Pennsylvania moss and fern expert Al Benner tells landscapers where it can work and how to care for it
Clients’ shady zones tend to be a challenge for many landscape and lawn care professionals. Repeated grass plantings, different fertilizers and other “proven” methods fail to take on a customer’s lawn that is surrounded by tall trees. So, what can a professional landscaper do? Consider planting moss and ferns.
Al Benner is owner of Moss Acres in Honesdale, Pa., which specializes in moss, but also sells ferns for shady areas. Benner started Moss Acres with a website and a passion for moss, and explains that his affinity for moss was inspired by his father’s devotion for all things green.
Landscape pros often recommend moss for specialty gardens.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF MOSS ACRES.
“Stemming from my father’s passion to work with nature rather than against it, I felt moss was a natural choice for anyone [who] had a shady area where it was challenging to grow grass or other plants,” explains Benner. “I felt that there was a niche market opportunity because nobody else was offering live moss for landscaping projects. I knew people were interested because hundreds of moss enthusiasts would, and continue to, tour my dad’s moss gardens in New Hope, Pa., the first two weeks of May each spring.” New Hope is about an hour’s drive north of Philadelphia.
In August 2000, Benner harnessed the power of Internet search engines to get the word out about his moss business. “I spent a lot of time and money on building the site to index in the search engines. As a result, Moss Acres comes up very high in the rankings for most any search terms relating to moss and/or shade gardening,” says Benner. “I have always relied heavily on the Web. For me, it has been the most cost-effective way to reach interested moss enthusiasts who are searching for ideas about moss gardening.”
If you or one of your clients wants to to experiment with moss, but don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars for a kit, consider the Moss Milkshake. The moss is delivered via UPS in a milk carton that contains the moss, as well as gels that absorb water and netting to place over newly planted media.
According to the Moss Acres website (www.mossacres.com/product_moss_starter.asp), the dry moss can be mixed with water or beer right in the container. You shake it up and pour it over the area where you want the moss to grow. The moss will take a few months to grow and should cover about 10 square feet.
Benner doesn’t only sell his product to moss enthusiasts; he sells dry moss in bulk to landscaping and lawn care businesses around the country. Moss grows well in most parts of the U.S. and Canada, except in arid western and mountain states. It does well in shade gardens, small yards or patio walkways, and requires little maintenance, other than shade and adequate moisture. It will go dormant during dry periods as long as they don’t extend into weeks or months; when moisture returns, the moss will green up again.
Be advised, however, that moss will not appreciate irrigation by city and well water, and it will fail if it’s covered with leaves for an extended period of time. Also, landscape professionals should remind their clients that sometimes birds or squirrels will pick at it and it will need to be tamped down. The occasional weed that invades a mossy area is usually easily plucked out.
Moss fits into any shade-filled landscape plan.
Why use moss and ferns in a client’s shady spots? “Moss and ferns provide an incredibly tranquil and soothing vista for the eye,” says Benner. “For many people, it seems to take them back to their childhood years when they were out in the woods or playing by a stream. The shades of green found in mosses have proven to be incredibly relaxing when viewed by the human eye.” Landscape professionals often recommend moss for specialty gardens such as Japanese, water and rock gardens, as well as for shady patios or paired with native wildflowers and ferns.
“Moss is much more expensive than grass, so it is typically used in specialty garden areas and as an accent planting. If their customers want moss, they really want moss,” says Benner.
A close-up of a moss flower.
While the benefits of moss gardening outweigh the tediousness of pulling weeds, fertilizing lawns and lots of mowing throughout the summer months, Benner suggests that the client and landscaper talk about divisions of labor concerning the client’s moss maintenance. “There can be some weeding required at times if weed seeds blow in, so this would need to be discussed. Also, the removal of leaves in the fall needs to be done. This can be achieved by laying out .25-inch black mesh netting before the leaves start to fall, and then removing it when they are all down, or a leaf blower used on a lower setting can also be used. The client should be made aware of these maintenance issues in advance, and then it should be decided who will be responsible for what. Ferns have no maintenance required aside from perhaps removing dead fronds as needed.”
Benner says that moss survives well in the winter, and there are no hardiness zone issues. “The mosses and most ferns offered by Moss Acres are found growing wild well north into Canada, so we aren’t concerned with hardiness issues and have never had a problem in that regard.” He adds that landscapers and lawn care professionals need to “throw out” everything they know about vascular plants when it comes to moss.
“They [moss] are the oldest living plants on the planet – 350 million years old – and they behave the opposite of vascular plants in almost every way,” states Benner. “It is very important that both [the] landscape professional and their clients review and understand how moss plants grow.”
When moss is shipped from Moss Acres, it is in a dry form to prevent it from molding during transportation. Benner says the sections of moss will knit together within two to three months after planting.
Overall, adding moss to a landscaper’s menu allows for diversity and accent gardening; plus, the low maintenance requirements make it an attractive investment for folks with little yard, hard-to-plant shady areas, or for those who dabble in specialty gardens. The clients will be pleased with the easy maintenance and the tranquility they feel with moss on their properties.
The author is an experienced reporter and freelance writer based in Ephrata, Pa., that focuses on landscape and grounds operations. Contact her at wendy [email protected].