Growing and keeping live moss is a fun topic because you’d probably think it couldn’t be done in a dry climate and that you’d need a terrarium or vase to do it properly. However, it turns out that even in my dry apartment, there are some types of moss that thrive in a pot without special enclosures or adjustments to humidity. All I have to do is keep the substrate moist, the light moderately-bright, and the nutrients “on-point”. In fact, as long I can keep the pot microclimate within a designated “Goldilocks Zone” (avoiding extremes of wetness, dryness or brightness), there are at least a few species of moss which will just pop up and grow. Let’s be clear though—as much as there are “hardy mosses”, there are also mosses which are specifically adapted to very humid, very pure conditions, like New Zealand Live Sphagnum and care will need to be adjusted to their specific needs. In this post I’ll cover why moss can be a good pot companion, why some might consider live moss a weed, and key details you need to know to grow moss the way I do. Down at the bottom, we’ll also cover how to get moss spores started if you don’t have any live moss on hand, as well as a few common moss types and species you may encounter.
Why live moss in pots is good: I grow mostly orchids and live moss is functionally very helpful for those plants. It seems to improve growth and it doubles as a litmus test for me on when I need to water – if the moss is looking kind of dull, it’s time to water.
I want to be clear though, the conditions that moss prefers are not the conditions that all orchids like and you’ll want to use live moss for select applications. For example, Phalaenopsis orchids (which are epiphytes) like lots of air movement and oxygen at the root zone—if their roots are packed into a pot that is then covered with a thick and dense blanket of live moss, that could potentially reduce the airflow into the pot and it could lead to reduced vigor or dead roots. A second example, slipper orchids like phragmipediums and paphiopedilums like their roots continuously moist (and they really hate going bone dry), so those types of orchids tend to thrive in the same conditions that live moss thrives and it’s a good pairing.
Photo of Phragmipedium seedling roots with live moss
FYI: The pot has been broken to repot
Oppositions to live moss: Some orchid growers don’t like live moss in their pots and consider it a weed. Reasons I’ve encountered from other growers include:
1. Moss can become hydrophobic when too dry, which means it repels water, making it hard to rehydrate your potting media and plant roots. If your roots ARE going bone dry quite frequently though, you really should work to avoid that for most tropical plants. “Approaching dry” = Good. “Bone dry” = Bad.
If the moss gets dry and becomes hydrophobic, the solution to rehydrate is pretty simple—just soak the pot in a bowl of water for about 10 minutes and rehydrate everything including the media and the moss. Frankly, that’s how I water most of my plants anyways because it ensures an even saturation and hydration of the roots and media, but let’s keep on topic with moss—if you want details on how I water refer to: tips on how to grow houseplants better.
Photo of Live moss which is slightly dry and hydrophobic (and will need to be soaked in water)
2. Live moss is a sign the media is decomposing or old. My thoughts—sure…maybe, but decomposition is part of nature, so if you’re growing something like a slipper orchid and you’re concerned about compaction of the potting media as a result of decomposition (which could cause root rot), then add 50% rock material to your media when you pot the plant and let the surface moss do the heavy lifting of keeping the roots moist and well-fed. Rock material doesn’t decay or compact so you now have structure in your potting media and the moss traps moisture below the surface for the roots. Yay! Also, I only repot my slipper orchids once every two to three years (unless they get too big for the pot – which, to be fair, happens pretty often).
3. Moss smothers roots (which as stated above, can be true depending on the type of plant). My thoughts—use live moss appropriately.
4. Live moss grows too fast and out-competes small or slow-growing plants. My thoughts—yes, it can if the plant is very tiny; again, use live moss appropriately and either use slower-growing species of moss, or don’t use live moss with very small plants.
Let’s be real though, you probably don’t have much opposition to live moss, or you wouldn’t be reading this article! Personally, I like live moss. It makes a pot look vibrant and lush. I find that it does a good job of improving root conditions for select orchids and plants which need moist substrate. It signals to me if I’ve waited too long to water (dry moss starts to look a bit dead). But most important of all, the plants in my pots with live moss, typically grow faster and perform better, compared to pots without. I’ve been able to compare this pretty consistently because I grow a lot of seedling orchids. In the pots without moss, the seedlings grow slower. Maybe it’s because the moss creates humidity around the base of the plant; maybe it’s because the moss traps moisture in the media for the roots; maybe moss changes the pH and improves nutrient absorption though the plant’s roots; maybe it’s that the function of moss in a micro ecosystem of bacteria, fungi, roots, minerals, nutrients, and decomposing bark which helps release essential nutrients which the plants can use—I’m not sure and maybe it’s all of those reasons—but I do know I love moss for select plants and if you’re interested, you should try growing some live moss too.
Photo of Paphoipedilum Growing in Live Moss
The photo above is my Paph helenae in moss. I haven’t repotted this plant in 3 years. This is a miniature slipper orchid species, which is reportedly quite difficult to grow, but thanks to the live moss, I know when to water AND it looks pretty good, right? That thick green carpet of live moss aesthetically looks much nicer than a pot of bark and perlite. Clearly, both the moss and the plant are happy.
Grow Live Moss: What You’ll Need
1. Live Moss or a Starter
You can inoculate a potting media with small clumps of live moss or moss spores, but if you don’t have live moss, don’t stress. Often moss will spontaneously start when conditions are ideal (because moss spores are kind of everywhere). I’ve had it start from dead New Zealand sphagnum moss, from peatmoss or regular tropical gardening soil, and even from orchid bark—as long as the media and environment are consistent and moist, then the moss spores can germinate and grow. Consistent meaning not too wet, not too dry, not too bright, not too dim, not too hot, not too acidic, not too alkaline etc. It’s all about consistency, routine and rhythm to keep moss alive and you can achieve this by scheduled watering, adjusting potting methods, or by using an enclosure like a cloche or terrarium. Potting mixes which have been pasteurized, sterilized or heat-treated will not have living moss spores, so just beware that some potting mixes may not yield live moss. If you don’t have live moss, I’ve covered starting a moss colony from scratch further down below.
2. A Good Amount of Light
Moss are photosynthetic, so they need light and probably more than you’d expect. You don’t want hot and direct sunlight but definitely more than “ambient room light”—the place I am able to grow moss best is in my moderate-to-high-light area of my grow room under full-spectrum LED grow lights. Typically, they get a 10–12h photoperiod per day, with at least 12watts of light per foot of coverage (at 1 foot from the light), but ideally 12–36w of light is better. That translates to about 10-35% filtered direct sun; so sunlight near an East or West window could also work well—but being honest, I have only been able to grow moss where I also have grow lights. A North window likely won’t provide enough light, and a South window will be too hot.
Too little light: In terrariums with less than 12w of light (or with natural light only), where I have seeded live moss, the mosses died out over the course of a year because the light just wasn’t bright enough. Like plants, when moss isn’t getting enough light it will stretch, elongate and suffer from etiolation which if you’re seeing this, it’s a sign to you that your moss colony needs more light.
3. Watering Live Moss
First, watering moss is about consistent cycles. I water at least every 7 days. When I water, I’ll either drench and flush the surface of the moss using a water-bottle (with holes melted in the lid – make it rain all over the moss) or I’ll soak the pot for 5-10 mins, right up to the moss. That’s a weekly application and they seem to do well with that—however, if your potting mix or moss is drying out mid week, then it’s not going to work (moss should stay mostly moist) and you should let the pot sit in a shallow tray of water all week, but still water weekly and flush water though the pot to clear out any buildup of junk.
The moss with the Paphiopedilum is likely a pincushion or pillow moss variety and is very resilient and tolerant of dryness. When the moss gets dry, it contracts and pulls away from the edge of the pot (telling me it’s due for water); at which point I’ll give it a good 10 minutes soak, and it fluffs open. This cycle happens every 7 days, but it took a full year for the moss to build up and cover the entire pot surface.
Hydrophobic moss that blocks water: Noted above, when moss gets too dry or even if it’s too dense, it can create a “water shield” which deflects water. That is why soaking the pot from the bottom helps saturate the substrate beneath. You need to make sure though, that you’re rehydrating the moss often and I can’t stress this enough, avoid bone-dry conditions.
4a. Potting Media
In general moss will grow on pretty much any potting media. My suggestion to you is to make a composition that allows you to grow moss more easily and avoid water-logging the roots of any plants that you may be growing with your moss. For me, that means I use a mix of at least 50% rock (pumice, perlite, turface or leca) – it’s quick draining, well oxygenated, but still wicks water up. With that I’ll either mix peatmoss or bark, or both, but there is one more thing that I’ve routinely noticed ensures effective moss growth…
4b. Charcoal / Activated Carbon
I had once read a study that charcoal (but also activated carbon) feeds certain moss in forests following forest fires and I have seen reference to types of mosses that flourish after fires. Of course I can’t find that exact research paper now, but I packed that nugget of info into the back of my brain about growing moss. Later, when I started my butterwort community pot, I noticed I wasn’t getting good moss growth after I had seeded it with live moss from my other pots. That potting media was mostly turface and perlite with a bit of pumice and bark. The mosses spread thinly but then started to die back. So…I added a dozen flakes of charcoal to the surface (something I normally use in my normal orchid potting mixes but withheld for the butterworts) and the moss started to fill in nicely.
Charcoal & Live Moss
Photos Before/After: At the time I added charcoal vs. months later
So, my general assessment is that horticultural charcoal is valuable for keeping moss alive. I don’t entirely know what charcoal offers—maybe some moss species can utilize the carbon? Obviously, charcoal not a requirement of all moss species (New Zealand Sphagnum for sure doesn’t need charcoal and I doubt moss bogs are loaded with charcoal), but many of the forest types seem to thrive and establish better if there is even just a little bit of moist charcoal in the potting mix.
5. The right species of moss that will thrive in your conditions
You may have caught on by now that there are different species and types of moss. The type of moss you want to grow will affect the type of water you use—or maybe it’s better to say…the water you use and climate you offer will affect the moss that can grow. I can grow these short brush and trailing mosses using my tap water which is alkaline and has calcium in it but I cannot grow New Zealand Live Sphagnum unless I use pure RO/distilled water. True sphagnum moss is suuuuper intolerant to minerals and salts. So if you want to grow the classic New Zealand sphagnum, you’ll need to use distilled water at all times. If you want to use tap water, just make sure it’s not got a lot of sodium (no water softeners pls), and consider acidifying your water ever second watering if it’s extremely alkaline.
6. Humidity—Maybe (this varies by species)
You’d think Humidity would be a big deal…and maybe it is for select types of moss it is (like New Zealand Sphagnum Moss), but my humidity here in my apartment ranges from 18-45% most days and clearly the mosses I have grow and do fine with that. Of course I never let my mosses go bone dry, and typically the pot is sitting in a shallow tray of water, but also notice the types of moss I grow are short, small, and low—so maybe the moist substrate gives off enough humidity close to the moss. Whatever the specifics are, my ambient room humidity is considered very dry—again why consistency of watering is important.
7. Nutrients & Nitrogen
Different types of moss will require different nutrients. I like using organic fertilizer (bloodmeal, guano, insect frass) with a bit of rock dust (which has minerals like calcium, magnesium and so on). Whatever you use, less is more and I would avoid using synthetic (salt) fertilizers unless it’s used at 1/8th strength.
Starting Growing Live Moss From Spores
If you don’t have live moss on hand you can start some from spores. You’ll need is a pot, a clear cover to trap humidity (optional – but will yield better results early on), a grow light, a bag of peatmoss, and a well-draining under-layer of substrate (as mentioned above, I prefer pumice or perlite). Timewise, you’re looking at about 1-6 months for a media without any living moss to spontaneously start growing moss and up to about a full year for it really to grow in and get thick and lush (under ideal conditions); however, once you have a moss starter seeding other pots in the future will be much faster. Your best bet for “free moss spores” is to use untreated/sterilized peatmoss but you can use bits of material from outside: rocks, a bit dead moss (you can often buy this at garden centres, bark, etc.
Tips for starting moss spores
- Layer your pot so the lower half is mostly inert rock material (pumice/perlite/leca). Then put your organic layer which can be a blend of 50% rock to 50% peat, or 50% bark—pretty much whatever you’d like. Add a few bits of horticultural charcoal. Finish with a top-layer dusting of just peatmoss and whatever other materials you’ve collected from outside. You’ll want a layer of about 1/8-1/4″ of peatmoss.
- Then set the pot in a shallow tray of water (1/4-1/2″ is fine).
- (Optional – but yields better results): Cover the pot with a bag or inverted clear cup/pot/container to create humidity.
- Put under lights and let sit. Check weekly to make sure water reservoir has water. If surface gets dry, lightly sprinkle with water but don’t flush it too hard initially.
- Once moss starts to grow, let it fill in for a few months and then slowly lower humidity by offsetting lid or adding holes to increase airflow. At this same point, you may need to start actively watering on a routine as the surface will dry out.
- When watering, use a water bottle with a single hole melted in the lid to target water. Sprinkle the surface to hydrate; wait until water drains, and repeat a few times to ensure sufficient hydration.
- Once the moss is growing, care for it with consistency and avoid extremes. You can now use this pot to “seed”/inoculate other pots; use a tweezer to remove chunks of moss and placing them in other pots. You can also start experimenting with what conditions you offer these transplant mosses by adjusting humidity, changing watering tempo, increasing/decreasing light and so on.
Tip – How to spot newly-emerging moss: when new moss is about to emerge, typically the sphagnum moss or peatmoss gets a bit of a green, slimy, bubbly look right before the moss comes forward—I believe this is the spores of the moss creating an under body of the plant—there’s probably a term for it—I don’t know exactly how it works but I’ve seen it many times. Every time I’ve seen those dark-snot blobs, moss has started to spontaneously grow shortly thereafter from that sludge.
Types of Moss to Grow
When it comes to moss, there are a few general groups with well over 10,000 individual species. When the conditions are right (provided spores are there), a moss species will likely pop up and stick around. If you can’t offer what that type of moss needs, it’ll die off pretty quickly—so you can approach your moss growing journey from one of two ways: 1) offer the conditions you have but make sure you keep the substrate moist; or 2) offer a custom environment to grow the type of moss you want.
These are some of the more common types of moss you may encounter:
- Sphagnum or Peat Moss (Sphag. centrale or Sphagnum warnstorfii)
Requires high humidity and pure water (RO is best). Often easy to grow in leftover food containers with clear lids, using RO water and LED lights, or in a terrarium or greenhouse where these same conditions can be offered. More on growing sphagnum moss specifically.
- Purple or Fire Moss (Ceratodon purpureus)
A common trailing moss. Grows well in a range of conditions but requires regular moisture and moderate light. Could be considered an invasive moss as it tends to grow through and cover other moss species. Tends to be the first type to show up and grows quickly. Needs consistent moisture – leave the pot in a shallow tray of water so that the media is always slightly damp.
- Pincushion or White Cushion Moss (Leucobryum glaucum)
Good for Paphiopedilum slipper orchids. A mounding pillowy moss which prefers periods of dryness and requires moderate brightness. Tolerates a wide range of substrates and thrives in dry climates provided it is watered regularly
- Mood or Broom-Fork Moss (Dicranum scoparium)
A rambling type moss that requires high humidity and low light. Does not like wetness.
- Shaggy Moss (Rhytidiadelphus triquetrus)
A long-thread and branching type moss, shaggy moss tends to look rather…shaggy. It’s a forest moss, so preference for high humidity and frequent irrigation with pure water.
- There are a lot of moss species, for a full list (including images), refer to:
That pretty much covers how I grow live moss and some general information about moss. Here are more photos of the mosses I have growing around my collection. As with my other posts, I will add updates and new photos over time.
Photos of Live Moss Growing in Plant Pots
Early moss growing in a community pot of small phalaenopsis
Will need to be repotted soon to prevent stunting of the phals
Moss setting spores in a community pot of phragmipedium orchids
Established moss carpet in pots of Mexipedium slipper orchids