Indoor Gardening with Moss


by Robert Paul Hudson, EDN

Have you ever walked the many trails and parks in Lane County, particularly during the rainy season and noticed moss covered trees, branches and rocks? In a natural setting moss looks quite beautiful. Draped on tree branches it sets a tone of an ancient, almost medieval quality. Along streams and waterfalls, moss creates plush green cushions that accent the water features.

This picturesque scene may be reproduced indoors using sealed containers known as terrariums or in open dish containers with relatively little effort.

What is moss? True moss are bryophytes, meaning they have no vascular system or veins to transport nutrients or water.They have no roots to draw nutrients, nor do they flower or seed. Instead, mosses draw nutrients directly through their leaves in a hair-like structure called a rhizoid. Rhizoids adhere to a plants surface. Moss colonies often consists of hundreds of tiny plants growing tightly together to form a dense mat. Since moss takes nutrients from the leaves and not the roots, it can grow on living trees without being parasitic or interfering with the trees growth.

Mosses have two distinct growth forms. The life cycle begins from a spore that germinates into a thread-like mass called protonema and looks like bright green felt. This then develops into the gametophore stage that forms stems and leaves. From the stems, sex organs develop and, after fertilization, spores are formed and carried by the wind to colonize. The size and shape of the leaves and length of the stems can vary greatly depending on the moss specie.

What are False Mosses?  The term “moss” is generically used in the nursery trade to describe many short, carpet-like plants. Often referred to as “club moss”, plants such as Irish moss are highly decorative, but are not true mosses because they have vascular systems and roots. While these types of plants may also be grown in containers, they do not share the same characteristics as mosses.

Taking a good starter portion of moss from the outdoors is simple. Often all that is needed is a handful or two of moss fragments or scrapings. If it is possible to take moss intact and still attached to its host, it will enable you to culture the plant more quickly. Still, fragments will do just fine. There are many woodland areas to find moss, but before taking any plant material from a park be sure to get permission first. If you explain exactly what you are doing there may be no objection, but to avoid the issue take what you can find in your own back yard.

Terrariums are simply an enclosed container that holds the soil substrate, wood or rocks, and plants, that is sealed to hold in moisture and humidity. This bodes well for moss since it likes quite a bit of moisture and humidity. The container can be just about anything that is clear and has a lid. Aquariums, large glass bowls, or any such container, will work as long as you have a lid for it. It is fairly easy to measure and cut a plexi-glass lid to fit any container.

To begin, put a layer of pea size or slightly larger pebbles on the bottom. This will enable drainage so the soil will not remain over-saturated in water. Next add a layer of granulated charcoal. This may be found at aquarium supply stores. The charcoal will help prevent moisture and air from getting stale and smelling bad. Then add a layer of potting soil at least as deep as the other two layers combined. (If you are planting only true moss, then potting soil is not required and sand or some other material may be used.) You can raise the level higher in the back or create hills and valleys to enable the illusion of depth of field. Spritz the soil enough to make it uniformly damp.

Next comes the fun part- creating a landscape design! Arrange rocks or wood in such a way that is pleasing, shows depth of field and looks like a scene from the forest! Place larger rocks toward the back and smaller ones in the front. Leave some open space, or pathways, that lead the eye to look at different areas. If using stones, from an artistic standpoint it is better to use stones that are uniformly the same type but differ in size. Manzanita wood is very branchy and thin enough to use in small containers without being visually overbearing. If you are adding other types of plants, do not mix them with moss on soil, particularly grass-like plants, because the plants will quickly overrun the moss. Small ferns do well with moss and plants may be placed in separate areas of the landscape.

Moss sod or fragments may be laid on the surface of rock or wood or directly on the substrate. Wrapping it with thin nylon thread or fishing line will keep it in place and the moss will grow over the thread. If placing moss directly on the substrate, it must be a firm surface. If your soil is loose or “fluffy” simply press it down to firm it. There is also a method reported on the internet of creating a moss slurry by adding moss and yogurt, or beer, to a blender and then painting the slurry onto the surface. The solution should be thick enough so it will not drip off. The beer or yogurt feeds the moss fragments in the slurry until it grows into a mat and is well secured on the wood or rock. After everything is in place, mist all the plants and surface area and put on the lid.

Light is the most critical factor for growing plants. In the case of moss, too much light is the greatest enemy. A few hours of morning sun will help the moss to color up more intensely and full afternoon sun will most likely kill it. Moss prefers cool damp air and partial light. In the summertime keep it away from extreme heat. Indirect sunlight would be the best or a simple artificial light such as a desktop fluorescent that is not too close, (12 inches or more above the terrarium). A very low wattage light can aid in being able to visually see the terrarium better without adding much to the overhead light or window light (such as a cabinet display light) and could be positioned behind the terrarium or at the base, which would create better viewing without shining light directly onto the plants.

Mosses may also be grown indoors in open dish-type garden containers. The same layered substrate is used and the only difference is it will require daily misting to keep the plants moist and humid.

With some creativity you too can take a living snapshot of the deep forest and bring it into your home to enjoy.

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