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article imageRevenge of the moss: ancient plant becomes landscape fashion

By Paul Wallis     May 4, 2008 in Environment
Grass has been a sort of icon of suburbia. It’s also been an icon of landscaping.
Most people don’t know enough about landscaping to argue. Now a 78-year-old man who’s been using moss instead of grass for decades is getting some vindication.
It’s not much of a secret, I’m a qualified horticulturalist. Grass is a professional habit landscaping hasn’t been trying too hard to break. But grass is high maintenance, and the average suburbanite doesn’t know how to handle it. It can be an expensive nuisance.
It’s also not perfect for all conditions. Grasses are a dominant plant species, but they really aren’t suited to some areas. That’s apparently finally percolated through to the business end. Mosses are naturally occurring plants in many parts of the world, and they really can do some very good things for landscaping.
The New York Times:
Mr. (David) Benner, 78, a retired professor of ornamental horticulture, is also a longtime practitioner and advocate of what he calls “the moss approach” to lawn maintenance. “Every time I give a lecture, I go into this spiel: get rid of your grass, and grow moss,” he said. “And now it’s finally gaining momentum.”
For more than a century, moss has been anathema to homeowners and gardeners. Type “moss” and “lawn” on an Internet search engine and you’ll find more ways to kill it than create it.
But in recent years, this humble, hardy plant, which has been around for at least 450 million years, has been growing in popularity as an alternative to the traditional lawn. Tim Currier, the owner of Sticks and Stones Farm in Newtown, Conn., which has specialized in selling moss for 10 years, estimated that his sales are up 30 percent just in the last year. And Celeste Kennedy, who owns Rolling Hill Farm in Green Bay, Va., reported a 40 percent sales increase, with growing interest in moss from both homeowners and businesses.
There’s a reason for this “sudden” interest. Professional opinion and some hard stats about water usage and related costs are swinging in favor of native grasses and mosses.
Those stats are pretty vicious. The average suburban garden uses 10,000 gallons of water excluding rain a year, according to the EPA.
(That’s a ridiculous amount of water, and also an indication of some pretty primitive watering methods. Drips are much more effective, delivering water to the grass far more effectively, and using far less water.)
Mosses use far less water, naturally. The NYT article says it uses about 1% of the water required by a lawn. They can also handle poor soils.
It has another advantage. It’s almost unkillable. It can dry out completely, and be revived by just a little rain. I’ve seen mosses in Australia look like they were obliterated by our big drought, and revive instantly.
Mr. Benner’s not doing too badly, either:
Moss gardens generally require very little care, but Mr. Benner’s is an extreme example. “I really don’t water,” he said, taking a seat at a picnic table in the shade of a beech tree. “I work with nature, and my philosophy is that things have to tough it out.”
It seems to be working. His yard is an oasis of flowering trees, native wildflowers and cool, rich moss, dotted with twinkling bluets. As he spoke, two fat frogs sat placidly nearby on moss-covered rocks next to a small fountain. “You’re looking at a garden here that’s practically no maintenance,” he said.
The guy even avoids raking leaves by using a net… Experienced gardeners on DJ will be sighing thoughtfully.
Benner had to learn the hard way. There was no information about growing moss when he started except one book in Japanese in his university library. All he knew was that it liked acid soil. So he exposed a lot of soil, acidified it, and waited.
The moss grew itself. Moss reproduces by spores, and it’s a good colonizer of exposed soil. The grasses don’t like acid soil, so they weren’t trying to compete. There are other plants that do like it, but they don’t spore.
Mosses are ancient plants. Before seeding plants evolved, spores were the working machinery. Those ancient plants are tough as nails. The mosses, ferns and fungi have outlasted all the major extinction events on Earth. Getting a good solid growth of moss takes a while, but once it’s established, nothing will get rid of it.
Mr. Benner scored himself 25 different types of moss in the process. Now he’s spreading the word:
This year, for the first time, Mr. Benner will be selling moss starter kits, containing four of the easiest-to-grow moss plants — fern, hair cap, rock cap and cushion — through Moss Acres, a 54-acre moss nursery in the Poconos, started by his son, Al Benner, in 2002.
Moss Acres, one of the country’s few specialty moss purveyors and, according to Al Benner, the largest (it was a source of moss for the atrium garden of The New York Times’s headquarters), is itself a sign of the intensifying interest in moss. The younger Mr. Benner said that in the company’s six years of business, sales have increased by about 30 percent annually. The company’s Web site,, draws a thousand visitors a day, he said, adding, “moss is starting to get its day in the shade, I guess you could say.”
Benner is having a blast, he says, and good luck to him. There’s lots more in the article. The stuff even eats sneakers…? Maybe there’s a cure for Reeboks and joggers, after all.
Cultural note:
It’s a family tradition on my mother’s side to make indoor moss gardens in bowls and make displays of them. It’s been in the family so long we don’t even know where it started, or when. It’s European, probably from the Breton area.
We had huge areas of moss in Victoria. It loves the temperate climates.
For those interested Benner says he used aluminum sulfate to prepare the soil.
Let the moss grow, and you’ll wind up with an unforgettable garden.
That, I can promise you.
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