Martha's Top Tips for Growing a Thriving Moss Garden

Borrowed from nature and arranged in pots, lush moss gardens are like miniature enchanted forests.

Photo: Paul Costello

Every year, a group of friends and I travel to Mount Desert Island, Maine, just before summer begins. We spend a long weekend eating, hiking, and visiting nurseries, and then planting the containers that adorn the stone terraces, retaining walls, and stairwells surrounding Skylands, my home there. We also fill the many faux-bois planters I have collected and that I keep inside the house, bringing, as it's said, the outdoors in.

These containers are charming when planted with mosses, lichens, ferns, and small seedling trees, which grow in profusion everywhere on the heavily wooded acreage that surrounds Skylands. I also have a cutting garden that provides masses of flowers for the vases and urns in the living room, great hallways, and dining room. When cut, those lilies, delphiniums, dahlias, roses, Japanese anemones, lupines, and other flowers can last an entire long summer weekend indoors. But it is the large and small woodland tableaux, planted in beautifully made concrete bowls, birdbaths, baskets, and other shapes simulating rustic wooden containers, that are admired and remarked upon most by visitors to the house. When one learns how to plant and care for these mini forests—and understands that little harm is done to the mosses, which are returned to the woods at the end of the season—the plantings become even more attractive.

Decorating with Moss

Perhaps the most appealing aspect of these potted moss gardens is collecting the materials. It requires us, foragers, to look at and study the woodland floor and to discover the incredible variety found there. The woodland near my home in Maine is lush with mosses, lichens, and ferns, which I pot in decorative containers. Later, everything is returned to the outdoors.

Antique French faux-bois ("fake-wood") planters lend themselves perfectly to a miniature woodland collection found on the forest floor. I used an oversize concrete faux-bois basket for my interpretation of a scene from one of the forest treks we take every day. This 1930s birdbath is fitted with a custom-made galvanized-steel planting tray, which allows me to use the porous concrete vessel indoors without running the risk of water dripping on the floors and carpets. We even added a small decaying tree stump in this tableau, rather than disrupt the picturesque natural look.

On the terraces of the house, I plant miniature forests in giant concrete planters. This container was created in the early 20th century by Eric Ellis Soderholtz, a famous Maine artisan. The round stamp on the bowl is his mark.

The giant two-piece birdbath (1920s French) is also lined with a galvanized-steel tub and is the perfect container for another woodland scene. There is quite a variety of plant material in this grouping, which includes a small fir seedling dug up from the understory of my woods—soon to be replanted.

Moss and Other Plants to Use

There are many materials that can be used to create these potted woodlands. For mosses, plants in this botanical class, Bryopsida or Musci, thrive in moist, shady places. Although mosses have no roots, mature plants can have leaves and stems. In Maine, we have pincushion moss, plume moss, fire moss, bog moss, and many other kinds, varying in color, thickness, and texture. Mosses reproduce by casting spores. Any moss can be picked up in a mass and laid down on rich compost; the plants will live well indoors for months if misted regularly with water.

There are a number of beautiful moss-like creeping plants readily available if you don't have a nearby source for true moss. Selaginella, baby's tears (Soleirolia soleirolii), and Scotch moss (Sagina subulata 'Aurea') are convincing substitutes and also make good houseplants.

Another option is lichen. Although they often inhabit the same environments, lichens are not related to mosses. Lichens are composite organisms formed between fungi and algae or bacteria. The lichens that grow at Skylands include reindeer, yellow-green, big-horn or powderhorn, sunburst, and woolly foam, among others. Whether dry and brittle or damp from rain, lichens bring a totally different texture and color to these arrangements.

I also dig up baby ferns, newly sprouted from a recent dissemination of spores from a parent plant; interesting decaying roots and stumps; baby trees sprouting in the understory and even oddly shaped rocks and pieces of wood.

Moss is very much a wild plant, so be careful about how much you take from woodland areas and where you collect it (it is illegal to take moss from national forests without a permit, for instance). In some areas, such as the Pacific Northwest, wild moss has been over-collected for the floral industry. Ask permission before harvesting moss on private land, and be sure to gather the plants in a sustainable, responsible fashion: Take only small amounts from any single colony so that the slow-growing plant can have a chance to regenerate.

How to Make a Moss Garden

Moss gardens are simple to construct. Put a layer of crushed stone or gravel in the bottom of a vessel for drainage. (Wide, shallow containers look best.) Top that with a layer of potting soil, and then add moss, stones, and plants in any arrangement that strikes your fancy.

Keep the soil moist. It isn't necessary to have a drainage hole in the bottom of the pot, but be sure you don't overwater and create a swamp (if necessary, you can tip out excess moisture from lighter containers after watering). Regular misting and a twice-weekly watering will keep the small gardens in good condition. Some mosses like shade, and others require more sun. Pay attention to the location where your moss thrives in nature so that you can replicate the conditions in your house or garden as closely as possible. Make a point of returning any wild mosses to where you found them once they start to fade. The plants should be able to rebound quickly and keep the colony going strong.

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