Moss Garden by Christine Cook
The best way to identify Christine Cook is to look for the one who’s radiant when it rains. “Great weather for moss,” she’ll beam. It’s the bright, unrelenting sun that she can’t hack. Too much sunshine makes her feel sympathy pangs for her mosses. Christine is what you might call a moss maniac; she earns her living designing gardens of soft undercovers.
Many a year, she packed up her microscope and headed for “moss camp”; what followed was an intensive week of slogging through slimy, buggy swamps in the environs surrounding the Humboldt Field Research Institute at Eagle Hill in Steuben, Maine. Since the enrollees couldn’t possibly wedge in as many daylight moments as they wanted to crawling around on all fours studying cushiony groundcovers, they brought the mosses back to a lab for more intimate magnification after dark. Christine did grumble about the timing. Camp was going full tilt just when her clients’ yards were waiting to be carpeted in varying shades of green.
In the moss arena, Christine could be called a pioneer. Although there were plenty of academics studying moss when she stumbled into the field 14 years ago, garden design remains her turf alone. She studied three years at the New York Botanical Garden. “It was overwhelming,” she recalls. “It was a dizzying course load between botany, horticulture, design, and Latin, Latin, Latin.” Depressed by her initial inability to apply all the disparate knowledge, she sought solace in long walks in the forest. “It was one of those snowless winters, and that’s when I saw the moss,” she explains. “Compared with the skeletal grays and whites of winter, the moss was so alive while everything else was sleeping.
“It was an epiphany,” she says. “I decided I was going to be a moss gardener.”
Christine forges her designs with a contemplative style. The gardens she builds are stubbornly native-based, with a green palette that flows throughout the seasons. Christine didn’t invent moss; it’s been around for at least 450 million years. But her contribution has been to give it a venue in the New England garden.
Christine starts by surveying the area surrounding the spot where her client wants the garden. Chances are, she’ll find moss somewhere nearby, and she has the best luck starting a garden by transplanting those indigenous mosses. Once she’s run the site through soil tests and is confident that mosses will survive (they can tolerate a diversity of environments — different moss species like different light, pH, and iron levels), Christine begins a dialogue with her client. Do you want to trample the moss, or do you prefer to walk on paths? Is the garden meant to be a journey between destinations or a place to read a book? Is moss the focal point, or will the garden be punctuated by a rock assemblage or shrubs such as rhododendron, azalea, or mountain laurel? Will the moss be accompanied by simpatico plants such as hepaticas, shortias, Tiarella, or ornamental grasses?
Of the many benefits of growing moss, the most seductive is that weeds are suppressed by a dense carpet — a boon for gardeners. But for Christine, a moss garden is about what happens rather than what doesn’t occur. Get within her range and you’re likely to hear that some dragonflies and fireflies lay their eggs in moss and that 140 different songbird species use moss in their nests.
And then, of course, there’s the glory of green in all its subtle nuances. For the life of her, Christine Cook can’t figure out why anyone would need another color.