Sandy’s Garden ... Bonfire Moss

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

I must confess that I have never had much interest in moss.

In the days when we had real grass in our garden … well some real grass struggling to survive among the mosses and liverworts which found our areas of turf attractive … I cursed moss rather often. Sometimes I applied moss killers in a hopeful bid to suppress the moss’s enthusiasm for growing; occasionally I took the bull by the horns and attempted to improve the drainage of the area and to allow more air about the grass roots by spiking the grass, a hard task, believe me; more often I tried to feed the grass with lawn fertiliser to encourage the growth of the greenery I wanted. Always I was disappointed with the results and often disheartened by my failure.

But with artificial turf nowadays my vain struggle with moss is much reduced. True, it no longer grows, compact and dull, in my former front grass … it could never be justifiably called a lawn … and my drying green: but it does still inhabit the spaces between my paving stones; it thrives in ill-ventilated spots at the base of walls; and it ever-watchful of pots, constantly monitoring the condition of their growing medium, waiting the chance to invade any tired soil which is in need of nutrients and refreshment. And I still have no great interest in moss, although I still curse it; and I still apply moss killer with some regularity.

My interest was, however, awakened when I encountered this quotation in ‘The Gardener’s Perpetual Almanack’ by Martin Hoyles, first published in 1997 by Thames and Hudson: “The mosses put forth their singular and minute parts of fructification during the Winter months; and offer a most curious spectacle to the botanist, at a time when all the rest of Nature is dead to him.” It is credited in that publication to, ‘The Book of Months 1844’, which may or may not be, ‘The Book of the Months, and Circle of the Seasons (1844)’ by William Henry Harvey, an American author. The quotation is included in the almanac under the date January 12, confirming my own observation on the self-same date that the moss in my garden is looking remarkably sprightly. And the moss specifically referred to on the date in the almanac is hygrometric moss, Funaria hygrometrica.

It’s time to refer to the Royal Botanical Garden Edinburgh to learn that: “This is a common plant in lowland Britain and is one that beginners will soon learn to recognize. The short (3–10 mm) shoots of this moss form loose carpets. The egg-shaped leaves vary in size (2–4 mm long) and are translucent, with very large, lax cells, easily seen with a ×10 hand lens. Asymmetrical capsules are usually present in abundance, borne on a long (3–5 cm), swan-neck seta, with a large, delicate calyptra and a convex lid. … This weedy species is a colonist of bare, disturbed, nutrient-rich soils; it is particularly characteristic of old bonfire sites.” No, I don’t think that I have this particular species of moss in my garden: but it’s a long time since I have had a bonfire. And I am struck by one disconcerting statement: “This weedy species is a colonist of bare, disturbed, nutrient-rich soils.” Nutrient-rich soils? I had always thought that mosses were a sign of poor soils! Is this where I have been wrong all along? Did I feed the mosses in my grass rather than the grass itself?

Well, no. Mosses grow in garden areas where there is deep shade, high acidity, poor drainage and soil compaction. And I read elsewhere that Funaria hygrometrica … bonfire moss … actually likes only the topmost, nutrient-poor layer of soil where there has been a recent fire, a fire which, by releasing potassium and trace elements from its ash, will improve the soil in the fullness of time. Now, maybe I’ll take a fresh look at my mosses – tomorrow!