I’m a fair weather gardener. As someone who works in horticulture I am supposed to claim that each season has its own wonder and that I embrace all the changes nature offers, but that wouldn’t be honest. As temperatures and light levels plummet, the growth of the vast majority of plants grinds to a halt. This means that if you get a mood boost from living green, winter can be tough. However, there is one much-overlooked group of plants that does the exact opposite, bursting into life just as most garden residents are slipping into dormancy. Moss provides you with a horticulture happy pill just when you need it most.
Mosses are an ancient group of plants that don’t follow the rules of other garden species. Their growth rate isn’t so much determined by light and heat, but by the availability of moisture – and that is something we don’t lack at this time of year. Given the right conditions, their rugged constitution makes them incredibly easy to propagate and establish. And they can be sourced for little to no money.
An easy project for beginners is a moss tray – a beautiful centrepiece for a garden table, a structural accent for resting on low walls or, depending on the size of the dish, even a patio feature. All you need is a shallow dish. Mosses don’t have roots in the same way other plants do, so they don’t need a generous depth of growing media. I use a 5cm layer of soil-based potting mix, which I shape into a mini landscape of undulating hills. I compress down with the palm of my hand as firmly as possible to eliminate any air pockets, before saturating it with water. Finally, I spread over a top layer of keto soil, a Japanese growing media sold by bonsai stores that has the consistency of modelling clay. Mixing it with a little water makes this easier. It provides a sticky, wallpaper paste to affix your moss to. If you have access to clay subsoil from the garden, this will work just as well.
Now, all you need is your moss. I have experimented with dozens of options and fortunately the most beautiful are also the easiest to get hold of. Silver moss Bryum argenteum is a deep green velvet with a slight silvery sheen when it catches the light. It typically grows in pavement cracks. An equally ubiquitous species, common cord-moss Funaria hygrometrica, creates hummocks of tiny star-shaped rosettes in a fresh apple green. It crops up on the tops of city walls, on the sites of old bonfires and on wasteland.
Clumps can be lifted with a paint scraper and simply arranged on to the clay layer of your tray. Press the newly planted sheets down to ensure a good contact with the substrate and soak the surface with a spray of water. Sit your tray in an area of full sun to establish. Once bedded in over winter, the moss garden will be a drought tolerant, low maintenance feature that will last for years.