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The MasterGardening.com Blog

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Moss and lichens have a long list of garden sins attributed to them.  Moss has been sprayed and ripped up from the ground for appearing to thin and dispatch grass struggling in shady areas, and lichen is associated with rot and sick trees.  It is also popularly believed that the presence of mosses and lichens in the garden, on trees or near plants and shrubs, is at the very least an indication of poor plant or soil health, and some have even gone so far as to remove or destroy “infected” plants and trees.  So, what does the appearance of moss and lichen say about your garden?

It says, “hey, this is a pretty good place for moss and lichen to grow.”

These old and simple organisms (or composite of organisms, as is the case with lichen—we’ll get to that) have been the victims of a serious smear campaign—the truth is neither of these plants cause actual damage to your garden or its residents.  At worst, they might block some attractive bark features or cover a rock that you like to look at, but when it comes to cohabitation, moss and lichen are relaxed, don’t throw parties, and do their share of the chores.

So, what’s the deal?  Well, there’s a pretty unfortunate tendency in some gardeners to get militant when the garden isn’t doing what they want it to do.  Grass isn’t doing well?  Tree looks sad?  Something must be killing it--get the amendments, get the shovel, and get the chemicals!  Cue the “loving your plants to death.”  A lot of times when a plant isn’t doing well, especially when newly planted, the explanation for the decline is much simpler than some exotic disease or invader: light, temperature, water.  This is particularly common with sunlight—it seems that a lot of people aren’t very clear on what does and does not constitute full sun.  Seeding shady areas with grass that requires full bright sunlight is not going to get you thick lush turf.  These shady areas are, however, excellent jumping-off points for mosses, especially if they are moist and acidic.  So, does the proliferation of moss in desired turf areas mean that the moss is killing your grass?  No.  It means that area of your yard is a much better place for growing moss than grass.

In fact, allowing moss and lichen to grow undisturbed may help you add diversity, texture, and color to areas where it can be difficult to grow.  They don’t mind those deep shade and soggy areas under your old trees—it’s actually their favorite.  Got rocks?  Retaining walls?  Encouraging and allowing moss and lichen growth can give your stone, wood, and rock garden features a calm old woodland look.  Looking for something unexpected to do with old containers?Start a moss container garden.  Some people are even going so far as to replace traditional turf lawns with moss (you really can’t beat that bare feet on moss feel, though).  Moss and lichen, though still affected by the stigma they’ve earned, are enjoying kind of a renaissance right now with shade gardeners.  Many are using these plants in both indoor and outdoor décor with fantastic results.

About Moss

What you think of when you think of “moss” is actually an entire colony of teeny tiny primordial plants that date back hundreds of millions of years.  Mosses, along with hornwort and liverwort, are bryophytes, plants without true vascular tissue, flowers, or seeds.  In addition, moss has no roots, making it one of the simplest plants on Earth.  It has been used for everything from boot and clothing insulation to bedding to food storage.  Sphagnum moss, or peat, in particular, has a very important place in the lives of gardeners.  Sphagnum moss is a widely used soil amendment for water retention, and is crucial to the growing of mushrooms and other moisture-loving plants.

There are two types of mosses: acrocarps, slow-growing mounding mosses, and pleurocarps, quick-spreading, short, creeping mosses.  Acrocarps are great for adding shape and texture to moss containers, and pleurocarps are much better suited to turf replacement and spreading onto stone and other accent features.

About Lichen

Okay, back to that “composite of organisms” thing.  We call lichens a plant just for ease of explanation, but lichens aren’t a plant at all.  They are multiple organisms working together in symbiosis.  The thing is, these organisms aren’t even the same kind of organism.  One day a fungus meets an alga.  The fungus can’t photosynthesize food for itself like algae can, and the alga can’t absorb water like fungi can, so the two decide to work together to make sure that everyone gets what they need to survive. This is what creates a lichen.  Lichens are incredibly diverse in color and shape, usually categorized three ways: fruiticose (bushy or shrubby), crustose (flaky or crusty), and foliose (leafy or appearing to have foliage).  They can be as light and thin as to almost be unnoticeable, but they can also be very striking and beautiful, as is the case with British Soldier Lichen, a little pale green lichen with points topped with a bright red knob.  While lichens are primarily important to the ecosystem for their ability to break down bark, rock, and other organic materials into friable and nutritious soil that can be used by other organisms, they are also an important resource for humans and animals.  These tough organisms provide a much-needed source of food to grazing animals during winter months in parts of the world, and we have been using them to make everything from perfume, floral arrangements, clothing dyes, cough medicine, soups and salads, and hair regrowth and repair concoctions.

Helping Moss and Lichen Along

Moss and lichen growth can be encouraged in places in need of a little color and texture, but be prepared to wait it out.  Moss and especially lichen can take a very long time to fill in an area, so you’ll just have to be patient in the end.  However, moss and lichen fanatics have developed little tips and tricks to help speed the process up a bit.

To fill in an area with moss, first, remove all existing grass and plant life from the area.  You shouldn’t need to amend the soil—moss can grow on just about any kind of soil—but if the soil is very loose and sandy (which will make the attachment of the moss more difficult) you may want to add a little bit of something to balance it out.  If your soil is clumpy or very uneven, raking and smoothing it out will also help moss to spread quicker.  When the area is prepared, you can gently scrape or scoop moss from elsewhere or another part of your yard and transplant it into the new spot.  Pleurocarps can be watered gently daily, and acrocarps should be watered lightly every day for the first two months after transplanting.  After that, acrocarps want you to slowly decrease the amount of watering over the next few months until you are only watering once every few weeks when it is dry.  Overwatering either can cause browning, shrinking, and rot, so don’t repeatedly saturate your moss.

Getting lichens to grow where you want them to is tricky business, mostly because they have hyper-specific light, moisture, and nutrient requirements.  Collecting and transplanting them is frequently unsuccessful, but some have had success “seeding” rock walls or rocky areas by moving a rock with lichen on it to another area, but the growing conditions must be very similar.

Many swear by homemade growth formulas for moss and lichen, especially for getting it to grow on planters.  For moss, crumble a good handful into a blender with two cups of beer, buttermilk, or yogurt.  Add a little bit of water to create a consistency that will be paintable or spreadable after blending.  Pulse it enough to thoroughly mix the contents, and use a paintbrush or another tool to spread the mixture on the container or rock where you’d like moss to grow.  Mist the area very gently each day as it grows.  A way gardeners encourage lichen growth is to repeatedly spritz an area with fresh milk until it becomes dark and lichens begin to form (this can take several years—remember, lichens grow exceptionally slowly).  You can also give Lichen Lovers’ “Magnificent Lichen Growth Formula” a try: mix 1 pint milk, 1 teaspoon flour, 1 teaspoon yeast, 1/2 teaspoon gelatin, 1 tablespoon green algae powder (such as spirulina or chlorella), and 1/16 teaspoon water soluble fertilizer (15-30-15 is recommended—do NOT use acid-loving mix).  Bring mixture to a boil and immediately remove from stove.  Cool the mixture to room temperature, and refrigerate for several days.  Right before you apply the mixture to the desired area, add two teaspoons of collected lichen flakes and two teaspoons of the soil from the area where the lichens were collected (keep in mind that the lichens you collect should be living in an area with similar growing conditions to the area where you’d like to grow them).  Shake or stir the mixture well, and apply it to the desired area with a paintbrush.  Do not apply when rain is expected within one day, and try to use the mixture as soon as possible after making it.

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