In the spring moss is king

Posted: Friday, April 11, 2008

Snow goes away, some of us lose it faster than others, but it all goes and the new season emerges. Stretching soggily, squelchingly and sloppily toward spring, the landscape reenergizes. Green buds swell toward the light. Pointed fingertips of the spring bulb flowers enter the aboveground world, bringing news from below. And in the forest, moss under the trees glows with renewed vigor.

Moss is king in the spring.

The wild world wakes first, there's new growth on the elderberries, swollen buds on the Alders and the miraculous appearance of the blueberry flowers. The salmonberries are barely stirring, most of the grasses and sedges in the fields are still torpid, but under the trees, the green moss sings and shines.

This is the time for the moss. While it's still too cold for most garden plants, the ancient species are in their full glory. These are the days of the earlier green world, the days of the tangled, hairy, moist layer of the forest. Draping, swelling and swaddling, the mosses smooth out the world, uneven surfaces are made uniform, the fallen trunks meld with the rocks and root masses as the stage designers weave their carpet over all.

Mosses in the wild world are one thing - mosses in the lawn are something else.

Lawn grasses are still dormant. They're waiting for a couple more weeks of warmth to begin greening up, and this is the moment we've been waiting for - the annual spring lawn moss hunt.

Moss and lawn grass compete for the same space and resources, in the meadows and emergent grasslands they can co-exist, but in the front yard there is room for only one, and for most of us it's not the moss. Our desires for a green, walkable and playable surface around our homes is a cultural preference we bring to the table. We want to be able to enjoy the lawn, to roll a ball, to lie in the sun and to be able to mow the grass without leaving a set of parallel ruts in the mossy substrate. Lawns are a source of pride, a symbol of our ability as a gardener, as a home provider, and as a successful member of the dominant species.

Some people can say they don't really care about the appearance of their lawns, but look into most suburban garages and what do you see? There's a mower, an edger, some bags of lime, of fertilizer, a fertilizer spreader, and maybe even some weed and feed. There's also gas for the mower in a bright red can, an extra blade or two, and a bag to catch the trimmings.

And here in Southeast, we have moss control. Every spring we trot out the bags of Moss Out, Rid Moss, Moss Away or some less well known substance and go to war with the moss. The rental yard bustles with the to-ing and fro-ing of thatchers, and the landfill absorbs the huge bags of moss and thatch. Enterprising young laborers knock on doors and the lawn care people make their annual appearance. It's moss control time.

What is the process for moss control?

First one cleans up the lawn of all the winter's debris, the leaves, old cans and wrappers, and any dog waste that was deposited on the snow. A rapid raking to pick up all the trash and then the moss control is applied.

Almost all commercial moss control is iron sulfate, no matter what the brand name. It turns the moss black within a couple days of contact and makes it ready for removal. For years we have applied commercial grade iron sulfate, let the rain wash it into contact with the moss and thatched it away. In the last few years we have experimented with liquid forms and been thrilled with its rapid action and ease of application.

No matter what choice you make for the substance, a few ground rules apply. It's pretty safe to handle and apply, but is not good for aquatic environments; so be sure none washes into the streams, rivers or ocean. Keep it out of your eyes, wash your hands after applying it and do not get any on your cement as it will stain it black.

The underlying question still remains. What can we do to prevent the moss from coming in the first place?

It turns out that the mosses in the lawn are really a symptom, not a cause, they are an indication that the conditions are favoring them over the grasses, and to change the conditions requires a greater effort. Grasses want good drainage, an only slightly acid soil, steady low levels of nutrients and constant but light mowing.

The family with the nicest lawn I know fertilizes twice a month at half strength, limes four times a summer, and mows on a five- to seven-day cycle. Their lawn looks gorgeous.

If you are just beginning a lawn, it is a lot easier to create a situation where the grasses are promoted, and in Southeast Alaska that means growing the lawn on washed sand. In a later column I will explore that as a technique well suited to our region.

• David Lendrum, with Margaret Tharp, has operated Landscape Alaska for 25 years in Juneau. They design and build landscapes on every scale and have won numerous awards both locally and nationally. They have a weekly call-in show on KINY and can be contacted through their Web site at

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