Finding A Place For Moss In the Japanese Gardens of North America

The North American Japanese Garden Association (NAJGA) recently talked moss with  Al Benner, a NAJGA member and owner of Moss Acres, a company that specializes in the use of moss for gardening.   

NAJGA: What are your general observations about moss gardening interest in North America over the past few years? 

AB: I would say the interest level continues to grow.  Moss was originally looked upon as an “invader”  something growing where grass was supposed to be growing.  Actually moss has been around for over 500 million years, and the 15,000+ species worldwide each have conditions that best suit their individual needs.  Some species like shade, others prefer full sun.  Some like it wet, others drier.  They all need moisture at some point in time to grow.  They have no true roots, so all moisture is absorbed through the leaves.   Moss has more recently received considerable press coverage as being an environmentally sustainable choice for many locations and conditions.  If moss is growing somewhere on it’s own it is for good reason – it likes that location.

NAJGA: How did your company get started in moss gardening?

Al with moss milkshakeAB: My father, Dave Benner began experimenting with moss lawns and garden areas on his 2-acre wooded, hillside gardens in Bucks County, Pennsylvania back in the early 1960’s.  In 2000, I started Moss Acres as a national mail order company to fill an unmet need as the first supplier of live moss in large quantities.  We ship our mosses to home gardeners and landscape professionals who are  looking for an alternative ground cover for shady garden areas.

NAJGA: Which moss varieties do you carry that are the most popular or highly recommended for Japanese-style gardens? 

AB: Although moss gardens in Japan may have many different species of mosses the primary species that moss gardens in Japan use: haircap, pincushion and rock cap (broom) are three of the five species that Moss Acres provides. The other two species (sheet moss and fern moss) that Moss Acres offers are also popular in Japan.  Moss Acres offers these varieties because not only are they traditional varieties utilized for centuries in Japan, but they are also “generalists” that grow well in a variety of settings provided there is adequate shade and moisture.

Are there public Japanese gardens which feature your mosses? 

Garden of the Phoenix MossAB: The Garden of the Phoenix on Jackson Park in Chicago and this  spring, the Shofuso Japanese House and Garden in Philadelphia. Both are establishing new moss gardens. The moss garden in the Garden of the Phoenix was started last October as part of the NAJGA skills development workshop prior to the 2014 NAJGA convention. This moss garden will be expanded this year and then be on display for the 2015 American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) convention in November in Chicago.

One thing that really surprises us is that the most popular moss in the gardens of Japan, haircap moss or Polytrichum commune, are rarely found in the Japanese gardens in the United States. Yet haircap is easy to grow and in many states is a very common native plant.

Polytrichum commune in bluestone patio at Moss AcresCheck out this picture of haircap moss growing among the bluestone pavers at Moss Acres. Over time the haircap has naturalized among the pavers. This would be an easy way for any Japanese garden to introduce haircap moss into their Japanese garden.  It can also tolerate quite a bit of sun, as it has root-like structures called rhizoids that penetrate several inches into the soil.

NAJGA: How about residential garden owners? Are they also incorporating moss as part of their private, Japanese-style gardens? 

AB: I would say they are all over the map here.  Most of the projects are smaller in scope and usually deal with creating a smaller naturalized garden in a small grotto area.  Stone and/or water features and ferns are often incorporated.  Utilizing sheet mosses, like hypnum is very common in between pavers for walkways.  The sheet mosses can handle a fair amount of foot traffic so they work well for this application.  There are a handful of private, Japanese style gardens out there that incorporate moss, but they are few and far between.

NAJGA: What services can you offer your customers aside from providing the moss materials for their garden?

We provide a lot of online and phone support for folks getting started with moss.  Our website at www.MossAcres.com is also a great resource for information on all aspects of moss gardening.

Currently we are exploring several green wall projects utilizing moss that plan to be installed during the spring of 2015.  We accomplish this by taking moss that is grown from fragments onto synthetic geotextile mats and installing them vertically with drip lines as living moss walls.  Our tests of this process over the past two years have been very encouraging and we are now ready for some installations to go in.  We also have had several moss roofs installed though the years and are experimenting with other mediums for this application that allow for significant water holding capabilities.

Finding A Place For Moss In the Japanese Gardens of North America

Using Earthen Walls for Japanese Gardens in North America – by EMILY REYNOLDS

Emily Reynolds is the author of the book “Japan’s Clay Walls,” , a founder of the Japanese Earthen Plaster Exchange (JEPE) and a member of the North American Japanese Garden Association (NAJGA)

Earthen walls have been a defining characteristic of man-made structures in Japanese gardens for many centuries. We often miss this important element, because the clean and flat aesthetic appeals to our modern taste.

Ryoan-ji's Earthen
The centuries-old, thick earthen walls of Ryoanji’s famous rock garden are infused with oils.

But using Western finishes on Japanese structures in gardens leaves something to be desired. They lack a softness, a seamless integration with the natural surrounding and an element of health. While Japanese gardens across North America are being established, and while many more enjoy the challenge of fostering their landscapes, an appropriate wall finish for structures deserves consideration.

Katsura Imperial Villa
The earthen walls of a tea house in Katsura Imperial Villa blend with the view. 

The Japanese Earthen Plaster Exchange (JEPE)  seeks to become an educational resource and bridge-builder for harnessing the traditional advantages of earthen walls in Japanese gardens and other places we consider as sanctuaries of well-being.  By remembering to include the earthen wall in the Japanese garden, we deepen the healing experience. This is not only a visceral or esoteric thing, it is science! Science tells us that we need negative ions for optimal health — from maintaining feelings of general well-being to actually boosting the immune system.   Clays contain negative ions, and release these to their surroundings. Waterfalls also expose us to negative ions. Paints do not. Cement stuccos do not.

JEPE also aims to promote the authenticity of Japanese gardens in the United States, Canada and beyond.  Earthen finishes, either clay-based or lime-based, are the only authentic and appropriate choice for Japanese garden structures.   While thoroughly earthen walls are the tradition, an earthen or earthen-like finish will still benefit the whole atmosphere of the garden, whether applied over an existing surface, or for a new structure.

Thick earthen walls often separate various areas in the garden landscape.  The
Thick earthen walls often separate various areas in the garden landscape. The “go-sen,” “five lines” on these walls denote a temple dedicated to imperial and noble families.

Support the JEPE Campaign. JEPE needs the support of the Japanese gardening community to realize its aims. Please go to igg.me/at/thejepe and make your support known between now and April 22, the end of our campaign. With a simple $1 contribution, you will be counted among our advocates.

You may also visit the Japanese Earthen Plaster Exchange (JEPE) website: www.thejepe.org and the Plaster with Wa blog: www.plasterwithwa.wordpress.com.

Using Earthen Walls for Japanese Gardens in North America – by EMILY REYNOLDS