Moss is a beautiful element in garden design, living art, and indoor gardens. Fortunately, it’s usually easy to find growing naturally in most climates.
Moss is most commonly found in moist, shady environments. Check hard surfaces that stay out of the sun. Also, check the ground under evergreen trees and other areas that stay clear most of the year.
Where to find moss
Here are some common places to find moss:
- Moist, shady environments
- Surfaces of elevated rocks, stumps, and logs below deciduous trees
- On the ground surface below evergreen trees
Finding your own moss outdoors is affordable. Collecting your own moss from a known area also means that you’ll have confidence that the moss hasn’t been sprayed with chemicals. You’ll spend some enjoyable time out in nature learning how to harvest sustainably from the forest. But if you’d rather just order some, here’s a guide on where to buy live moss.
Collecting moss from your backyard
The first place to look is your own nearby outdoor space! Moss is found in moist, rainy environments much more frequently than it is found in dry, exposed locations. Look for shady, damp corners and along cracks and other places where water may flow.
The best place to find moss to collect is in areas where it should already be removed. While moss is lovely to look at, it is not always welcome on footpaths or other areas of your yard that require firm footing. Carefully remove and collect any moss that presents a safety hazard.
The next best place to find moss to collect is in places where it will be disturbed anyway as a byproduct of other activity. If you have plans for a new footpath or some other backyard construction project, rescue any moss from the area! There are some regions in which moss collection is prohibited, except in areas scheduled for logging or construction.
We have some grassy parts of our yard but also some mossy areas. I’ve let the moss take over where it wants to (mainly in deep shade) because it’s easier to take care of in shady areas than grass! And…moss is lovely to walk on. Here is a lovely article about one of the most famous moss lawns in North America, which was created by a professor of ornamental horticulture.
“If you’re a city dweller, you don’t have to go on vacation to see mosses. Sure, they’re much more abundant on a mountaintop or in the falls of your favourite trout stream, but they also live alongside us every day.”Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses, by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Finding the right location to forage for ornamental moss
If you don’t have moss in your own yard (but think it grows it your climate…which it likely does!), it is important to find an appropriate location where you can forage for moss. You’ll need permission from the landowner and the right to collect and take home materials. Many areas also have specialized forest product harvesting laws that include moss collection.
“Those who want to harvest forest products should generally call the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service or Oregon Department of Forestry for information on permits. Some timber companies also will issue permits for people to go on their land.”Forest crime: Thieves steal plants, moss, fungi, damage environment, by Kyle Odegard, Albany Democrat-Herald
Some areas may require a permit (which will limit the amount) and others may forbid collection entirely (and usually for good reason). Sometimes laws only apply to commercial moss collectors but sometimes they also apply to those collecting ornamental moss for personal use. Always follow regulations and ecological best practices for collecting even small amounts of moss.
“To protect sensitive populations of plants and animals, moss should be gathered only where it is legally permitted. Care should be taken to minimize the impact of gathering on other plants and animals to preserve the ecological fabric of the forest.”Forest Moss – Nontimber Forest Products (NTFPs) from Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania State University, Cooperative Extension
Where to find moss growing in nature
In general, look for shady, moist areas where moss may grow. Check valleys with water features that tend to have moist, shady environments. Moss can grow on the ground, on fallen logs, on rocks, and even on living trees. The shady side of larger rocks can be particularly mossy (the north-facing side here in North America).
Just because moss grows somewhere, however, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to harvest it. Moss serves important roles in nature. Here is some excellent guidance on mossy areas in which to avoid actually harvesting the moss (take a photo instead!):
“…avoid gathering moss from sensitive areas, which include very wet habitats such as bogs, springs, seeps, and any habitat within 50 feet of streams. Also avoid highly decayed logs and exceptionally old trees with decayed bases. Rock outcrops, cliffs, and terraces that support mosses other than the preferred fern mosses are also unsuitable. Collecting moss from these sensitive areas can damage fragile ecosystems, and the mosses gathered will include many incidental species of little to no retail value.”Forest Moss – Nontimber Forest Products (NTFPs) from Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania State University, Cooperative Extension
Sheet moss vs. Mood moss
Moss grows in many forms and in innumerable locations. Terms like sheet moss and mood moss refer to the form of the moss rather than the actual botanical species. Varieties of moss that tend to grow in large flat mats are referred to as “sheet moss.” Types of moss that grow in compact clumps like pincushions are referred to as “mood moss.”
Finding moss to collect: Where to find moss for harvest
Moss is generally collected from fallen logs, rocks, or the forest floor. Moss can look yellowish when dry and dormant but generally turns a bright green within minutes of moisture introduction. I like the look of the bright green live moss, so I generally collect moss after a period of rain. It’s easy to see! It is, however, nice to wait for the ground to drain a little bit after the rain, as it’s less messy to collect when the mats are not sopping wet.
If you still don’t know where to find moss after checking the moist, shady areas (but think it does grow in your climate), find someone local who knows more about local forests such as a garden mentor. You can also ask about where moss grows locally at garden centers, local elders, or at the farmers’ market.
Supplies for harvesting live moss
Moss can be scooped off the ground using your hands, a trowel, or a flat kitchen flipper tool/BBQ tool. In my own yard (which I know well), I use my hands to scoop up handfuls of moss, but I would use gloves and a flat trowel to collect moss in other areas. Regardless of where you find moss in your area, you’ll also need a basket or other container to hold the moss you’ve collected.
When learning to harvest moss, try to wait until after a period of rain ends so that the moss is moist but not sopping wet. It’s easier to remove the moss without much dirt when the ground isn’t sopping wet. If there is some grass growing in the moss, it’s easiest to pull the grass out before you collect the moss rather than picking it out afterward.
How to harvest and collect moss once you’ve found it
When learning how to harvest moss, it’s good to work slowly and carefully. Select your spot with care and make a deliberate plan about which moss to collect and which to leave behind. Always plan to leave more than half of the moss behind, and always in well-distributed patches. This is a good time to remove any surface debris, such as leaves, sticks, or pine needles, from on top of the moss.
“Mosses grow very slowly, between 0.25 to 2.5 inches in length annually. Recovery is slowest (approximately 20 years) when all moss is stripped from the log or rock. Recovery is fastest (approximately 10 years) when a third to a half of a sheet moss is left behind in patches, which then grow over the bare spots.”Forest Moss – Nontimber Forest Products (NTFPs) from Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania State University, Cooperative Extension
Sheet moss is – oddly enough – collected in sheets. Mood moss is collected as whole little clumps. Use a gloved hand, flat trowel, or kitchen tool to reach under the moss so it can be gently pried off the ground (or other substrates) in intact pieces. Try not to just grab the moss with your hands and squish it. Live moss is nicer to work with when it comes off in sheets or clumps that retain their form.
“Sheet moss is usually gathered in contiguous mats by either a quick swipe of one hand (“swipe method”) or by placing both hands under a loose mat and lifting, which removes a U-shaped patch.”Forest Moss – Nontimber Forest Products (NTFPs) from Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania State University, Cooperative Extension
Gently brush off any dirt that comes off on the bottom of the live moss sheet. Brush off leaves and evergreen needles. Make sure you’re not also collecting any little bugs. If lots of dirt does come up with the moss, it’s possible to gently wash the dirt off the bottom of the moss. Try not to wash the whole patch of moss though, as this will disturb the form. Waiting for the dirt to dry and then simply brushing it off will keep your live moss intact.
Important environmental considerations for collecting moss from nature
Because removing moss from logs affects the decomposition rate of the log, I prefer to collect moss from rocks instead of logs. If you do collect moss from a fallen log, don’t use a tool (use your hands only) and collect only portions of the moss that lift off easily. Don’t pull off the moss that takes bits of the decomposing log with it.
It is really important to only take a small portion of the moss colony you find. Moss grows very slowly, so be responsible about the amount and size of pieces you’re removing. I prefer to harvest moss from areas where it may present a slipping safety hazard or in areas that will soon be otherwise disturbed. Its also best to remove sheets and clumps of moss which are already loose (don’t pull them off if firmly attached).
“Collectors should leave behind at least half of the moss, preferably in dispersed patches to encourage rapid regrowth. Mood moss must also be gathered by hand to prevent the clumps from breaking apart. Again, collectors should leave at least half of the available clumps. By leaving enough moss behind to “reseed” areas, a second harvest should be possible within a decade.”Forest Moss – Nontimber Forest Products (NTFPs) from Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania State University, Cooperative Extension
Live moss can be used fresh or air-dried for dormant storage.
Remember that moss plays an important ecological role in the environment. Habitats along streams and rivers (riparian zones) are particularly sensitive and should not be targeted for moss collection. These are great places to find moss to look at but not to collect it.
Resources for cultivating a love of moss
For a deeper understanding of how and where mosses live, I recommend the book Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses by Robin Wall Kimmerer. It is beautifully written and includes the historical context for harvesting moss. This book will deepen your appreciation of moss and reinforce your commitment to collecting it sustainably.
Here are some more of my favorite expert resources about moss, including moss biology, cultural history, and contemporary uses:
- The Magical World of Moss Gardening, by Annie Martin
- Moss: A Guide to the Hidden World of Moss, by Ulrica Nordström
- Miniature Moss Gardens: Create Your Own Japanese Container Gardens by Megumi Oshima and Hideshi Kimura
These are excellent resources for anyone interested in where to find moss, how moss grows, and how to include it in your day-to-day life.
Using live moss you’ve found in your crafts
Your foraged moss has many uses, including:
- Use it as a base for a living centerpiece
- Make a moss wreath
- Create a kokedama moss ball hanging string garden
- Make an enclosed mossy terrarium
- Use it as a carpet in a fairy garden
- Use the moss as a basket liner
- Place it outdoors on some dirt or a stone to start a new moss colony
In the photo above, I’ve used live moss from my yard as a base for some eggs dyed with red cabbage. The moss was lovely in my Easter centerpiece, and I was able to successfully return it to my outdoor moss garden without it being much worse for wear.
Gardening with foraged moss
Moss gardening is an art that requires understanding, patience, and a keen sense of observation. Mosses are not just any plant; they hold the essence of tranquility and the minimalist beauty characteristic of Japanese gardens. Here are some tricks and guidelines to successfully incorporate moss into your Japanese garden:
- Choose a compatible moss: Not all mosses are created equal. Observe the native environment of the moss you’ve found and try to mimic it in your garden. Each moss species has its own set of requirements.
- pH modification: Certain mosses thrive in acidic soils. Test your soil’s pH and adjust accordingly. While a pH of 5.5 is often recommended for acid-loving mosses, it’s essential to know that this doesn’t apply to all moss types.
- Leaf removal: Mosses need sunlight for photosynthesis. Regularly remove leaves and other debris, especially during autumn. While a leaf blower is efficient, sometimes a gentle sweep with a broom will suffice. For precision work, a natural broom or smaller brush can be handy. While brief periods of debris can provide nutrients and moisture, they shouldn’t remain for months, as they can hinder moss growth.
- Weeding: Mosses are natural nurseries for seeds, so regular weeding is crucial. Hand-weeding is the recommended approach, as it allows for precision and helps maintain the moss’s integrity.
- Watering: Consistent watering is essential. Mosses tend to go dormant during warmer months, so it’s vital to ensure they remain moist, especially during hot or dry spells. However, avoid overwatering as some mosses don’t appreciate constantly “wet feet.”
- Walking: After watering, gently walk on your moss. This action helps the mosses set their rhizoids, ensuring they grip the ground firmly. Mosses are resilient and can handle the pressure.
- Avoid chemicals: Stop using garden lime and all-purpose fertilizers that might alter the pH balance you’ve set for your moss garden.
- Be patient: Mosses undergo “ugly” transitions or periods of adjustment. It’s essential to be patient during these times. Nurturing them will eventually lead to a lush green carpet once more.