How To

Reimagining American Lawns Through the Splendor of Moss | Sam Elderkin

On the outskirts of Raleigh, North Carolina, there lies a sea of deep, vibrant greens, growing darker beneath the shade of the trees. Despite the warmth of the day, the ground is cool and soft to the touch; the lush stalks are the perfect height to stroll through. Lawn enthusiast David Spain has spent over ten years creating his personal green utopia, but it isn’t the typical American grass—it’s moss.

The stereotypical American dream of big houses, white picket fences, and soft, green grass has been the image of outdoor perfection since the 1950s. That image is slowly changing through the work of moss enthusiasts like Spain. Through years of experimentation and dedication, he has turned his yard into a moss paradise. It is complete with a fully covered moss yard, a water feature, and a ten-foot-wide moss mound, giving the space an unexpected fairy-tale ambiance, far from the typical Bermuda grass found in the state.  

Levittown Pennsylvania in 1960 (Photo credit: BBC)

But where did this idea of the perfect lawn come from? The grass that we see every day is not native to America; it was sailed over by homesick Englishmen of seventeenth century English society. Whether it is lush, wispy green, or patches of dull-brown, crunchy stalks, it is not actually meant to be there. It’s an invasive species.

American colonizers were so infatuated with English high society that they decided even their grass was superior. The grass native to America didn’t have the same soft texture that the damp climate of England could sustain. The upper class of England could afford massive teams of gardeners to maintain their clean-cut sea of green. The invention of gas-powered lawn mowers were still close to two hundred years away, and lawn crews wielding scythes were not particularly practical for the newly formed nation. 

“But this constant maintenance and habitat destruction has a large effect on our already-struggling ecosystem.

Grass seeds were initially given to America’s rich, but over the years, the idolization of the high-class green caught the public imagination. Parks were modeled after the wealthy’s beautiful, endless lawns, and the public quickly grew to love grass. The house lawn followed with the economic boom of post-World War II. With the rise of suburbia, grass made its way to America’s backyard. Starting with Levittown in the 1950s, an affordable, cookie-cutter suburb, grass became a staple. These homes, which became intensely popular, gave returning veterans a chance to have a safe, affordable house to come home to, complete with a grass yard that was required to be maintained. The state of a person’s lawn quickly became a priority, with newsletters about maintenance circling the community of six thousand homes. The Research Center of Planet Natural, a thirty-year-old organic gardening company, has written about the importance of grass during this period. “These were soldiers, trained in neatness and obedience, and these were the conformist fifties, when everyone was on the watch for signs of Communism and crabgrass. At times, the two seemed morally equivalent.”

People without the soft, swaying blades decorating their front yard weren’t trying hard enough, prompting the popularization of pesticides and fertilizers in a desperate attempt to keep their lawn up to par. It’s ironic that this invasive species is so difficult to maintain in most of America despite its popularity. It requires an intense amount of watering, constant maintenance with mowers, trimmers, and edgers, along with large amounts of chemicals to keep that soft, green grass we all know and love. But this constant maintenance and habitat destruction has a large effect on our already-struggling ecosystem. 

David Brenner, moss expert (Photo credit: Moss Acres)

Cristina Milesi, from the NASA Ames Research Center in California, states, “A lawn isn’t a big deal in the northeast, but when you recreate that same landscape out West, it becomes a major ecological issue because the only way to grow those grasses is with high use of water and nitrogen fertilizer. An individual, quarter-acre lawn isn’t a big ecological influence, but adding up all those quarter-acres for everyone in the country . . . We suspected that the ecological impact could be pretty big.” Grass in the United States takes up about forty million acres of land according to NASA’s estimates. America’s grass obsession is not good for a sustainable ecosystem, due to the chemicals, mechanical maintenance and the fact that it is highly wasteful when it comes to water. Americans alone waste close to three trillion gallons of water a year on lawn care, and, with water shortages anticipated in forty states “in the next ten years,” according to the 2014 Government Accountability Report, Americans are facing a water crisis. Water is essential, but American lawn care doesn’t treat it as such.

But there are alternatives to this hard-to-maintain invasive species, one of which is moss. Among the endless species of moss, there’s a perfect fit for almost every soil type, terrain, and light exposure. Moss is extremely low maintenance with nearly no need to water, mow, or use pesticides. Once it has taken root in your yard, it will stay, absorb water, and slowly distribute it throughout your soil, ultimately helping the plants around it during droughts. In an interview with the New York Times, David Benner, a retired professor from Delaware Valley College and moss expert of over forty years, stated, “I work with nature, and my philosophy is that things have to tough it out.” His beautiful moss yard has been thriving for years on this philosophy, creating a wonderful oasis.

Moss lawn (photo credit: HGTV)

Ease and water retention are not the only pros of this beautiful, green ground cover. Moss is a bioindicator, so the chemicals present in your moss will tell you about the quality of your air. Moss is also a carbon sink, so it captures a significant amount of carbon from our atmosphere. Not only will your moss lawn record your air quality, it will significantly improve it, making a dent in global warming. This, combined with no emissions from a polluting lawn mower, will shrink your household’s carbon footprint significantly.

Moss enthusiast and biologist Cathy Burk shares her experience growing a moss lawn to help beginners get their footing in this spongy adventure.

  • A good place to start is in your own lawn. Moss is oftentimes hidden beneath your grass, creating an easy, cheap, and effective start to your moss lawn.
  • If you don’t have any moss or enough for significant spreading, take note of your yard’s properties. Is it sunny? Shady? Rocky? What are your moisture levels? From there, you can do some research or ask a professional what moss species is right for your conditions. Companies like Sticks and Stones Farm in Newtown, Connecticut or Moss Acres in Honesdale, Pennsylvania are great resources to find expert advice and moss from sustainable sources.
  • Pull up your regular grass and clear the soil of debris to give the moss space to take root and grow. It’s not going to be pretty at first! A forest of lush mossy ground will not magically appear like Astroturf would, but don’t be discouraged. The moss needs time to grow just like everyone else.
  • Moisten the soil and add your moss. There’s no complicated digging or a specific planting pattern, just step on the moss with your bare feet. Let your inner woodland fairy out and walk over the moss to help it attach to the soil.
    • Pro-tip from Burk: “Be careful not to spread the moss too far apart, which can encourage weeds.” Your easy, low maintenance yard will no longer seem so simple.
  • Walk barefoot on the moss daily, especially after it rains, and pull out any weeds you see while you’re at it. Whether taking your cup of coffee for a stroll through the garden every morning or hiding from your responsibilities for ten minutes after work, take a barefoot stroll over the grass every day. Do this until the moss takes root or use this as an excuse for the rest of your life; either way, it’s good to de-stress.
  • The final step to establish deep roots for your moss lawn: mist it daily. Ignore this step if it rains that day, but it is crucial, especially in hot, sunny weather. When your moss becomes attached after a few months, morning dew and rainwater will quench your new lawn’s thirst.

After centuries of trying to maintain the ideal English grass yard, a moss lawn gives people a low-maintenance, eco-friendly option—even for beginners. Whether you dream of chucking away that hefty lawn mower or living a fairy-tale aesthetic, a moss lawn could be a bewitching addition to your daily life.

Sam Elderkin is a staff writer for Blue Muse Magazine

Headline Photo Credit: David Spain’s moss lawn, courtesy of Garden Gate Magazine

Blue Muse Magazine is a general interest literary magazine published by the students of the English Department at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Connecticut. We publish poetry, fiction, and a gamut of creative nonfiction on anything and everything the blue muse inspires us to write.

1 comment on “Reimagining American Lawns Through the Splendor of Moss | Sam Elderkin

  1. Brad MacDonald

    I’m sold! I want a moss lawn now but I have so many question! Do you have any more resources? I just bought a house with massive yard (lawn) and I don’t want to buy a lawn mower! Please help 🙂

Leave a Reply