Expecting grass to grow in shade is like expecting a country singer to perform opera. Either may get by, but neither is the optimal. Fortunately, moss can perform like a star in the shade.
Moss can be a great alternative to grass. It thrives in shade, softens the appearance of rocks, stays green all year, and does not ask for much care: no cutting, constant edging, fertilizing, nor treating for bugs or fungus; and just an occasional weeding. During dry periods moss will brown out, but will return to its verdant green color when showers return.
While able to adapt to a wide range of soil conditions and surfaces, moss likes a more acidic soil (pH 6.0 and lower) than most grasses (it prefers a soil that is slightly acidic: pH 6.0 to 6.5). Before planting get soil tested and adjust the pH accordingly.
Here are three methods to consider for cultivating moss. The first technique is the natural method. Simply clear away the sticks and leaves to expose the soil where moss wants to grow, get out of its way and be patient. Over time it will establish itself.
A second technique is the milkshake method. Blend a handful of moss with a cup of buttermilk and then paint the mixture where you want it to grow. Gardening articles written about moss milkshakes make for fun reading and sound easy, but I’ve had mixed results. (Using the family blender will not sit well with whomever is in charge of the kitchen. Buy an old blender at a garage sale and thank me later.)
Method three, the sod technique, is perhaps the most successful, and can produce almost instant results. Buying moss sod is quite expensive, however. But if you see moss growing nearby your neighbors will probably be happy to let you take as much as you want.
Slide the sharp edge of a flat shovel about 1/4 inch or so under where the moss is attached to the ground and end up with small, thin strips of sod of varying sizes resembling flounder fillets. Larger strips tend to break off when lifting. Stack the harvested sod and odd scraps on an old sheet to make moving them easier.
To install, rake the soil about 1/4 inch deep, lay the sod in place (like a puzzle), tamp or walk on the new sod, then water it. Walk or tamp again and this time crush the edges, which helps the sod retain moisture. Water moderately 3 to 4 times weekly until there is new fuzzy growth on top and the pieces start to knit together. From there, an occasional weeding is about all that it needs to look great.
What may have seemed a slow and frustrating process develops into an attractive and welcome feature. It won’t be long before you’ll be singing the praises of moss.
Dr. Ed Merritt is an Extension Master Gardener Volunteer in Haywood County. For information visit www.haywood.ces.ncsu.edu, or call the Haywood County Extension Center at 456-3575. ©2019 NC State University.