Six on Saturday: Timing is Everything

The faintest whiff of spring promises better days to come in the garden.  Daffodil leaves have broken the soil in odd spots where I’d forgotten they were planted.  There will be an odd flash of bright color where a viola flower blooms in a pot.  And mosses are plump and green where they are well-watered by winter rain and snows.

We had winter storms every weekend through January, and unusual cold these past few weeks.  The last of the frozen snow disappeared here Wednesday afternoon.  It seemed like a good opportunity to continue some winter clean-up.  Where to begin?  The ground is still saturated and spongy, so one must watch one’s step.

Removing sticks and leaves, and pulling weeds, allows mosses to fill in and thrive

Mosses thrive in weather like this.  Late winter is prime time for mosses to expand their colonies, and the abundant moisture fuels their growth.  I grabbed a hoodie, boots and the leaf blower and got busy liberating the mosses from the leaves and sticks blown down in the last month’s storms.

This is one gardening task that gives an immediate reward.  There is none of the waiting involved in planting a seed or bulb.  Plump, emerald mosses shine as soon as the soggy, brown leaves are blown away.  Our mossy patches have expanded considerably in recent years.  And I encourage them by transplanting loose bits to bare spots.  They will work their biological magic to send rhizoids down to anchor themselves as their reach expands. 

Mosses benefit from a firm step, pushing them down firmly to make solid contact with the Earth.  Without roots, each moss cell absorbs water directly from its environment.  It is good to anchor the transplanted bits with a floral pin, or even a twig, to keep them in place as they expand into the spot.

Birds also claim bits of moss to line their nests.  Squirrels and deer scuff up patches of it.  When I see a loose bit on the ground, a firm footfall pushes it back into place.  Because even the smallest bit of moss can regenerate into an entire patch.

I’ve been studying mosses again these past few weeks, looking for hacks to grow them better.  I’m preparing to use the ‘moss mat’ method described by Richard R. Smith in his 2012 book,  New Methods in Moss Gardening:  How to Grow Mosses in Gardens and Landscapes.   He recommends growing mosses on sheets of synthetic felt, which holds moisture and has a neutral pH. 

My previous attempts to grow flats of moss on potting soil or sand haven’t been rewarding, and I am looking forward to producing beautiful moss filled flats on felt, to later transplant to other projects.  I’m starting with a yard of brown felt and a new box of floral pins; odd gardening supplies to buy in February….  But not as odd as the roll of matte black tulle that arrived Tuesday.  I didn’t even try to explain that one to my partner.  Smith recommends stretching a layer of tulle over the new moss planting to protect it from wind, critters and debris.  He promises that the mosses will grow up through the tulle, effectively hiding it and holding it in place as the planting develops.

The fern table I constructed at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden last summer is wintering over well. I transplanted a bit of new moss several weeks ago, and I am hoping it will soon spread. There is no tulle or felt involved in this production….

The last bit of the equation is irrigation.  I’ve lost a lot of moss planted in containers or terrariums over the years after watering it with tap water.  Smith explains that distilled water or rainwater have the proper acidic pH, while tap water is generally alkaline to protect the plumbing. Very few mosses want alkaline conditions.  And then there are the chemical additives to purify tap water, which may be lethal to mosses.  Live and learn, right?

Smith even fleshes out the recipe for the famous ‘moss milkshake’ an intrepid gardener can paint onto pots or shingles or walls to encourage a smooth, new growth of moss.  Ulrica Nordström, in her book Moss: From Forest to Garden: A Guide to the Hidden World of Moss, describes the method more clearly, and explains how to do it without sacrificing a blender. 

A moss slurry requires some well-dried, crumbled moss and one’s choice of yogurt, buttermilk, or beer.   ‘Moss powder,’ for seeding areas with mosses directly, can be made with crumbled up mosses mixed with sand.  Crumbled may be too mild a word for reducing a living moss plant to a powder….

It is the follow-up care of spraying the moss culture twice a day with rainwater that will trip me up.  At least our high humidity will help the culture off to a good start, and perhaps sustain it when I forget to spritz.  Or maybe it will keep on raining and snowing for a while longer?

I’ve been reading gardening books and magazines, studying catalogs, ordering a few bulbs, and generally sitting around sipping a hot cup of something lately.  It is time to stretch those gardening muscles again.  There was an ill and elderly cat involved, and a second pandemic Christmas that slowed me down a bit in December.  I finally planted the last of our spring flowering bulbs in mid-January, after we lost our cat. 

At that point, it seemed wiser to plant most of them in large plastic pots than to dig 100+ little drills in the garden mud for bulbs.  But there was also the small matter of the flat of evergreen ferns I’d bought in November.  So, a compromise was found between pots and ground that resulted in all ferns and bulbs safely planted, and a few mahonia shrub seedlings benefited, too.

Four new pots freshly potted up with bulbs were soon under a snow mulch

February is my favorite month for pruning and garden clean-up.  It is prime time to haul away the old and prepare space for spring flowers and new growth on shrubs.   I’m making slow progress on the cutting back and pulling up stage of things, but a few warmer days have been pulling me back outside.  Timing is everything.  It is finally time to welcome the new year with a hint of optimism, compost what has passed its prime, and plant something new. 

Mosses feel like a good beginning on the new year.  They remind us how often something appears to be destroyed, but is really just the beginning of something new and beautiful.

A pair of cardinals kept company with me as I worked in the garden yesterday
With appreciation to The Propagator, who hosts Six on Saturday each week.

3 comments

  1. Moses are resilient even to a chaparral climate. They are certainly not common everywhere here, and are notably scarce in many of the arid climates. Nonetheless, they do very well on the trunks of oaks in chaparral and even some desert climates. They may seem to be dead for most of the year, but then turn rich and fuzzy green, like a chia pet with the first rain of autumn. It is weird that moss seems to be as common in riparian situations of chaparral climates here as it is in coastal climates of the Pacific Northwest.

    Liked by 1 person

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