It’s quite amazing what seeds one can find inside a simple clump of moss.

  • Pomona Belvedere January 22, 2010, 3:15 pm

    Steve, I love your indoor moss &etc. garden. I was actually thinking of trying something in a large terracotta saucer, yours was much more ambitious.

    I guess time will tell whether the moss from clay can tolerate sandy loam; maybe I’ll try some clay spots and some not.

  • Twincapes January 24, 2010, 6:13 pm

    Very nice, I like the moss look too, I think they will probably take there as long as there’s enough shade and moisture. If any woods are being cleared nearby, see if you can harvest some more moss from there before they tear it all up.

  • Pomona Belvedere January 25, 2010, 11:52 am

    Good idea about moss harvesting before the backhoes. Fortunately right at the moment there’s no logging being done around here, but I think this is an excellent suggestion.

  • Sertith March 19, 2010, 1:05 pm

    Hello Pomona!

    I think the pictures of your mossy logs look lovely, and if you need help moving heavy stuff, or digging or whatever, let me know. I’d love to be of assistance. I’ve always adored moss, and am glad to see others do as well.

    I really like the idea of the indoor moss garden, perhaps I’ll make one of my own!

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