Growing a Moss Lawn

Photo © Cathy Burk

Do you want a soft, wildlife-friendly, lawn that uses minimal water, requires no pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers, and will never need to be mowed? Grow a moss lawn!

Cathy Burk is a Habitat Network user who majored in biology before raising four daughters. Cathy now enjoys hand-quilting, making whimsical creations for moss gardens, and doing yard work with her husband. She has been experimenting with moss lawns for the past several years in an effort to attract more lightning bugs, whose numbers are declining. Explore her map and see where she has created extensive moss lawns and gardens, visit Where the Fairies Dance with Fireflies in the Moonbeams.
Moss collage

Photo © Cathy Burk

The secret to a successful moss lawn is to make sure you have the correct species of moss growing for the specific conditions in your yard. The easiest way to know which moss will grow in your yard is to look around and see what is there already.

brighter moss in grass

Photo © Cathy Burk

Look closely, you might be surprised by the diversity of moss growing just under the grass. Moss doesn’t always need a damp and shady environment; in fact, different mosses will grow in sun, shade, and every light condition in between.

Green Roof

Revised moss house_5795

Photo © Cathy Burk

The variety of colors and textures of mosses allows you to use them in creative and interesting ways. If you keep in mind the ideal environmental conditions of each moss, they can be used to enhance fairy gardens, or to paint pictures on a roof, or small areas in your yard. Moss is an excellent choice to consider when installing a green roof

weeding moss_5785

Photo © Cathy Burk

There are several ways you can create a moss lawn. Whether you choose to do it yourself, or pay to have one installed, I’ll share with you how I made mine. If you have moss present under your lawn, you can begin by removing any grass where you see moss growing. When I started mine, I’d sit on the ground and casually hand pull any grass growing in the mossy areas and also remove the grass at the edges of the moss to allow the moss to spread out further.

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Photo © Cathy Burk

Even though this moss was hidden under the grass growing in the sun, and therefore shaded well, I wasn’t sure it would survive under the intensity of the sun until after I removed the grass. When I did see it thrive, I continued to remove more grass.

Removing grass

Photo © Cathy Burk

When my husband questioned why I was sitting on the ground and pulling out the grass, I looked at him, smiled, and said I was decreasing the amount of yard work he’d have to do. When I pulled out some grass I’d tell him, “You won’t need to mow that anymore!”

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Photo © Cathy Burk

I won’t say it was easy to convince my husband that it would work, yet I finally did, and now he gets excited when he sees the amount of sporophytes that seem to suddenly pop up from the moss. Spores means the moss will become thicker and thicker means less weeding, no mowing, much less pollution, and more time to enjoy the numerous song birds and other fauna that are appearing in the healthier habitat we are creating.

Word of Caution: Dogs and Children

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Photo © Cathy Burk

If you have dogs or children, I recommend leaving a portion of your yard free of moss. Dog nails will easily tear through the moss, making maintenance more challenging. Similar to dogs, children running on the moss, will possibly result in tears and damage that make upkeep more time consuming. For my grandchildren, I’m setting up a moss area that will have mushroom stools made out of tree trunks and calm play things. Our dog enjoys a large patch of lawn in our backyard. Everywhere else, moss is fair game

Pic12

Photo © Cathy Burk

With permission, you can collect moss from a neighbor who wants to get rid of theirs. It is usually illegal to collect moss from parks, nature preserves, and any public areas without a permit. Fortunately for us, our neighbors, who had half of their backyard covered with moss, wanted to seed grass. No matter how much I tried to convince them about the advantages of a moss lawn, they still wanted a traditional lawn, so they allowed us to collect as much moss as we could before they started seeding grass.

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Photo © Cathy Burk

We carefully removed the moss while noting the locations, light intensity, and substrate where it was found. This was so that we could try to duplicate the same conditions when we transplanted the moss to our own yard. We only collected moss from the ground, as that is where we were looking to expand our moss garden. We avoided mosses that grow on rocks, trees, etc.. Luckily our neighbors had several different species of mosses, mostly sun moss, which our yard needed.

handling moss

Photo © Cathy Burk

We sorted through the moss, removing debris, and tore dry moss in half to promote growth.

Pro-Tip: Tear the moss only when it’s dry, which will stimulate it to grow. When moss dries it stores up a small amount of protein that it uses to repair itself when it is moistened again. Since the moss senses damage, naturally it wants to repair itself and in doing so it heals itself by growing!
How to add moss

Photo © Cathy Burk

To transplant moss, its best to clear the soil by scraping the area free of debris, then moisten the soil and add your moss on the area you plan to convert. Press down on the newly transplanted moss with a flat shoe to help with attachment. Be careful not to spread the moss too far apart, which can encourage weeds.

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Photo © Cathy Burk

Once the moss is in place, walk slowly on the area daily, allowing your weight to adhere the moss in place. Walking on moss actually helps it, so I encourage all visitors to feel free to walk on the moss. After light rainfalls, walk on the moss as much as possible until it’s securely attached. The time it takes for moss to attach depends on many variables. To play it safe, attend to a new section of moss for five months or until you see sporophytes rising from the moss!

Misting_5777

Photo © Cathy Burk

Applying a light mist daily helps moss, especially in hot weather. Once large areas of moss are in place, consider how you will keep the moss moist while it is establishing, especially in arid climates or during peak summer months. We installed a semi-permanent irrigation system on a timer that would mist the moss periodically.

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Photo © Benjamin Balázs

Once the moss establishes itself and starts to reproduce, the rain and morning dew will provide all of the necessary moisture. Only in extreme periods of dry weather will it need any help in the form of an occasional light misting. Never add so much water that the soil gets wet or saturated.

Shade Moss Tip

moss mats

Photo © Cathy Burk

Due to the structure of Acrocarps, shade moss is denser and can hold more soil. In our shade moss gardens, we keep a close eye for any weeds that emerge. When we see them, we hand pull them before the weeds get too large. To encourage Acrocarps to grow, we snip off the tips and add them to the moist soil and step on them. Growing Acrocarpus this way is always slower and requires more patience. Some Acrocarps require a drying out period and keeping them consistently moist will kill them.

An unknown area

Photo © Cathy Burk

In areas of the yard where you are uncertain of the types of moss that would grow there, try mixing up different species in one pile and sprinkle those around in the area. Above is an area in my yard where I experimented with this approach. Depending on the number of species in the mixture, expect at least half to establish themselves, especially if both shade and sun mosses are included. Some moss species will thrive in both.

Squirrel Damage_5287

Photo © Cathy Burk

You will discover squirrel damage in a moss lawn easier than in a traditional lawn. They’re just planting those acorns, which occasionally are forgotten, and then you are gifted with wonderful oak trees. Just push the misplaced moss back with your toe and step on it. The squirrels will never know the difference.

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Photo © Cathy Burk

If you can afford it and want someone to place a moss lawn for you, or help guide you with this process, there are online resources. They also offer helpful information for those DIYers. With approximately 12,000 species of moss, it will help to try to learn the binomial nomenclature when discussing or purchasing moss.

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Photo © Cathy Burk

If you buy moss you will purchase boxes or trays of clumps and sections of moss or carpet mats as large as 6 ft by 6 ft. Make sure you are purchasing live moss and not moss for craft projects. Live moss usually is shipped overnight providing the best outcome of your moss purchase. After purchasing your weed-free moss, prepare the area as described earlier in this article.

In Summary: How to Grow a Moss Lawn

1) Prepare the soil by removing all debris, scrape the surface, and moisten slightly.

  • If you have moss present under your lawn, instead of clearing the surface, manually remove the grass from the moss patch and continue to follow the other steps.
  • If a neighbor has moss they are willing to let you have, obtain permission first and then proceed as above.
  • If you need to purchase moss or want to add another species to your collection, there are several websites that will help you receive the proper moss for your climate and location.

2) Place the new moss on the clean soil and press down firmly.
3) Harvesting and transplanting moss for new patches can be done anytime. If, however, you are tearing established moss into smaller pieces, the moss needs to be dry, so the moss will recognize ‘damage’ and when moistened, start to repair itself and grow.
4) Lightly mist when needed (depending on your climate) and remove weeds as they appear.
5) Do not walk on moss except in bare feet or flat shoes. This will help to adhere the moss to the substrate.

firefly fixed

Photo © Mario Quevedo , Jessica Lucia, Jack Dean

I created a moss lawn to provide a place for lightning bugs to raise their young, as lightning bug populations are declining, likely due to air and light pollution. There are many other advantages to creating a moss lawn, as outlined in The Benefits and Ecology of of a Moss Lawn. The rewards of this work are a soft, peaceful turf that provides excellent habitat, beautiful mulch around your flowering plants and shrubs, and a very low-maintenance lawn. In the spirit of Dr. Seuss (who we assume also loved lighting bugs), “Try it, try it, and you will see! A moss patch is the thing birds need!”

Coming later this summer: How to Maintain a Moss Garden

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