Winter Moss Mice

This moss is so insignificant when dormant that it’s functionally invisible. But add winter rain and get brilliant green cushions, sometimes called “moss mice”. This piece, in a retaining wall near my high-rise, does resemble a creature of sorts. It’s an appealing notion that the thousands of moss clumps adorning stone walls, pavement cracks, and roof gutters are actually lurking hoards of veggie mice.

During a winter rain, moss is suddenly everywhere. It’s on the tree trunks and town monuments; it’s covering the soil in my balcony pots, and transforming barren lawn into miniature wonderlands. Picking a single moss photo to share proved impossible, so you get two. Here’s a ground cover moss, shot at sunset just before Christmas in a local park:

Researching this article, I found out that there are 15,000 moss species, 12,000 of them present in the Americas.

Bryologists (that’s what you call people who can tell the 15,000 mosses apart) believe moss to be the second plant to evolve, between algae and ferns. Moss is so primitive that it lacks a vascular system to transport nutrients and has no roots. Instead it anchors itself with sticky-ended filaments, like a mussel shell, and absorbs nutrients directly through cell walls. See

Being very Zen, moss is beautifully serene unless you actively try to cultivate it. None of the 15,000 mosses do winter indoors, and, outdoors, moss doesn’t like change. Each variety is a niche-player that has had 400 million years to specialize by light, temperature, moisture, soil acidity, water minerals, etc. Moving grown moss, then, is only for the expert and the lucky. Further, the moss gurus all admit that a large, uninterrupted sweep of moss, while breathe-taking, results in disharmony with your squirrels, dedicated moss diggers. It also annoys the neighbors because it’s stoop-labor intensive, tempting one to resort to a (gasp!) leaf blower. Lastly, stealing moss from wild areas wrecks your karma; moss takes a long time to grow and is a vital part of the eco-system.

So, as far as I can see, the best way to bring moss in your life is to encourage small patches of pre-existing moss outdoors. Select spots you can keep moist, with sun and wind protection. With rocks and ferns is nice. Firmly pat down an inch or two of peat (for acidity and moisture retention) mixed with sand (for drainage and easy weeding). Keep damp and free of weeds, mulch, and litter. (This is work, so just do little spots). Air-borne moss spores will come. Alternately, crumpled-up bits of local moss can be pressed into the soil. Your new moss should be noticeable in 6 months and impressive in 2 years. Keep up the weeding and press the squirrel divots back down. Where moss grows in your lawn naturally, without all this effort, treasure it and lay off the killer chemicals.

To grow moss on pots, rocks, driftwood, brick windowsills, and other porous, rough surfaces, blend moss fragments with yogurt, thin with water, and paint on. Shade from full sun. Mist daily until the moss takes (a few weeks). Put rocks and empty pots in a shallow water pan.

Store-bought moss is a great winter mulch for outdoor pots but goes dormant when the spring bulbs flower. Try drying it out completely, as soon as it starts to turn. Then store it in an open bag in a well-ventilated area until late fall.


And here’s what readers said:

______Wow – this is great; I love your commentary and I love the picture of the “moss creature”. Kal (NY)

I have posted your article on my web site. Thanks again. Walter (ONT)

I do indeed enjoy your Monday morning page. I always learn something. My garden is fine … have just collected my last roses and cut back my 50 or so bushes. … I will probably have buckets of flowers within a month … until end of November. What a deal. Lars (CA)

And now I know the technical reasons why a rolling stone gathers no “moss”. Thanks for the very interesting article. Jack (CT).

These are some great shots. 🙂 Jordan (CT)

I enjoyed your Monday morning moss piece. Thanks. In those instances in which I have transplanted moss (to and from spots in my garden or to a bonsai container), I have used a knife to take a thin slice of native soil with the moss. The moss generally acclimates itself very well…. Margarethe (NY)

I love the moss message. Funny, I was just admiring my moss this afternoon. It really comes into its own in winter …. Liz (CT)

This is my single most favorite article you’ve written and photos you’ve shown. How could I not have known that you, too, are a moss lover. I like lichen a lot, too. Treasure is exactly what I do for the moss that graces my rear lawn. Barbara (NY)