Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Just mossin*, really

Orchis mascula, the early purple orchid

Well, what a summer! A real summer at last, which left most things in the garden gasping for rain, which finally came, only to be followed by another long drought.

The one part of the garden which seemed not to care too much what kind of weather we were having was the lawn. The back lawn anyway. And that’s because it consists of inches of moss.

Conditioned as I was to expect a traditional English greensward when we bought our house in Devon six years ago I’d lost no time in calling out the experts to see how they would tackle the problem. They nodded wisely when I showed them our green expanse - which actually looks quite convincing especially with the stripes left after mowing.

But those footprints that we left in the deep pile of what was supposed to be a lawn was clear evidence, they told me, that there was probably not a single blade of grass in the whole thing. The only solution would be to have it all re-turfed, followed by a regular dosing of special chemicals that only their firm could supply as they were officially  licensed to stock weed- and moss-killing products that were unavailable in garden centres.


That was their story anyway.


Moss lawns are still a rarity in England. Moss killing rather than moss growing is what British gardeners do. You can smell the iron sulphate as you walk past gardens in the spring when most lawns get their annual sprinkling of moss-killer.


Annie Martin, aka Mossin' Annie with some of her good friends
Image credit:

But in other parts of the world they are prized. Japan for example. And among moss enthusiasts in the USA, thanks to Google and the amazing internet, I ended up taking a visual stroll through Mossin' Annie's moss garden in Pisgah Forest, NC via

NC? A Budleigh connection there surely, what with Sir Walter Raleigh’s attempted late 16th century colony on Roanoke Island in the state of North Carolina?  The American state has even named its capital after him. 
The capital even has an upmarket district called Hayes Barton which surely must have been named after Raleigh’s birthplace in East Budleigh just a few miles north of us, pictured below.


So the omens for keeping my moss lawn were good. 

Over the years I followed Mossin’ Annie’s progress. She gave me good advice. Don’t despair if your moss turns yellow: think of it as daffodils making a spring appearance. And above all don’t use weedkiller.

In 2008 I told her that we’d had the wettest August for 60+ years “and the moss loves it.”

The stuff even flourishes around East Budleigh and was used as a wartime dressing for wounds during the Great War of 1914-18 as I discovered from  the excellent Ovapedia website devoted to life in our little corner of Devon known as the Lower Otter Valley. 

“As the war continued East Budleigh became involved in a little known part of the war effort,” writes Vivienne Brenan in her absorbing history of East Budleigh.  “The Army Medical Services needed a great quantity of sphagnum moss, whose softness and absorbency made it excellent for wound dressings.  This moss was collected on Woodbury Common by the men and boys, dried in the baker's oven and then taken up to Oakhill House.  There in a room which became known as the Moss Room, the women sorted the moss and sewed it into little square bags to make the dressings.



HRH Prince Charles
Image credit: Dan Marsh
Six years on and the vogue for moss lawns continues to grow, albeit slowly in Britain.  One day we might even see one at Buckingham Palace. The heir to the throne, pictured above, was inspired to grow one at Highgrove, his Gloucestershire home, thanks to green-thinking people like Dame Miriam Rothschild. I’ve written about her elsewhere on this blog.

My own moss lawn is thicker and softer than ever. And this year on 27 June something rather magical happened. 
An unexpected dash of pale mauve suddenly made its appearance. It was Orchis mascula, the early purple orchid.  The absence of chemical weedkillers in the garden and my failure to mow regularly had obviously had something to do with it.  It now has a protective fence around it after I’d seen a similarly prized specimen at Knightshayes, the National Trust property


Annie Martin
Image credit: Sara Boggs
As for Mossin’ Annie, she’s busier than ever in her Mossery - over 4000 sq ft in production now. And she’s just submitted the first chapter of her moss gardening book to her publisher, the highly respected Timber Press

Now she’s looking for photos to illustrate it. I recommended the spectacular work of East Devon photographer Adrian Oakes, having been struck by his mossy scenes in for example Wistmans Wood on Dartmoor where, as he says, “the moss in this wood has to be seen to be believed.”

Annie is really seeking photos of gardens, but just imagine being inspired and able to create a scene like that in your own backyard.

My own moss lawn is not particularly photogenic and certainly can’t compare with the spectacular Wistmans Wood . Still too many of those pretty little yellow and even orange sort of dandelions. But I might just send Annie that photo of the wild orchid of which I’m so proud and which is proof of the kind of treasure you might find in a moss lawn.

And if anyone out there does have photos of a genuine moss garden that you think might interest Annie she’d be delighted to hear from you at

To be chilling, doing nothing, just like moss, the commonly known fungus that just chills out on rocks.


  1. Thanks for your post about mosses. They sneak into lawns and gardens all around the world. The beauty of a woodland retreat like Wistmans Wood can be achieved in your own garden. That's my goal -- to create moss gardens and to encourage other gardeners to embrace the beauty and ecological value of mosses as a preferred horticultural choice -- not a weed. I'll appreciate any contributions of photos in the UK to include in my moss gardening book (Timber Press) coming out in 2015. THANKS, Michael for spreading the word.

  2. On another more humorous note -- I followed the link to the Urban Dictionary and got a good laugh. The word "mossin" is defined as chillin' or smoking good marijuana. Not exactly what I mean when I use the word "mossin'". I use it as a verb like them but I refer to the process of creating moss gardens or gathering mosses. A mosser is one who does either. Actually the word "mossing" has been used colloquially in the United States across different regions. I dropped the "g" because we don't say the "g" in the South. I live in the mountains of North Carolina, US, and that's how I talk. -- Mossin' Annie

  3. Hi Annie,
    How about the mosses in Ireland and the Scottish Highlands, what a rich moss treasure-trove those areas must be as well!

    Maybe you can invite Prince Charles to visit your home in NC; he did visit here eastern TN not too long ago to visit one of his favorite local polo pony farms.