A Few Thoughts on Moss Gardens for Bonsai Folks-

Living in the moist Pacific Northwest of the United States, one would think I’d not have any trouble growing moss. However, being a stubborn fool, I attempted to grow it in the sun. I have a few thoughts on how to grow moss wisely, and even how to grow it well if you choose to be unwise.

One of the shorter mosses that can grow in the sun if frequently watered

Initially my ‘sun moss garden’ was a spectacular failure (wrong moss.) Then it went through a period of episodic failure (some moss species grow in cycles, weird.) And now it is stabilized (better moss selections.)

This has taken the better part of 7 years to figure out. If you’re not positioning your moss garden in the sun, you’ll have it easier.

This is Polytrichum, a genus that is highly adaptable to many sun/shade situations and is very tough when walked on

Here are a few things I’ve learned for those interested in growing their own moss garden (which I do highly recommend…it has a much quieter feeling than grass…it grows under trees where grass won’t easily grow…friends comment on it, often positively…):

  • moss likes mineral soils, like clay, better than it does organic soils
  • undisturbed soils work better than recently broken up soils
  • counterintuitively…walk on your moss, that it helps break it up, distribute it, press it in, and further stabilize the soil for moss colonization
  • Site your moss garden carefully, such as under bonsai benches and posts where they will get residual watering
  • if you choose to do moss in the sun, do use a sun moss genus such as Polytrichum, which looks like very tiny trees (it will also grow well in the shade, too)
  • try multiple species at first so that you’ll have a better chance of getting one that likes the location
  • water your moss garden, it is a plant and appreciates that
  • don’t fertilize your moss, unless it’s super mild; usually fertilizer just enhances weed growth
  • you will need to weed frequently, especially in the early years
  • removing leaves that fall on it is essential or moss underneath will die
  • the use of pre-emergents to control weed growth is tempting, but read the label carefully to see if the environmental hazards are acceptable to you
  • if you choose to use Roundup to control weeds (caveat same as above, consider environmental impact, and use very carefully), diluting it past it’s normal dilution by 2/3 will kill very small weeds and not touch the moss, if it’s a short kind of moss…but it will kill Polytrichum or running mosses that have rudimentary vascular systems

My suggestion is to keep your moss garden small so it is easy to manage, and to consider doing everything by hand for a chemical-free moss garden. Invite friends to help you weed, and then stay for tea (most won’t go for that tradeoff, but it worked once for me.)


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  1. Susan Daufeldt says:

    Michael, thank you very much for this post. I am a student of Gary Wood’s living and doing bonsai in Iowa – not the most hospitable environment for bonsai Or moss. I became interested in moss independently of bonsai the same year (2014 – very new) that I became interested in bonsai. We had had really good snow cover that winter and, in the spring, the mosses in the woods were absolutely incredible. My interest in bonsai runs towards trees native to my area. This means oak, hackberry, wild plum, grey dogwood, mulberry and other deciduous varieties and the ubiquitous eastern red cedar that is generally considered a poor candidate for bonsai. I have had tremendous difficulty finding any material at all that is truly helpful with either my moss gardening here or my bonsai. I would probably have given up by now if I hadn’t had Gary’s help with the trees.

    As to moss, I am years behind you, but have been gradually learning the same lessons and it is encouraging to hear some confirmation and additional tips. I had many small moss gardens in accent pots that I was working with, but something kept striping the moss (and liverworts and woodland plants with them) out of the pots. I thought it was a rodent, but no. It turned out to be a Robin. The little beggar. What I have left is protected in cages. Really crazy. I’m looking forward to going out foraging this fall and again in the spring and making plans for better more attractive protection.

    Susan Daufeldt 1896 – P Avenue P.O. Box 70 Conroy, Iowa 52220

    Cell (319) 430-3822 Tel. (319) 662-4282 Fax (319) 662-4292

    “…all the trees of the forest will sing for joy; they will sing before the Lord, for He comes, …”

    Collected moss and woodland plants.

  2. paul3636 says:

    I have collected moss for abut 12 years and half of it disappears every spring when birds start making nest. Love the article and will read your 12 commandments over and over again.
    BTW there are a couple of good books on moss by George Schenk.

    • crataegus says:

      Also a book by ‘Mossin’ Annie’-

      • Robert West says:

        My wife has a moss garden in central Iowa behind the flowers and next to the woodlands. It has tolerated the hot and dry summer, and requires a little care to water and remove weeds carefully by hand. Less work than the flower borders or the woodlands!! I do not know how to post a picture, so I guess you will have to use your imagination.

  3. Paul Krasner says:

    great article, mike. i have always had a fondness for moss. it is always my favorite part of show preparation(why is the base of the art piece less important than the apex?). On my part, I found the groundscape on your forest to be the most exciting element. So, thanks for the discussion. I think you just saved me at least five years. A few questions. If I’m trying to grow moss in a heavily walked on area, do I leave it uncovered while it adapts to the surface or spores grow larger? Where do you find the Polytrichum? Do you try to keep the terrain flat or do you add some undulations? Have you ever been to the moss garden at the Bloedel Reserve, Bainbridge Island, Washington State?

    • crataegus says:

      Attempted answers: yes, I would leave it just as is, uncovered. Some like to use a netting to keep birds away, that might be a good idea at first. But then you might trip on it if it’s a walkway.
      Polytrichum may be found in forests, in open glades, on soil and on rocks.
      I like undulations. Definitely think about landscaping before establishing moss.
      I have not been to that moss garden~ thanks!

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