Of Moss and Things

I had an interesting garden visitor at the weekend. While he called in at our place to enjoy the garden and is entranced by magnolias, he is even more besotted by mosses. Possibly he doesn’t find many people whose eyes light up at the sight of different mosses because as we talked, he kept producing various mosses to give to us for planting.

I know next to nothing about mosses and indeed to most gardeners, they are a sign of compacted soil and neglected lawn. But they can be really exciting, in an understated sort of way. I can not see myself getting so inspired that I need to become an expert on them. They must rank alongside orchids as one of the most complicated and extensive plant genus. In fact I read that there are over 10 000 different known mosses and yes, we do have forms indigenous to New Zealand.

In case some of this sounds familiar to readers, the garden visitor was Allan Paterson who is featured in the September issue of The Gardener with his shared business sustainably harvesting mosses. Sphagnum moss is the best known harvest and is widely used in hanging baskets and with potted orchids. There are large reserves of it on the West Coast. But Allan and his partner also harvest various other mosses and lichens for sale to florists. It was when I said that Mark fancied planting some mosses in his developing bog garden area that Allan whipped out a couple of display boxes of samples to give me. They are a wonderfully tactile product and we keep patting them as we walk past the boxes.

The Japanese have a long tradition of revering moss and indeed there are famous gardens there which are essentially moss gardens. I don’t think we see ourselves attempting to re-create the Goblin Forest on Mount Taranaki’s slopes (so-called, I think, because the plants are festooned in mosses and lichens). While we could probably manage the general effect without having to resort to too much misting and watering over summer, your average New Zealand garden visitor is perhaps less impressed by swathes of mosses covering trees and ground than your average Japanese visitor. We might just keep to the mossy bog.

A moss garden needs shelter, shade and cover along with reasonable levels of moisture. Mark is still pondering how he is going to achieve these optimum conditions for the unexpected gift of assorted mosses.

That said, moss gardens are not synonymous with mossy gardens. I have just spent the better part of three days going through our rockery rubbing much of the moss off the rocks. A bit of moss is perfectly natural and picturesque. And lichen is a sign of clean air (it is one of the first organisms to disappear when the atmosphere is polluted). But lots of moss and lichen can make a rockery look neglected and you start to lose the shapes of the rocks under the green carpet. And we all know about the problems of moss on paths. It is, by the way, the reason why picturesque brick pathways are better in very dry climates. In our humid and moist conditions, they fast become picturesque but dangerous brick and moss skating strips.

I keep noticing the extended television advertisement for the product which you spray on your paths to get rid of moss. I think it is named something like “Thirty Seconds”. That, I assume, is the time it takes you to spray a square metre or so. Presumably it is not the time it takes to kill the moss because in small print, it states “May take up to two months in some conditions”!

Mossy lawns are often a source of concern to gardeners. Mosses will colonise in shady areas or where soil is compacted, damp and hungry. While you can spray out the moss if it bothers you, you also need to change the conditions or it will just return. I think I prefer the Alan Titchmarsh approach. I can not find my copy of his early publication, “The Avant Gardener” so with apologies to the author, I will have to paraphrase the words of this great English gardener and broadcaster from modern times.

Lawns, he said, belong to council houses where there are rows of alternating coloured marigolds and salvias staked up straight. Avant gardeners don’t have lawns. They have grass, and the more the grass the invaded by daisies and moss the prettier it is.

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On another topic, keen gardeners and garden readers might be interested in a new quarterly publication scheduled for its first release in a few months’ time. “The Gardener’s Journal” is closely modelled on the English publication “The Garden” with extended articles on a wide range of topics of interest to New Zealand gardeners. The first edition promises around 120 pages with minimal advertising. The leading article will be by extremely famous English gardener, Beth Chatto (I didn’t know she was still alive…) along with contributions on various gardens and gardening people in this country, “Adventures with Paeonia Mlokoswitschii”, “Return of the Native”, “A Late Autumn Treasury” and lots more. It promises to be a meatier diet than current publications in the market.

If you want to know more, or better, to order the first copy or take out a year’s subscription, contact the editor, Margaret Long on margaretlong@xtra.co.nz, 139 Old Tai Tapu Rd, Halswell, Christchurch.