Under skies heavy with dark clouds, a group of gardeners is putting the finishing touches on a new garden at Ira B. Jones Elementary in North Asheville. School gardens have been a growing trend in the city, but this one is different — despite being lush and green, just a few hours ago this spot was a soggy, muddy mess. Now the space is home to a verdant mosaic — a moss garden masterpiece.
Children’s sleds and tarps sit around the garden, still covered with tiny scraps of the moss and dirt they carried to the school. But as one volunteer prepares to wipe a few stray pieces away, a voice calls out in lilting Southern drawl, “Don’t throw that out! This is valuable stuff to me!”
The woman on the other end of that command is Annie Martin — or Mossin’ Annie — Western North Carolina native, educator, landscape designer and farmer. Martin is leading this team of Jones alumni who spent their Thursday afternoon constructing the school’s new garden, and despite being small of frame and short of height, she is something of a champion — of mosses.
Through her Brevard-based landscape business and “mossery,” Mountain Moss, Martin has designed hundreds of gardens and installations, including a green roof at the N.C. Arboretum, a learning garden at the Highland Botanical Station and a 2,500-square-foot moss landscape in Georgia. She’s been featured in Modern Farmer and The New York Times, and her book, The Magical World of Moss Gardening, is being published by Timber Press and released this month.
But Martin’s true passion is “mossin’,” or collecting Bryophytes (mosses) from places where they would otherwise be destroyed.
“I’m such a scavenger now,” she says. “I see a roofer coming, I chase after him and say, ‘Let me get that moss first!’ The other day, I rescued some moss that I spotted while stopped at a traffic light.”
It’s not uncommon to find Martin pulling a ladder from the back of her pickup to climb a neighbor’s roof or see her crouched in the grocery store parking lot, scooping up moss from a crack in the pavement. She also works with property owners to remove the plants from mountainside forests slated for development.
“I was born here, so I have watched economic development happen my whole life,” Martin says. “Well, I can’t stop progress. But I can get out there in front of the bulldozer and get that moss.”
Once rescued, Martin adds the mosses to the tapestry she nurtures in Brevard. At her mossery, nestled in the shade of tall conifers, she encourages visitors to remove their shoes and walk barefoot over squishy “moss mats,” long rows of plastic sheeting covered in bryophytes.
“You can pick just roll these up, take them to the site and roll them back out like a carpet,” Martin explains. “It’s instant, and it’s beautiful.”
Moss installation is pretty simple as long as you’ve got “the right spot and the right moss,” she asserts. In selecting your moss, you have to consider your sun exposure and your water drainage — and with over 440 different mosses native to North Carolina alone, it can be a challenge to pick the right one. But once you’ve matched your spot with your moss, all you have to do is put it down, water it and walk on it, she says. While you may think moss requires a boggy, shady location, Martin insists there’s a moss for almost any spot — from a sunny roof in Tuscon to a blustery hillside in Antarctica.
“They eat the dust in the air and they drink water from the moisture in humidity,” Martin says. “They can withstand rain and snow. They don’t even mind getting hailed on. They provide year-round green. When the hostas are completely dissolved and wilted away, when the grass is looking crummy because it’s stressed in the summer or dormant in the winter, the mosses are still this intense green. They provide a special kind of magic.”
Moss gardening can also be an eco-friendly alternative to traditional lawns. They make a welcoming home for roly polies, spiders and salamanders, Martin says, and yet “bothersome bugs don’t bother the mosses,” meaning you can lay off the pesticides as well as the herbicides and fertilizers.
While you do need to water your moss — sometimes several times a day — the water usage for a moss lawn is still significantly lower than what the alternatives call for. “It doesn’t add up to anywhere near the water needed for a tree or other plants we typically use in a landscape,” Martin says. “And a moss lawn uses 1/10,000 of the water a grass lawn does.”
And while a moss garden can provide year-round green, it can offer a few other surprises too. “Some bryophytes will naturally turn a golden color during certain times of the year,” Martin explains. “It doesn’t mean they’re sick; it’s just a reaction to the sun, usually in the early spring when the sun becomes intense but shade from the trees hasn’t filled in yet.
“The good thing is that it gives this brilliant complement to the verdant greens they usually are,” she continues. “We think of them as always being green, but mosses have different stages. Bryophytes can be crimson, amber or copper, and those golden tones, once the shade comes back, will turn back to green in no time.”
But aside from her work as a landscaper and moss savior, Martin says her other great love is teaching. “I want to see moss gardens everywhere,” she exclaims — and the best way to do that is by spreading knowledge.
In addition to spending the last two years writing her book, she’s also designing a supplemental curriculum for third-graders at Jones, and possibly other Asheville city schools, that will “emphasizes the antiquity and significance of bryophytes.” After all, she says, “They were around 50 million years before any of the other plants that the kids are taught about ever came into being.
“We’re going to have some typical types of activities you would expect for children to have — like vocabulary words, which will be sporophyte, lycophytes and gametophyte,” she adds with a laugh. “We won’t shy away from the use of scientific terms.”
Martin will hold her book release party, MOSS-apalooza, at her mossery in Brevard on Saturday, Sept. 5. For more information visit mountainmoss.com.