Native Moss and Moss-like ground covers for a Woodland, wildlife garden

Three moss alternatives for a woodland garden

Maybe it’s just me, but is the gardening world finally embracing native moss as the ultimate ground cover?

The Japanese have worshipped moss for centuries.

Entire gardens centered around the perfect patch of moss, a single boulder and an ancient maple can be all one needs to create a stunning, tranquil and peaceful place.

More of us are looking for those qualities in our gardens, whether it’s a small Japanese-inspired garden or a more intimate area within a larger Woodland Wildlife garden.

The difficulty for most gardeners who love moss comes with growing and maintaining the perfect patch of moss.

The good news, however, is that we have alternatives to moss as a ground cover.

For my article on the importance of using native plants in the garden go here.

Here are three great alternatives if you are looking to create that tranquil, peaceful feeling in your woodland garden. Irish and Scottish moss are obvious choices but don’t overlook the beauty of creeping moss or the numerous Stonecrops available for hot sunny areas in your garden. These alternatives will never replace the true beauty of our native moss, but for many woodland gardeners they will provide the perfect alternative.

A Japanese painted fern creeps out over the flagstones in our front garden with ground covers Scottish moss, Japanese Spurge and Cornus Canadensis (top right).

A Japanese painted fern creeps out over the flagstones in our front garden with ground covers Scottish moss, Japanese Spurge and Cornus Canadensis (top right).

Irish and Scottish moss as the perfect alternative ground cover

By far, the closest ground cover to real moss is either Irish or Scottish moss (Sagina subulata verna and aurea)(pictured above).

Both are perennials you can buy at most good garden centres, and both deserve prominent spots in our Woodland gardens.

The Irish moss is a more dark green whereas the Scottish moss is golden or chartreuse.

Both have delicate flowers that emerge in late spring, early summer in Zones 6-8.

They can take full sun to partial shade and some foot traffic.

I have used both types to fill the space between flagstone pavers in our front garden. But, because we are blessed with plenty of native moss growing on the property, the real moss is slowly taking over from these moss alternatives.

Once the natural mosses begin to grow in these areas, it’s probably a good time to move the Irish and Scottish moss to a more sunny area where they can spread their soft cushiony perfection elsewhere in the garden.

They are quite shallow rooted and easy to move by simply taking small clumps of it with a little soil and packing it in other areas of the garden.

It can also be used in containers to cover the soil. Put a little in a container and let it spread throughout the summer.

Looking for more information on ground covers? Please check out my other posts on ground covers I use in the woodland garden.

Three great ground covers for the woodland garden.

Creeping thyme as a ground cover

Snow in summer ideal for hot dry areas

Scottish moss.

Scottish moss growing between the flagstones in our front woodland garden.

Creeping Phlox is a glorious ground cover in all seasons

Creeping phlox is a real favourite in hot, sunny locations.

It really shines in early spring when the normally dark green prostrate plant bursts with lavender flowers.

It’s a real show-stopper in our front garden as it creeps among the grasses and onto the stones of the dry river bed and bumping up against large boulders on one side and blending in nicely with another mossy alternative Creeping thyme.

Creeping Phlox (Phlox subulate) spreads rapidly and, while it puts on quite the display in the spring, it takes a back seat for the remainder of the year forming a perfect dark green backdrop for our blue-green grasses that emerge through the ground cover in this hot sunny, dry area of our garden.

Creeping phlox among the rocks and grasses in our front garden.

Creeping phlox among the rocks and grasses in our front garden.

This herbaceous perennial grows in zones 3 to 9 in a rich, well-drained soil and comes in pink, red, white, blue rose and lavender.

It’s a tidy plant that grows up to about 6 inches high with a spread of up to 2 feet for a single plant. It forms a thick mat and for Woodland gardeners it’s deer resistant. That alone should put it high on our list of plants.

Creeping phlox likes full sun but tolerates some shade. An added bonus is that it also attracts butterflies and provides an early food source for insects in the spring where it is one of the first to bloom.

A container planting with stonecrop in bloom growing around it.

This image shows the stonecrop beginning to bloom with its yellow flowers growing behind and around the container planting.

Best sedum/stonecrop plants as ground covers

Many of us are familiar with Sedum Autumn Joy. It’s a wonderful plant that provides year-round interest and is one of only a handful of plants recommended for the New American Garden. Just to make it clear, we are not talking about that popular type of Sedum here.

There are up to 500 individual species in the Sedum genus, often called stonecrops, some of which are native to zones 5-6 and beyond.

When it comes to ground covers in hot, dry areas, these ground cover Sedums are tough to beat. Of particular note is Mossy Stonecrop (Sedum acre), which is a non-native that has a lovely yellow flower in summer and grows well in hot, sunny locations.

I use them in an area of the garden that forms a pathway across the back of our home. It’s covered in pea gravel with a dry-river bed and blue square-cut flagstone.

The sedum ground covers spill over the edges of the garden into the pea gravel softening the edges with a moss-like texture that has the added benefit of lovely yellow flowers in the summer that the bees and butterflies flock to in large numbers.

The sedum mats are easy to control and thrive in the hot, dry soil. There is just too much to say about sedum as a ground cover in this blog. I encourage you to talk to your local garden nursery experts for advice.

For more information, check out Ontario Wildflowers.

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Vic MacBournie

Vic MacBournie is a former journalist and author/owner of Ferns & Feathers. He writes about his woodland wildlife garden that he has created over the past 25 years and shares his photography with readers.

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