The Benefits and Ecology of a Moss Lawn

Moss growing everywhere. Photo by Cathy Burk

Moss grows everywhere. Photo by Cathy Burk

As we prepare for winter planting of our native trees and shrubs, we share this intriguing article written by Cathy Burk at the Habitat Network. The Clackamas Soil and Water Conservation District appreciates the Habitat Network’s permission to share this creative and regionally appropriate take on the traditional grass lawn.

The Benefit and Ecology of a Moss Lawn

Mosses, plants in the Bryophyta division, have been around for more than 400 million years making them old enough to have predated dinosaurs and tough enough to have survived being walked around on by all kinds of large, prehistoric creatures. Dinosaurs have since gone extinct, while moss is still thriving! If you are a habitat enthusiast, fed up with fussing over a high-maintenance lawn, explore the benefits of moss as an alternative for turf lawn.

Moss provides habitat for invertebrates. Photo by Cathy Burk.

Moss provides habitat for invertebrates like this firefly nymph. Photo by Cathy Burk.

Moss will grow practically anywhere–shade, sun, partial sun/shade, wet, semi-arid, etc. The only exception to this are extremely arid environments, such as deserts, where moss is generally not found. Different species, are often specific to a particular substrate including, but not limited to; soil, trees, rocks, stream edges, even concrete and asphalt. If it can grow just about anywhere, what are the ecological benefits of encouraging it in our yards?

Ecological Rewards of a Moss Garden

There are several ecological rewards of a moss garden. One of the most spectacular‒moss can be a lightning bug nursery! If you live in an area with lightning bugs, a.k.a. fireflies, you will be amazed at how many you can attract with a moss lawn. As moisture-loving insects, lighting bugs will lay their eggs a variety of substrates, but they especially love the moisture provided by moss. In the moss they will develop into the nymphal stage (pictured above) and eventually become the glowing adults beetles we like to watch at dusk on warm summer nights.

Moss provides a low-maintenance, insect-rich, useful wildlife habitat. Photo by Matthew Hull

Moss provides a low-maintenance, insect-rich, useful wildlife habitat. Photo by Matthew Hull

Many other insects will also live in or under moss, such as spiders, ants, mites, worms, etc. These insects provide a valuable food resource for numerous other animals, such as birds, amphibians, and reptiles. Some birds will use moss in their nest construction, creating soft, green, living-nests for their offspring. Growing moss provides a low-maintenance, insect-rich, useful wildlife habitat.

Moss is also a bioindicator, meaning that the presence or absence of moss can tell us things about the air quality. Moss is sensitive to particulate pollution in the air such as carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, CFCs (Chlorofluorocarbons), and nitrogen oxides. Most of these pollutants come from combustion engines in motor vehicles and some manufacturing industries. If you have moss growing in your yard, you likely have cleaner air than sites where moss is not found growing.

Moss is an Excellent Conservation Choice

A moss lawn can help your soil retain water. Photo by Cathy Burk

A moss lawn can help your soil retain water. Photo by Cathy Burk

A moss lawn can help your soil retain water. By acting like a sponge, the moss will quickly absorb water and slowly release it into surrounding soil and air. As a bonus, you are rewarded with a visual color-eruption of photosynthesizing moss, even after a modest misting.

Moss can help minimize erosion. Photo by Jason Bolonski

Moss can help minimize erosion. Photo by Jason Bolonski

Moss is also a viable choice to minimize erosion on hillsides or other portions of bare earth that are prone to being washed away during heavy rains. Since moss doesn’t absorb nutrients from the soil and erosional zones are sometimes very nutrient poor, moss can be a great match for such areas.

The rhizoids of the moss anchor to the soil which helps hold the soil in place, while the moss absorbs nutrients from the air and water it comes into contact with. Rhizoids are ‘root-like’ structures used for attachment instead of absorption. Nutrient-poor soil, free of loose rocks, leaves, and miscellaneous forest confetti, is a perfect environment for native moss.

Moss is a Low Maintenance Tool to Fight Climate Change

Sooty Grouse Photo by Cathy Burk

Sooty Grouse Photo by Cathy Burk

Moss is relatively easy to care for once it is established. No fertilizers or pesticides will be required to encourage growth or keep unwanted visitors away. Omitting these chemical treatments makes your lawns safer and more ecologically beneficial to the wildlife (pictured Sooty Grouse) that use them.

Mosses take carbon out of the atmosphere. Photo by Cathy Burk

Like all plants, mosses act as a carbon sink, meaning they take carbon out of the atmosphere and store it in the plant tissue of the moss. Having a moss lawn helps to contribute to decreasing climate-change-causing carbon dioxide from our atmosphere by storing the carbon in the moss as it grows and expands in our moss gardens.

Replacing a traditional lawn with a moss lawn likely minimizes the amount of carbon that could be released by removing the need to mow. One hour of lawn mowing with a two-stroke engine mower emits the same amount of pollution as running 40 new cars for an hour. If you don’t have to mow, you can put your mower away and start reducing your emissions. If you are becoming convinced moss might be a fun addition to your habitat garden, keep reading to learn more about the ecology of this ancient plant.

Moss Types and Reproduction

There are two kinds of moss. Photo by Cathy Burk

There are two kinds of moss. Photo by Cathy Burk

There are two types of moss as defined by their growth habits. Most people are familiar with mosses such as Acrocarps (pictured left), which forms tufts in a pincushion-like growth habit. Upright growing mosses like these are slower to spread, but they usually provide a thicker moss carpet. Pleurocarps (pictured right growing around the herbaceous plant), are mosses that spread outward in a creeping fashion and usually grow faster than Acrocarps.

Moss reproduces by spreading spores. Photo by Cathy Burk

Moss reproduces by spreading spores. Photo by Cathy Burk

Moss reproduces by spreading spores. Out of nature’s velvet carpet, a stalk with a capsule on the end, appearing almost like an unopened flower, will emerge. This capsule will release thousands of sporophytes, which the wind will disperse and attach onto surrounding surfaces. If you see your moss reproducing in your yard, you know it has found an ideal habitat to grow in.

Common Fern Moss, photo by Cathy Burk

Common Fern Moss, photo by Cathy Burk

My favorite moss is the evergreen Pleurocarpous Thuidium delicatulum, or Common Fern Moss. This beautiful delicate-looking, mat-forming moss is actually quite tough. The colors that it will exhibit, determined by environmental conditions, range from golden-light green to a darker green and everything in between.

Consider Growing a Moss Lawn

If you live in the Pacific Northwest, moss is probably already growing in your lawn. Photo by Cathy Burk

If you live in the Pacific Northwest, moss is probably already growing in your lawn. Photo by Cathy Burk

The first, and perhaps most important part of beginning the process of creating a moss lawn or patch, is to do a visual scan of your yard and habitat to begin to understand what moss is already growing there. You may be surprised to find moss growing under your lawn. If starting a moss lawn is of interest, we’ll help walk you through this process in Growing a Moss Lawn (in our follow up article to be posted soon).

Save time and money with a moss lawn. Photo by Cathy Burk

Save time and money with a moss lawn. Photo by Cathy Burk

Why keep a non-native, high maintenance lawn, especially in situations where nature gives you the perfect ground cover, usually for free? It is difficult to imagine when out of dozens of choices of lawn grass, very few are native. You can save money on fertilizers and pesticides, minimize your carbon footprint by eliminating your lawn mower, and help wildlife by replacing part of your grass lawn with a moss lawn. Think of it as a magnet for insects that adult birds use to feed their offspring. Meanwhile, you can sit back and enjoy the serenity of a moss lawn.

More About Cathy Burk

Cathy Burk is a Habitat Network user who majored in biology before raising four daughters. Cathy now enjoys hand-quilting, making whimsical creations for moss gardens, and doing yard work with her husband. She has been experimenting with moss lawns for the past several years in an effort to attract more lightning bugs, whose numbers are declining.

You can read the original article on the Habitat Network.

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