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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Vollaro


A big patch of moss has taken over part of my backyard, and I intend to do nothing about it.

The moss propagated because the strip of Kentucky bluegrass behind my stone patio has begun to thin from lack of sunlight. In eight years, the two silver maple trees that were planted behind our house have grown very large very quickly, as silver maples do, and they now shade nearly all of our small backyard. Deeply afflicted by the absence of sun, the grass began to thin out in a few areas two years ago, a malaise that has subsequently spread throughout the entirety of the backyard. Additionally, the maples were planted too shallowly, which has caused the roots to pop out of the ground as the trees have grown, slicing through the surface of the yard in hard, jagged fingers.

I noticed a small patch of moss last year at the edge of the small garden which sits at one corner of the patio. It was little more than a tuft---emerald green, smooth and spongy--about the size of my hand. The location was not random. The patio was built with a very gradual slope so that water would drain from the surface when it rains, and the moss was growing at the precise spot where the runoff is heaviest. The patch continued to grow along the edge of the patio and then began to spread out into the yard.

These are perfect conditions for moss, which thrives in wet, shady environments. Moss, I've learned, is not capable of drawing water from the soil because it lacks roots and a vascular system that moves water and nutrients through most plants, so it grows best in areas where moisture is constant. The shaded edge of a stone patio could not be more beneficial for this plant.

I would like to say that I have carefully watched the growth of my accidental moss garden over the last two years, but that would be a lie. My lawn is mostly invisible to me under normal circumstances, but because I've been working from home during the COVID crisis, I am spending more time on the patio, and my awareness of the details of my property has increased exponentially. While I was inspecting a loose stone at the edge of the corner garden, on my hands and knees, I happened to glance down and realized I was kneeling on a soft green carpet of ... something. I was immediately enthralled, and the moss patch has now become a part of my daily routine. In the afternoons, I often sit at the edge of the patio in the patch of shade cast by the maple tree and rest the soles of my bare feet on the soft, cushiony carpeting, careful not to press too hard but allowing the calloused skin to fully embrace it. I feel immediately restored when I do this, as if my feet were designed to touch it. There is no other sensation quite like it.

From this vantage, low to the ground, I can also see the pitiful state of my lawn. Patches of bare earth are showing through now and the ever-opportunistic weeds have begun to sprout. I can see two or three two-inch-high tree saplings and a small anthill bursting up through the clay-infused soil. I have no feelings of shame about any of this. To the contrary, I am enraptured by this unintentional re-wilding experiment right at the edge of my patio. I do not believe in monoculture of any kind, and the lush, perfectly green, well-cropped lawn is monoculture in microcosm as far as I am concerned.

I realize of course that there is a cult of grass-obsessed suburbanites out there, those hyper-vigilant amateur lawn care experts who are deeply invested in the thickness, color, and continuity of their grass. And as is the case with so much of middle-class American life, the hyper-vigilant end up setting the agenda for the rest of us. These are often the people who gravitate to homeowner's associations and PTAs and groups of parents who are concerned about...whatever a parent can possibly worry about (their dominance over the slothful and indolent among us is yet another legacy of our Puritan past). Some of them would no doubt cringe at my backyard in that way that obsessives cannot help cringing around disorder. My wild moss patch is a middle finger aimed at every one of them.

There is no better plant to challenge the unearned grandiosity of the suburban homeowner, whose mortgage conveys a false sense of entitlement over his small square of land. In the grand scheme of life on this planet, he is more akin to a squatter than an owner. Moss has been around for 350 to 400 million years, pre-dating the dinosaurs and all vertebrate life. Moss is the oldest form of plant life, and according to Tim Radford writing in The Guardian, it once covered the entire landmass of the planet, the dominant life form on land--"Mossworld." Imagine a world of moss---no trees, no flowering plants or even grass. Over a period of 40 million years, this remarkable plant increased the oxygen content of the atmosphere by two-thirds through mass-scale photosynthesis thereby reducing the surface temperature to levels that would support life as we know it.

And moss has apparently changed very little since it once covered the earth. That is nearly half a billion years of survival on this planet. From the perspective of moss, the entire arc of homo sapiens thus far has flashed by in the proverbial blink of an eye.

I’ve been thinking about my own square of land quite a bit lately. My wife and I purchased the lot from a developer who then built a house for us on it. I remember my first sight of the property. It was a weedy mound of "fill" left over from the construction of the other houses in the neighborhood. I saw rusty nails and screws popping out of it. Whatever had been there before had already been churned up like a rototilled garden. Then the house was built. The trees and shrubs were planted. The grass was laid over the top of it all in green rectangles like big puzzle pieces. Whatever life had been there previously was bombed out and replaced with species that are mostly not native to this part of Georgia. Through all of this turmoil, the moss spores survived, floated around, biding their time, looking for a new home. Eventually, they took patient root at the edge of my patio.

I googled moss recently to find some information that would help me understand this newcomer to my backyard ecosystem. I was struck by the large number of articles that depicted moss as some kind of decorative plant that can be integrated into a garden. These articles are well intentioned, and I will always support the presence of moss rather than its absence, but I also see in them the big suburban blind spot about the natural world, which perhaps dates back to the British, who obsessively sought to control nature, the master gardeners that they were and still are. In this philosophy of life, nature must be in its right place, aesthetically pleasing and carefully arranged for our enjoyment. If you happen to like moss, great, put it in your garden or create an entire moss garden if you like. If you don’t like moss, eradicate it entirely. Like every other plant in our overly civilized habitats, moss is reduced to an object of human desire and whim, its fate literally held in our hands.

I do not feel especially in control of anything as I sit on the patio’s edge with my feet tickled by the feel of feather-soft moss underneath. No desire to make it prettier, to move it or box it in or otherwise use it within a decorative landscaping scheme. No desire to save the backyard from its current malaise either. Moss is the most indigenous of indigenous plants. If any living thing deserves to be here, it is moss. So I will let it be.

And besides, moss growth is an indicator of a healthy local ecosystem because the plant is extremely sensitive to pollution of any kind. There is no safer place to be than sitting right here.


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