Minding the Moss in Bon Air

June 9, 2021 · 2 minute read
Minding the Moss in Bon Air

I noticed the smell the first time as I walked down the driveway. It was a deep, rich, forest smell; a smell of green shoots and gentle decay. I associated that smell with mountain cabins, not suburban Bon Air. Now, it smells like home.    

“We live in the Moss House,” I tell new neighbors. They always know which house I mean. The long front yard is carpeted in several varieties of moss, soft and springy underfoot. White oaks, chestnut oaks, and young hickories shed dappled shade. Deerberry and pipsissewa, a tiny white wildflower, spring up in thickets. There’s even a stand of pink lady’s slipper, a native orchid that’s almost impossible to cultivate because it requires a symbiotic strain of fungi in the soil.

From the beginning, the moss forest enchanted me. I just didn’t know what to do with it.

Pipsissewa growing in the moss.

I was accustomed to full-contact gardening. At our old house in Lakeside, I’d put on the gloves for a season-long brawl with the weeds. Bermuda grass clawed its way into the beds, pigweed drilled foot-deep roots, smilax thorns drew blood. September always felt like a TKO. The vines remained world champs, undefeated.

The moss garden was different. It didn’t need mowing or fertilizing or fighting. It just was. But I worried. What if I accidentally killed it?

Wiser gardeners gave me instructions: Water the moss during summer droughts. Blow off the autumn leaves as soon as possible.

I pick up sticks, replace the squirrels’ divots, and pull sprouts of invasive Japanese stiltgrass. That’s it.

I learned to stop fretting over the forest. I learned, instead, to observe it.

I’ve met gray tree frogs and American toads, skinks and salamanders, bluebirds and nuthatches. A scarlet tanager visited this spring. A pair of red-bellied woodpeckers are tending their chicks, tucked into a hollow in a high limb.

All these are the smallest fraction of what is living here. Largely unseen are the fungi, insects, spiders and other small creatures upon which this ecosystem depends. Oaks support more forms of life than any other genus of tree in North America, including 897 caterpillar species, according to entomologist Douglas Tallamy, author of “The Nature of Oaks.”

When Truetimber took down one large oak that was failing, a sunny corner opened up where moss wouldn’t grow. With the help of mail-order company Prairie Moon and local nursery Sneed’s, I’ve begun installing a rainbow-hued native garden: red cardinal flower, orange coneflower, goldenrod, blue lobelia, lavender Joe Pye weed and pink milkweed. Despite the fence-jumping forays of Lucky Day, our marauding hen, the plants are growing tall.

Sometimes I plan more improvements. A sweep of ferns? A line of redbuds along the road?

Then I abandon these plans. The moss garden only wants to be what it is.