Groundcover as substitute for moss

Almost every Japanese garden in Kyoto hosts one part which is covered in nice, fluffy moss.
When building a Japanese garden outside of Japan or even in another area in Japan, there might be some problems when it comes to establishing moss in it.

Saiho-ji or Koke-dera. The moss garden in Kyoto.
Saiho-ji or Koke-dera. The moss garden in Kyoto.

Although moss doesn’t need much to grow, there can be too much. Too many nutrients in the soil will enable other plants to overgrow moss. If we don’t have enough humidity, it can be hard to grow nice varieties of moss as well.
If we have too much sun, only yellow appearing mosses grow nicely.

Maybe we try once or twice to establish moss nonetheless, but when the moss still doesn’t grow, we might think of an alternative to moss.

Today I want to introduce some plants we can use for this purpose.

Design by Green Farm Haji in Hiroshima
Design by Green Farm Haji in Hiroshima

Mondo grass for shade
Ophiopogon japonicus

This plant is an Asparagaceae and a relative of Aspidistra.
Especially in Tokyo and more northern parts of Japan, it is often used as a substitute for moss.
Its leaves have a dark green color and over some years it forms a dark green carpet.
Light: It can also grow in the sun, but it will look better in partial shade and shade.
Soil: It likes humous, slightly acid soil.
Water: Mondo grass shouldn’t be kept too wet. It is quite easy to handle.
USDA: 7-10

International Garden Show in Hamburg / Germany 2013
International Garden Show in Hamburg / Germany 2013

Sedum for sun
Sedum var.

The most beautiful substitute for moss I’ve ever seen, I found at the international gardening show in Hamburg in 2013.
A company tried to build a small Japanese garden there and used some mixed varieties of Sedum to gain the effect of a moss-covered hill. It looks like Sugigoke in summer.
This mixing is only good for some months though, because the stronger varieties of Sedum will overgrow the weaker ones.
One needs to try which ones are working best in the own garden.
Light: Sedum likes a sunny place.
Soil: Not too humous, it likes well drained and sandy soil.
Water: Don’t give too much water or Sedum will rot. This is a plant for dry places!
USDA: 4-9 (for Sedum spurium)

Privatgarten von Günter Heymans
Private garden by Günter Heymans

Heath Pearlwort or Irish Moss for partial shade
Sagina subulata

I’ve seen pictures of one rock garden using Sagina in-between.
Since then it is my dream to once use it as a ground cover as well.
I think the garden looks gorgeous and it makes a nice substitute for a lighter moss variety.
Sagina is sold in Japan as well, so maybe my dream will become true?
Light: Sagina can be planted in sun or partial shade.
Soil: Not very demanding, normal soil or sandy soil.
Water: Don’t keep it too dry. Water regularly in dry periods.
USDA: 3-9

A modern grass / rock design by Smart Design Studio in NSW Australia
A modern grass/rock design by Smart Design Studio in NSW Australia

Zoysia grass / Manila grass for sun to shade
Zoysia japonica (colder areas) / Z. matrella (warmer areas)

In Japan, a very drought resistant grass is used, which can deal with the extremely dry and hot summers.
This grass also makes a good substitute for moss, because it is quite slow growing.
Two varieties are used often: Z. japonica for colder and more exposed areas and Z. matrella for warmer and shady areas.
Zoysia becomes yellow in winter.
Light: Z. japonica likes sunny or partial shaded spaces while Z. matrella also tolerates shade.
Soil: Needs well-drained soil. Around pH 7.0 is best.
Water: Doesn’t need too much water. For staying green in hot, dry summers, a regular water supply is necessary.
USDA: 5-10

A modern garden path with bricks and Phyla. By Slow Garden in Hamamatsu.
A modern garden path with bricks and Phyla.
By Slow Garden in Hamamatsu.

Hairy Frogfruit for sun to partial shade (not recommended for Australia!)
Phyla (Lippia) canescens

This groundcover is really nice, especially when the plant is in bloom. This gives a special touch to every garden and can function as a surprise in a Japanese garden!
However, there is one negative point about this plant. It may not be green in winter and lose all its leaves.
Maybe the perfect substitute for a summerhouse outside of the city.
Phyla is an invasive weed in Australia, but it doesn’t make problems in most other countries.
Light: Sun is better, but it will also grow in partial shade.
Soil: No special soil needed. But well-drained soil would be better.
Water: It doesn’t need as much water as a lawn. If it rains regularly, giving extra water is not needed.
USDA: 8-11

These plants are only a few possible substitutes for moss. I hope I will be able to publish a more detailed eBook someday!

If you are interested in what varieties of moss are used in a Japanese garden and how to establish moss in your own one, have a look on our eBook about Moss in the Japanese garden.

Support our Work on Patreon
click for more info

21 thoughts on “Groundcover as substitute for moss

  1. I use Mitella × inamii, which is a woodland native of mountains of Fukuoka on the island of Kyushu. It is low growing and spreading in deep shade.

    1. That’s a good question ?
      If the conditions are good, it will make a good substitute in sunny places.
      However, my experience is, that thyme really creeps to the places it likes and becomes bold in the other areas.
      Which isn’t quite appealing.

      1. I’m in East Anglia, UK – has less than half the rainfall of west UK – and planning a Japanese inspired garden for my new house (the move has, sadly, been postponed – I’d hoped to be in by now!). In one sunny area I was intending to attempt a chequerboard design as at Tokofu-ji (I’ve not visited, just looking in books) and was thinking of Thyme for that … could also use some creeping Sedum I guess. Any other suggestions? Soil is clayish, haven’t pH tested yet but likely neutral-alkaline. [Also looking for trees to buy to create instant shade for a tea-garden type area … Acer palmatum hard to get at that size without great expense … Betula e.g. ermanii OK but possibly too big ultimately … Liquidambar? Euonymus europeus? Amelanchier? Sorbus? I’ve seen you mention pruning Zelkova, which would otherwise get too big – any additional info on that?]

        1. Sounds amazing what you are planning! Would you mind sharing pictures when you’re able to start working on it?
          I used creeping thyme on a border and found, that it loved to creep over the tiles. In one season it covered 10-20 cm of the tile approach.
          However, looking at pictures found in the web, thyme can make a great groundcover for soil.
          I guess it is just a bunch of work to keep it shaped.
          This year I tried Sagina on my very sunny balcony and it grew great. I used the yellow variety, but there is also a dark green one available.
          Another option might be Acaena.

          For your tea garden you will need evergreens like Camellia as base and great foliage trees as some accents.
          Often there are really huge trees (2-3) covering the whole area with their leaves, and smaller trees beneath.
          As substitute for Acer, but to get the same “feeling” – small leaves – have you thought of Crataegus?
          Another option could be Acer buergerianum.

          I am sorry, my time for RJG is quite limited. These suggestions are all I can give at the moment without further research..

  2. Thank you! I have two different Acaena in my current garden which are lovely (and quite invasive! I think it would cover the tiles more than Thyme at the rate it goes here). I have literally 100s of things potted up from my existing place (I’m a plantaholic!) and have been splitting many lower groundcover plants e.g. Ophiopogon (5 types), Pulmonaria (5 types), Brunnera, Pachysandra, Asarum europeum – have 30-50 of many things now. Camellias don’t do well on the neutral-to-alkaline clay so either need potting or careful soil preparation and aftercare 🙁 and yes I forgot to list Hawthorn, very much a feature of the countryside here.

    I’m making a strategy decision to use Japanese approaches rather than complying 100% with authenticity – for example the ‘tea garden’ needs to fulfil the same purpose of changing one’s mindset from worldly matters to a calmer and more ‘present’ state, and the planting will be accordingly ‘quiet’ … but a) it’s practically also a main route for me to the stables and my horse, so stepping stones are not practical (although can be suggested within the paving design and still used if one chooses), and b) it won’t be used for tea ceremonies/I am a coffee drinker so the venue of destination won’t be such a closed space. Photos of the location as it is here (two incorporating ‘The Willows’ which is the name of the place – there are also albums from three non-Asian Japanese/Chinese gardens (Lan Su in Portland, Tea Gardens in San Fran, Purelands in UK – latter gives me some ideas but is also a bit of a pastiche/gimmicky I think?). As you can see, I inherit an existing koi pond – and that *will* have stepping stones to the seating area.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing the pictures! The estate looks great!
      It is always fascinating how plants act differently in other places of the world. I have experience with Acaena in northern Germany and with creeping thyme in Tokyo.

      I think I have seen a picture of an approach to a “western style” tea garden, which might be of interest to you.
      However, since I saw that picture it has been some years and I don’t know if I am able to find it again.
      I think it was established in Europe or the USA and was not using traditional Japanese plants but local ones.
      It was a really nice Roji.

    1. Lichen or algae maybe..
      I am sorry, but at the moment I don’t know of any plants which can grow and can be shaped like this..
      There are plants though, which are growing great on walls (like Ficus pumila, if you have the conditions), but they can’t be put on like moss graffiti.

  3. Anika, I have used the following plants with great success when replacing the moss:
    -Soleirolia Soleirolli

  4. I have been traveling in Japan on several trips to visit gardens so Zen Gardens are an interest for me. I have been involved in hobby gardening on forested acreage, mostly in the style of a woodland strolling garden.

    I have a lot of material and native plants. I began considering how to use stones on the property. I read with interest about various ground covers. In this area where I placed three stones, I have been looking at ground covers. The area is expansive and I thought about a commercially available option but opted for moving ferns which are abundant.

    The link below shows the area beginning with stone placement to mulching for slight contrast to the addition of ferns.

    I am trying to incorporate more explicitly some elements of Japanese and Zen styles into areas where it seems compatible with the site.

    I can share Google Photos albums.

    I would appreciate the opportunity to communicate. I will be in Japan on multiple occasions in the next year.

    1. Hi!
      I looked at your pictures and love your work!

      How is your climate? Is it very cold in winter? Do you have snow?
      Would love to help you finding options for groundcovers when you have an area where ferns wouldn’t work 🙂

      1. Thanks for the kind words.

        I live near Seattle in Pacific NW, so close to sea level. We get occasional snow in winter, which generally is gone in a week. Low daytime emperature rarely gets below minus 5. I have visited Nikko and Koyasan and think temperature there might be like here. Vegetation is similar. I like the mosses that grow in naturally and have not tried to move them.

        Native trees include fir, cedar, hemlock, maple, and alder. Alder tends to come into areas first after larger clearing.

        Climate is very good for rhododendrons. Yakushimanum species adapts well here, due to moisture here and temperature like tropical Alpine region. So we can have rain forest like areas if there are trees and shade.

        I have about 15 Japanese maples over 20 years old and acquired 15 more a year ago. I also have some flowering cherry, crabapple, magnolia, and dogwood.
        Due to acreage on prooerty, I am expanding garden footprint with trails and utility roads.

        Planting grass and leaving moss where it comes in is the easiest option. I have come to like the natural forest bed under tall evergreens.

        Do you have any suggestions for ground cover for steeper slopes? I cleaned out an area full of salmon berries and will put in some naturally occurring starts from under larger rhododendrons but there is one steep slope.


        1. Hi Charles,
          your climate sounds like you have really many options! Just like here in Japan!
          For steep slopes, if you have the space for a 40cm high (15.75 inches) groundcover, I would think that a low bamboo which is building rhizomes would be good.

      2. Here is an area I did a lot of work on this summer when I had Kubota mini-excavator. Left a few large stones where they were and moved quite a few. I will keep heavy power equipment out and roll smaller stones for better placement over time.

        You can see native ferns which I will leave and shape.

        I planted flowering trees in the area about 20 years ago plus vine maple. I started doing pruning and better caretaking of trees about five years ago. There is oval shaped road and path around the area.

        I planted sun and shade grass in here. Will wait and see.


        1. I think grass is a very good option in places where it can grow healthy without too much care!
          Really love the natural style on your property!

          1. The property has several areas I have worked on for over 25 years. This area is one where I planted some flowering trees many years ago and did not do much. The property is sloping and has lots of fir and hemlocks. I found some Japanese Maples on sale yesterday that I will add. The photo shows approximate placement, indicating one point where they are all visible. In the area I also have some older cherry trees, crabapple, vine maple, magnolias, and one kousa dogwood. I have had a lot of limbing on larger native trees to bring in light. It is fall now and there is more green coming back, along with grass I planted.


            I can send links to other photos from different areas of the property.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *