I am fascinated by cultural differences in gardening. In Japan there are more than a dozen named cultivars of moss, the basis of an ancient tradition of moss gardens, but in the UK the only thing you can buy in a garden centre with the word “moss” on it is moss killer. It wasn’t always this way. In the 19th century, as part of the obsession with ferneries and terrariums, special “moss gathering” trains were organised from London to the South Downs. Sadly, as most temperate mosses won’t survive the excessive warmth of indoor growing, fresh supplies were constantly needed, leading to a decimation of some natural populations. For those that long to grow moss indoors, there is a solution that is ethical and effective: aquarium shops.
An unusual thing about plants sold for the aquarium trade is the practice seems to exist in a parallel world to the rest of horticulture. This means they have thousands of species that most landlubbing gardeners have no idea even exist, including loads of ornamental moss cultivars. Despite being specifically selected for growing underwater, these adaptable species will be just as happy grown on dry land, as long as humidity levels are kept up – in fact they are commercially grown that way. They make perfect inhabitants for terrariums, living walls, indoor water features and as groundcover over the soil in pots containing bigger plants, such as bonsai.
I love using Java moss, Taxiphyllum barbieri , which creates a dense, velvety mat of intense bottle green. Being the most popular, fast-growing species, it is sold in individual portions (loose mats about the size of a deck of cards), and also trained over coconut husks, even wrapped around bamboo canes. These lush green shapes are perfect as instant, established-looking landscaping features in terrariums. Given bright, indirect light and good humidity, it will swiftly colonise the space, looking even more natural as it creeps over woods, rocks and larger plant leaves.
Flame moss is an upright form that grows in vertical clumps to create tiny, apple-green spires like mini stalagmites. It is sold in plastic cups containing nutrient gel. All you need do to get started is rinse off the gel, split the contents of the pack into little tufts and insert 5mm squares of it into the compost, or even superglue them on to moist rocks or wood. A third species, weeping moss, Vesicularia ferrieri , has the exact opposite habitat, forming cascading curtains of emerald green over branches and crevices.
All of these are propagated artificially under sterile conditions, meaning no risk of bringing in pests and diseases, plus of course no impact on wild habitats. Being tropical, they are well adapted to indoor conditions, and so are a pretty perfect solution all round. One last thing, as I know I will get questions – I get all mine from online seller Aquarium Gardens, which has the widest selection in the UK.