Moss or Lichen as a Ground Cover


Mosses are primitive plants without true roots whose leaves are generally one cell thick. Where conditions are favorable--often acidic soil, shade and high moisture--they may form large patches beneath trees. Lichens, on the other hand, are a partnership between a fungus and a green alga or a blue-green bacteria. Though often found in the most difficult environments such as arctic tundra and hot deserts, many are found in tropical forests and ordinary woodlands.

Landscaping with Mosses

Japanese gardens have used mosses for centuries to add a soft, rich texture to the ground and as contrast to the stones and boulders that are such a part of the gardens. In your own yard, you can place stepping stones among carpets of moss to get the same effect. In general, mosses lend themselves to small scale areas, such as a circle surrounding a single tree or a small moss lawn in a shady glade. They can be walked on occasionally, but will not take frequently foot traffic.

Creating a Moss Garden

The best mosses for your yard are the ones that grow naturally in your area, perhaps in a nearby park or woods. Many species are quite picky about the conditions they need to grow, and cannot be transplanted to a different area. Some prefer concrete as a substrate, some prefer wood or soil. If you're lucky, you will have moss already growing in your garden and you can carefully transplant some into a bed of bare soil. One of the best ways to create a moss lawn is to take a very mossy patch of grass and simply weed out the grass, leaving an expanse of moss. You may be able to transplant moss from a natural area into your yard, but always get permission from the landowner before removing moss for transplanting. You will need to water frequently until the moss is established. Or you can let a patch of bare soil sit and see what arrives, pulling weeds as they sprout.

Caring for a Moss Garden

Watering during dry spells is nice but not absolutely necessary. Naturally occurring moss will turn crinkly, perhaps even brownish, when dry but will recover when the rain returns. To keep your ground cover looking green, however, water frequently but lightly. Only the surface needs to be kept moist. You'll need to remove weeds until the moss thickens up, and picking off small leaves and dried twigs is a frequent chore. If these items are left on top of the moss, the moss may die in that spot, or may grow over the twig, creating a bump.

Lichens as Ground Cover

In the most northerly forests, lichens may make up more than 90 percent of the ground cover beneath the trees but rarely are so prolific in less extreme climates. Because they are usually gray or gray green, sometimes black, they are not as attractive as moss and rarely seem effective as a lawn substitute. If your garden is in an area where many lichens are growing naturally, and you like their effect, by all means transplant some chunks into your garden and experiment. Some people report success with pulverizing some lichen in a blender with buttermilk and spreading that over an area. Keep it moist and see what happens.

Caring for Lichens

Care for lichens is similar to that for mosses. Water in dry weather and remove any debris.

Keywords: moss garden, lichen ground cover, propagating mosses

About this Author

Over the past 30 years, Mara Grey has sold plants in nurseries, designed gardens and volunteered as a Master Gardener. She is the author of "The Lazy Gardener" and "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Flower Gardening" and has a Bachelor of Science in botany.