A review copy of a new book with the simple title Moss, made interesting reading during recent hot days. The author refers a lot to mosses in foreign countries, including particularly the Baltic areas and Japan, where mosses have long been appreciated more than in the west.
The book got me to thinking that I can’t remember if I have ever done a column on the subject, except in passing, even though I am a moss aficionado, albeit an amateur one. I have, however, learned a few things about mosses — and we will include lichens, though they are not related to mosses — in the 45 years at our garden.
First off, a disclaimer. We won’t be using botanical names for the most part, since they are as complicated as with any genera of flora on the planet. And the numbers! There are more than 2,000 species of lichens alone on earth, not to speak of the numerous mosses. There are a few, however, that you might recognize by their common names.
I dislike any garden appurtenance, i.e. statuary, benches, pots, stones etc., that is new or looks new. The patina that moss and lichens offer to such subjects makes all the difference in the way they feel a part of the garden.
We have several garden chairs and benches, some bespoke and some boughten, that have enough age on them to sport mosses and lichens. It has taken years to reach the effect I want, but anon we will offer some suggestions on how to speed the process up somewhat.
One of those benches, of teak, faces an ornamental pool with a spilling statuary fountain. The bench is covered from top to bottom with numerous varieties of lichens. It is a nice place to sit and relax, if you have ever learned how. I haven’t. Anyhow, a few years ago a quite large group of gardeners from the Memphis Horticultural Society were visiting and I overheard one lady tell another: “He should scrape that stuff off and paint that bench.” All I can say is, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. For crying out loud, it took me 15 years to get that selection of lichens to grow on that bench.
Generally speaking, lichens are slower to appear and stick than are mosses. The said bench, and several others nearby, have been a number of years catching on to traveling lichen spores.
Mosses are not quite as slow when in the proper environment, usually shade and moisture. Our woodland paths are covered with moss.
Most mosses are lovers of acid conditions, so years ago I mixed a sprayer with about a five to one mix of water and vinegar, which of course is acid.
During winter months, when moss spores are most active, I would spray the soil about once a week with the mixture and nature did the rest. Within a couple of years I had a pretty nice coating of short moss.
It is important to keep the soil surface clean of undergrowth and leaves when attempting to introduce moss. Anything that inhibits the spores to alight on the soil surface will slow down or nullify the operation.
On a smaller scale, mosses can be dug from the wild, with permission of course. A serrated bread knife is perfect for removing thin layers of moss with a little soil attached. These, when sodded in the desired area, will take hold quickly if not allowed to dry out.
Where foot traffic is a factor, the shorter mosses are to be preferred. Taller ones, to 2 inches or so, are excellent for planting as a living mulch in mixed pots of other plants.
Nearly all mosses are green, but lichens come in almost every color imaginable. Go to a cemetery and look at gravestones 100 years or more old. There will be an interesting assortment of lichens, mostly steely gray but also bright yellow and other colors.
To achieve a patina of age on stones, pots and statuary, the subject can be painted with buttermilk or yogurt, preferably mixed with fresh cow manure. The latter should be almost liquid and the mix churned together with a blender. Do not use the same blender for making milkshakes.
The goop might stink for a few days, but eventually the smell will level out. Even with regular applications, it will take time. Our rock gardens are filled with large stones, nearly all covered with moss, which years ago underwent this kind of treatment.
Mosses reproduce by spores, while lichens grow on soil or other surfaces, using them as substrates. They are not parasites.
Lichens are far more varied in appearance than mosses, and lend themselves to numerous applications.
JIMMY WILLIAMS is the garden writer for The Post-Intelligencer, where he can be contacted on Monday mornings at 642-1162.