Moss: Going with the flow

Published 8:48 am Thursday, May 9, 2019

Some gardeners have very inflexible opinions about how their gardens should look; they insist on imposing their will on nature. Others take stock of what they have and try to make the best of it, even if they really wanted a different sort of garden. Visit the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden in Maine and you’ll find yourself in a beautiful fantasy land where human desires have been tightly imposed on nature. All sorts of plants are in bloom, even though they don’t naturally flower at the same time. There are no spent flowers anywhere, and the woodland paths are so immaculate that you wonder if elves used tweezers to clean them at night. Actually, that’s too far from the truth; there is an enormous staff.

And then there’s Norie Burnet in Richmond. She desperately wanted a garden with a lush green lawn and multiple beds of shade-loving plants. For years she tried to get grass to grow, but no matter what she did, it was invaded by moss. Eventually one of her sons pointed out that the moss was lovely and just might be what the garden needed to make it unique.

Norie began to nurture the moss – spraying it with water, using a leaf blower to remove debris, and probably even talking to it as she worked. It thrived and eventually there were more than 20 varieties – haircap moss that looked like a miniature evergreen forest, another variety that resembled tiny ferns, and, yes, a very plush, velvety type that looked like the world’s most perfect lawn.

More than 20 years after Norie embraced moss as an integral part of her garden, she readily admits that it’s the perfect counterpoint to her beds of shade-loving plants. What’s more, moss is deer proof and will grow on compacted soil. She has created 11 different garden rooms with each having a unique personality. Some contain native plants, while others include many beloved non-natives. The common element, however, is the magical carpet of moss.

If you want to encourage moss to grow in your garden, there are several key points to remember. Select a shady area. Check the pH of the soil; it should be acidic. Remove grass and weeds and then transplant patches of moss to the new area. Water the new moss bed with rain water and keep the area free of leaves and twigs. Sheets of moss can be ordered online.

We could all learn from Norie’s gardening practices. Sometimes it’s much better to go with the flow than to be rigid. Mother Nature will probably win most contests of will. And if you get a chance to visit Norie’s garden in Richmond, you should go.

CYNTHIA WOODS can be reached at