Metro-East Living

Mosses get nutrients and moisture from air

Moss can grow on rocks because it gets its nutrients and water from the air.
Moss can grow on rocks because it gets its nutrients and water from the air.

Q: We have a damp, wooded area where there is a seasonal creek. In certain areas, there are rocks covered with all kinds of beautiful mosses. They stay green all year around even when the weather is somewhat on the dry side. How does the moss stay green without any water or nourishment? Someone asked how to grow it and we have no idea what to say.

R. D. of Millstadt

A: Mosses are primitive plants that began growing millions of years ago before the higher plants even came into existence. Mosses have primitive roots called rhizoids that just hold the plants in place on rocks and other hard surfaces. Their primitive leaves are only one cell thick and they absorb all the necessary nutrients and moisture directly from the air.

Mosses grow very well in wooded areas that receive very little sunlight until midafternoon or even later. The soil is usually too acidic for larger plants to survive. Usually the soil is very shallow or highly compacted. In places where you find mosses growing, the soil is so bad that other plants can’t grow there.

I know of individuals who try to rebuild these areas and get rid of the mosses by loosening the soil and adding lime and fertilizers to grow other, more desirable plants. But in a few years you will notice the mosses are back and the other plants do not survive more than two or three years at most. You might as well get used to the mosses. They will grow back. Mosses, by the way, gave our culture the idea of wall-to-wall carpeting. You would not believe this unless you sat or lay down on a growth of thick moss.

If you want to try to grow it, you better have patience. It will take years to produce a thick fuzzy carpet of moss. The other trait you better have is the power of observation. The closer that you find a moss growing, the better it should adapt to the area that you want to plant. Taking mosses from public lands is not usually legal; taking them from someone’s private property without permission is stealing. But many people will share their primitive plants with you if you’re lucky.

There are specialists, such as bonsai growers, who grow mosses. If you are lucky to obtain some and people allow you to collect some of their plants, take only a 1 1/2-inch diameter patch with some soil. Never remove more than two or three of these patches from a square foot area. It is best to collect these patches right after a rain. Keep the plants moist with water left in a shallow dish to allow the chlorine to dissipate for 24 hours.

After you have grown these mosses and they develop spore cases about 1 inch above the plants, you can make a slurry with your mosses amd buttermilk or yogurt in a blender. Thin this slurry more with aged water to the texture of a thick milkshake. You can brush this slurry on rocks, flower pots or branches from fallen tree limbs. The moss should take hold within a month. You can make small divided plantings. Then about every two weeks, water down the open between areas with some diluted buttermilk. If you attempt this process now, the mosses will not need to be weeded throughout the winter and early spring.

Charles Giedeman is a local contributing writer. Send your gardening questions to Lifestyle Editor Patrick Kuhl, Belleville News-Democrat, P.O. Box 427, 120 S. Illinois St., Belleville, IL 62222-0427, or email them to

Do it now

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  • LEAVES: Continue to rake the leaves to keep them from smothering your lawn.