Moss in the Japanese garden

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Moss is commonly seen as a signature plant for a Japanese garden. Although not every Japanese garden will be covered with moss, it is still widely spread. Usually, it wasn’t planted but took over the garden and then was carefully maintained by the people caring for the garden.

Where it grows

Moss is a fascinating plant which is able to grow almost everywhere. Exceptions are very hot/cold and dry climates. Some doesn’t even need soil to grow!
This is already the reason why it ceases in dry regions. Moss loves to absorb nutrients directly from the air through high humidity.

In Japan, the humidity isn’t of course high enough throughout the whole year. Moss is a survivalist. During dry periods like the Japanese winter, it folds its leaves together and becomes yellow or brown. But as soon as the first rains fall in spring, it opens up and becomes green again.

Moss Types
Not every moss is thriving everywhere. Of course, there are mosses which prefer a sunny place and are more drought tolerant than others. However, I want to introduce some of the most common mosses in Japanese gardens.

Sugi-goke スギゴケ Polytrichum juniperinum
This moss is maybe the most common moss in Japanese gardens. It doesn’t like chalky soil but tolerates sun.

Hai-goke ハイゴケ Hypnum plumaeforme
A moss that loves to cover structures like water basins or lanterns. In sunny areas, it will become yellow while in shady areas it appears green.

Suna-goke スナゴケ Racomitrium canescens
This moss is not only found in Japan but in the whole northern hemisphere. It’s growing literally everywhere and is a very strong moss. However, it tends to become yellow when drought.

How to introduce moss in the garden
First of all, you need to accept that depending on your climate it might not be possible to install a moss carpet just like in the gardens in Japan.
If you are living in a dry area and your garden is fully exposed to the sun, only mosses of more yellow color will grow there and it might be better to get a substitute if you want a green groundcover.

If you want to introduce moss under shrubs and trees (the area shouldn’t be too shady!) it will help to look around your area which kinds of moss are growing in the woods there.
While it is often not allowed to take moss from nature, it gives you a good hint which moss variety might work in your garden.

Make sure that other plants will not grow faster than your moss! Having a nice moss garden is a good amount of work.
Change the soil in the area to sandy and nutrient-poor. It will help reduce other plants in the area.
If you can get your hands on large pieces of moss, it is great to put them in the garden. There are people in the USA who even “rescue” mosses from lots were new buildings are constructed. Maybe you find a place like this in your neighborhood.
A good start can also be becoming active in a moss-lover group.

I already mentioned to put, not plant, the moss in the place you want it to grow. Usually, it is enough to pat down the moss pieces. They will grow new footholds to anchor themselves to the ground and spread from there.

If you don’t have long periods of high humidity, it might help the moss if you install an irrigation system which sprays a fine mist two or three times a day. These systems come in mobile or as fix versions.

There are two big enemies to moss: humans and birds
The first see moss as a weed and try to get rid of it whenever they can, despite moss being super helpful in filtering pollution out of the air.
There are even example studies where moss is planted along highways to absorb the pollution of the cars. It is also very popular for green roofs in the cities.

The second enemy, which you will see in your garden, are birds.
They use the soft moss to pad their nests. I don’t advise to get rid of the birds, but to share! While your moss isn’t fully established, it is possible to cover the area with nets to protect it from birds.
However, when you have a well-established moss carpet, it should survive bird attacks.
Some birds, however, are picking for insects and destroying the nice carpet. Here it might be helpful to change the soil from mulch to sand or loose concrete. Insects usually live in black dirt.
You can also consider growing some extra moss in another area in your garden, protected by nets, to exchange with badly damaged parts in your main garden.

Caring for moss
Regular care for your moss is necessary too. You should remove all seedlings of other plants regularly and remove fallen leaves. Moss doesn’t like the climate which builds up under a thick layer of old leaves.
If you feel like protecting your moss during winter, loosely spread brown pine needles over it.

For more information and more mosses please buy our eBook about Moss in the Japanese Garden!

Moss in the Japanese GardenMoss in the Japanese garden – Gumroad

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Groundcover as substitute for moss

4 thoughts on “Moss in the Japanese garden

  1. I have a Japanese garden that was not attended to for years. It’s coming along but frogs are destroying the moss. They seem to like to live under it. what can I do? Change the soil?

    1. Hello Wayne,
      Frogs in Japan like corners in a garden with loose earth and something that hides them from view.
      Maybe you can prepare such a space in your garden, away from the moss.
      If you have a wall, loosening the soil along it and putting some old leaves on it will create a paradise for frogs. Such a place next to a stone is working too.

      1. Thanks Anika. I’ll try it. sorry, I have just now read your response. I am not used to this system.

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