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Forget Grass. Think Moss.

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By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 8, 2000; Page H09

Grass doesn't like trees and trees don't like grass, yet we persist in trying to impose the lawn on wooded lots. Mary Espy has taken another course.

In her secluded McLean garden of glades and wooded hills, in places where others might struggle to keep turf grass alive, Espy has allowed nature to reclaim the outdoor floor.

The result is one of the largest moss carpet gardens in the area, nurtured over decades in some dozen or so garden areas of different character but shared serenity.

A lawn of moss may connote a neglected and dank garden to some. But, done with purpose and gusto, the moss garden evokes the ancient forest. Throw in some azaleas, ferns and weeping maples, and you can recall the landscape architecture of Japan, where moss gardening was first elevated to an art form.

Many of the spring blooms that set off the moss have now passed, leaving a quieter study in green. "The moss is beautiful," she said, "I'm really manicuring it and watering it" in anticipation of this Saturday, when the garden is one of seven in Fairfax and Montgomery counties open for a tour.

Among the highlights of Espy's garden is a hidden glade encased by old hardwoods, including a copper beech, along with tall Glenn Dale azaleas. An iron bench focuses the eye. "This is where I meditate," she said.

On the other side of the contemporary house, a mossy path leads past a tall, red-flowering azalea and an old stewartia tree whose bark is sinewy and mottled.

Visitors will pick up on aspects of the moss garden that give it that crafted edge: the use of natural stone as pavers and steps; the idea of moss flowing from one elevation to another, even over rocks, as if it were water; areas of narrow paths that open to pockets in the wood that invite lingering; and the use of subtle accent plants.

After moving to the house in 1963, Espy saw native mosses growing in portions of the garden. "I just knew that it grew and it looked pretty nice, so I pulled away the leaves and it kept spreading."

In addition to freedom from leaves and other debris, moss has other basic needs: shade, acid soil and compact soil, where moisture doesn't drain away. The gardener fighting to keep turf in the wooded lot is struggling against all those elements. Espy's advice: Go with the flow.

But a moss garden, for all its natural appeal, requires human maintenance to look its most beautiful. Removing leaves and debris is a chore, particularly in the fall. Regular leaf rakes can rip up the moss, so Espy uses the sort of witches broom used by moss masters in Japan.

In his book "Moss Gardening" (Timber Press, $34.95), George Schenk suggests a most un-Zenlike but effective tool: a leaf blower.

Another requirement is a good annual weeding, usually in late spring. This is a manual, hands-on-knees task satisfying to those with patience and a need to observe the natural world. (Moss gardening temperament, in other words.)

In large wooded lots like Espy's, moss appears abundantly. People who want to start a moss garden in, say, a small town-house garden often find friends with rural properties where they can collect moss with little harm to the environment. Schenk recommends noting where the collected moss is growing, so that you can replicate those conditions back home. Colonies in the sun, for example, will endure sunnier spots than those in full shade.

One method of propagating, Espy notes, is to take plugs of moss and mix them in a vessel with buttermilk. The resulting sauce is then daubed on rocks, paths and other areas awaiting mossifying. This can be done in a blender as long as the cook of the house is away on a long errand.

Companion plants also are important in framing swards of moss. Espy uses such things as Christmas ferns, foamflowers, many different varieties of hosta, jack-in-the-pulpit and celandine poppies. She also allows bluets to self-seed, forming a blue haze in April and May above the moss carpet.

Squirrels and chipmunks can be a problem in digging up moss, Schenk notes, and the gardener must reset the rips and gouges as a golfer would divots on a tee. But these tasks are rewarded a thousandfold for gardeners like Espy, who find satisfaction and joy in a primeval landscape far in spirit, if not distance, from the Beltway.

Even when the drought seemingly killed all the moss last year, leaving a wan brown floor, Espy did not despair. She has been a moss gardener long enough to know that come the next wet, cool season, "it would come back." And it did.

The Espy garden is one of three in Northern Virginia and four in suburban Maryland on the "Earth on Our Hands" tour organized by the National Capital Area Federation of Garden Clubs. The gardens are open Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tickets: $15 for all seven sites, available at any of the gardens. Espy's address is 861 Canal Dr., McLean. The other Fairfax County locations are 810 Crews Rd., Great Falls; and 1951 Horseshoe Dr., Vienna. In Montgomery County, the locations are 5822 Highland Dr., Chevy Chase; 10406 Holbrook Dr., Potomac; 6008 Kennedy Dr., Chevy Chase; and 6915 Barrett Lane, Bethesda. For more information, call Libby Covey at 703-680-5425 or Andrea Nace at 301-657-9393.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company

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