Friend or foe Posted on January 22, 2010

Is moss friend or foe? I’m never sure whether to apologize for my apple trees or admit my pride in them. At the end of a wet winter their branches are thickly coated on their upper sides with an emerald-green fabric like baize crossed with velvet. It is thicker on the trees on the shadier side of the garden, and thickest, covering much of the trunk too, on the tree in the south west corner that gets the most shade from the house and the churchyard wall.

Our trees have been pruned for many years, perhaps always, into open goblet, or even parasol, shapes to let light into their canopies, cutting off the year’s new growth but leaving fists of old wood on snaking stems; hardly a classical method but wonderfully energizing to flowers and fruit. The combination of gnarled and writhing grey wood and the emerald moss gives me enormous pleasure. Visitors gasp and get their cameras out. Serious fruit growers give me recipes for moss removal. Should I be worried?

It was in Japan that I first appreciated moss as a plant that could transform a garden. Saiho-Ji, the monastic moss garden, is only the most notable of many where the moss on rocks, paths, on the banks of streams and the trunks of trees, feels like a spell cast by an old green witch. In winter it is almost lurid green, in summer shades of green and brown, but the muting, softening effect is permanent. There are no sharp edges: no ultimate focus except the textures, the (rather rare) shock of pure clean petals, and the contrasting polish of water.

In this garden moss has crept up on me. It must be cumulative in the whole garden, endemic (and increasing) in the lawns, overwhelming on the abandoned tennis court, and presumably finding its perfect perch on the apples.

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