I say lawn, you think grass, right?
And fair enough. Grass has become the go-to ground cover for people’s yards for practical, cultural and aesthetic reasons.
But what if I was to tell you that there are other options whose pros might be more numerous than you thought? Like, say, moss?
In this article I’m going to look at moss lawn pros and cons and see how they stack up.
Keep reading to see whether moss could work as a viable grass alternative for your yard.
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Moss forms a dense, low-level ground cover that naturally keeps weeds at bay and is soft and velvety in texture and appearance.
It is naturally low maintenance, so much more environmentally sustainable than a conventional grass lawn, provided you can meet its basic needs: shade for a good part of the day and a little humidity.
The only real con to a moss lawn is that it doesn’t cope well with lots of foot traffic.
What is Moss?
First up, let’s take a closer at what moss actually is.
It’s not grass, for a start. Moss is actually a bryophyte, a non-vascular, non-flowering plant that reproduces via spores rather than seeds. There are around 12000 kinds in North America alone!
Most westerners are usually more focused on figuring out how to remove moss from lawns rather than deliberately introducing it. But moss has been a popular choice for garden ground cover in other cultures throughout history. For example, moss is an integral part of Japanese gardening. In a Zen garden, the moss is thought to represent islands.
These days, moss is experiencing a surge in popularity as people are coming to realize the unsustainability of conventional grass lawns and go in search of low-cost, low-maintenance alternatives.
Moss Versus Grass
Curious about the realities of a moss lawn? Let’s take a look at the moss yard pros and cons and see how they stack up. You might be pleasantly surprised!
Moss Lawn Pros
Doesn’t Require Fertilizer
Moss is super self-sufficient when it comes to nutrients, requiring no added fertilizers. It has really low requirements for soil nutrients which can save a lot of money in the long run!
Doesn’t Require Mowing
One of the best moss lawn benefits is that most mosses grow to no more than an inch or two in their final height and so never need mowing. This also saves a lot of time and money, eliminating a chore than can take hours every second weekend through grass growing season.
Doesn’t Require Watering
Well, for the most part anyway! Moss needs moisture and definitely prefers humid conditions, but it doesn’t need water in the same way that a grass lawn does. In fact, it’s estimated that a moss lawn requires less than 1% of the water that a regular grass lawn consumes.
This is probably the most significant of moss yard benefits when it comes to the environmental impact of owning a lawn, as it’s becoming widely recognized that watering lawns is not a sustainable practice.
As you’ve probably guessed by now, moss is considered to be a very low-maintenance lawn option.
Unlike grass which can require numerous chores like aeration, moss simply needs a spritz with water in very dry weather (and it will survive without this if need be), and a light sweep of leaves at the end of fall.
Of all the moss yard pros and cons, this is basically what it boils down to: moss yards save time and money.
Since moss forms a dense mat, there is no space for weeds to establish themselves in the way that they might in a traditional grass lawn.
Moss can coexist with some plants but these are usually considered to be ornamentals that people would be happy to have in their garden, rather than weeds that are in danger of spreading.
This means there is no need for any potentially harmful weed killers in your garden when you have a moss lawn.
If you have a regular grass lawn and don’t want the mixture of weeds that will naturally appear over time, you may decide that some week killers are necessary. If that’s the case, make sure you choose the right type of weed killer for the job.
Not Prone to Fungal Diseases
Unlike grass, moss is adapted to thrive in moist conditions and isn’t susceptible to the fungal diseases that can wreak havoc on a traditional lawn. This means there is no need for fungicide applications that could be harmful to you, your kids, your pets and the environment.
Soft to Walk and Sit On
Although moss is better off if not exposed to a huge amount of foot traffic, it can tolerate some (high heels excluded!). Moss makes for a beautiful, soft, cushioned surface to sit and enjoy your garden on a dry day.
Attractive and Evergreen
From a distance, you could be forgiven for thinking that a moss lawn is actually a very short and well-tended grass lawn. But actually, it’s much better, because it can stay green with a lot less water!
Provided there isn’t an extended period of really hot weather or an actual drought, your moss lawn could hold on to its vibrant emerald green color all year round with no added water.
Helps to Mitigate Flooding
While some can hold more than others, mosses are known for being extreme absorbers of moisture. Some varieties, like Sphagnum moss, can hold 20-30 times their weight in water.
This means that in a high rainfall event, a moss lawn is far more likely to suck up all that extra water than allow it to pool and run off the way a grass lawn would (creating a muddy mess in the process!).
Absorbs Heavy Metals and Toxins
Moss can actually be used to clean up polluted sites, for example, ex-industrial areas.
Since moss absorbs heavy metals and toxins, it removes them from the soil and leaves it suitable for more fragile species to grow. This allows for natural succession to take place, restoring previously damaged land to health.
Deer are Uninterested
A benefit for those sharing their environment with deer, you won’t have to worry about the local population stopping by for a quick snack. Deer are uninterested in moss and won’t be attracted to your moss lawn.
Can Cope with Poor Soil Quality
While moss prefers acidic soil, and soil with a reasonably dense structure and water availability, these are its only real soil requirements. It doesn’t need the high level of nutrients, particularly nitrogen, that other plants, such as grass, require.
In fact, moss is fairly self-sufficient when it comes to its nutrient needs. It gets almost everything it needs from air and water – hence the reason it grows so easily on tree bark and rocks!
Helps to Prevent Erosion
The dense mat that moss forms is really effective at holding soil in place and preventing erosion. This makes it particularly useful for slopes or stream banks.
Doesn’t Harbor Insects
Unlike grass, which can be home to numerous insects, moss isn’t a popular environment for many insect species. And while we do need to be looking after our insect biodiversity due its dangerous decline, there are some insects, like grass grubs, that you won’t have to worry about controlling with a moss lawn.
Multiple Varieties to Choose From
As mentioned earlier, there are 12,000 species of moss in the U.S. alone. That is plenty of variety to keep your moss lawn interesting.
While you can just choose one type, biodiversity is always more favorable than a monocrop when it comes to sustainability. You can choose as many different colors and textures as you like to create different moods and patterns in different parts of your garden.
Moss Lawn Cons
Compared to most grasses, moss is pretty slow growing. This isn’t an issue once it’s established, but if it experiences some damage, then it can be slow to repair itself.
Moss can tolerate some foot traffic, but when compared to the grass species most commonly used for lawns, moss is definitely in the ‘light foot traffic category’, ideally the less the better.
There are ways around this though. Putting stepping stones down means that you can walk through your beautiful moss patch without damaging it.
Requires a Shady, Moist Environment
For the most part this is true. Most varieties of moss will definitely be happier in a shady, moist environment. However, there are varieties of moss that can tolerate plenty of direct sunlight (such as Bryum Caespiticum, or ‘sidewalk moss’).
Most mosses can also tolerate dry periods and droughts. They will likely go a little brown and appear to have died but will revive almost instantly the moment they are moist again.
Doesn’t Tolerate Lots of Sun
Again, for the most part this is true. All mosses will definitely be happier in an environment that is shaded for the majority of the day.
Some will tolerate a little more than others, such as the sidewalk moss mentioned above. But if your garden is in full sun all day, it’s not suited to a moss lawn unless you can erect a source of shade.
Prefers Acidic Soil
Moss prefers acidic soil with a pH of 4.5-5.5.
This doesn’t necessarily need to be a con as it’s easy to amend soil to make it more acidic. Adding sulfur is usually the easiest way. But it is an extra step that you will need to take if you want a healthy moss lawn that will continue to out-compete any opportunistic weeds.
Needs Cleaning of Debris
While moss is super low maintenance, it does need debris (like fall leaves) to be removed. This is one of the main disadvantages of a moss lawn, but it can be easily remedied.
An easy way to remove fall leaves is to lay nets down over the moss at the beginning of fall. Simply gather them up and tip the leaves into your compost. No raking required!
Grows Where Grass Can’t
You’ve probably guessed this last point, but it’s still worth mentioning. Moss grows easily and happily where grass can’t, which makes it an excellent alternative for parts of your yard where you’re having a tough time keeping your lawn happy.
Rather than seeing grass versus moss as an all-or-nothing, winner-takes-all battle, you can instead see your yard as a healthy ecosystem with different species occupying the niches most suited to their requirements. Grass and moss can coexist side by side, so why not let them?
Let your grass lawn grow where there is ample sun and good quality soil, but in the shady parts of your lawn, or where there isn’t enough good soil, let moss reign supreme and watch your maintenance costs diminish!
If you like this option, be sure to choose the right kind of grass seed for the areas where you do plan to have grass. Choosing grass that is well suited to its environment will reduce the maintenance required.
As you can see, the balance of moss lawn pros and cons lean pretty heavily in the pros camp. If you already have the conditions that will allow moss to thrive, then choosing moss over the grass for your lawn is the thrifty, low-maintenance alternative.
While a moss lawn isn’t suitable for a young family that wants to be able to kick a ball around and wrestle, for households with only occasional foot traffic, it is perfect.
Are you sold? Are you thinking about converting to a moss lawn? I’d love to hear your thoughts! Feel free to share your experiences and let me know how you get on!