by Liza Roberts
David Spain is an artist whose medium is moss. Yes, moss. That spongy, green, felt-like plant that sprouts in humid nooks and wooded glens. A pioneer in the burgeoning world of moss landscaping – and heralded by tastemakers from Martha Stewart to Southern Living – Spain is known for taking moss out from its darkened garden corners and bringing it proudly to an evergreen center stage.
The landscape designer’s role as a champion of moss was thrust upon Spain in 2008 when his father-in-law – whose wooded Raleigh backyard was then home to many varieties of the stuff – told Spain it was “impossible” to cover his sizable front yard with moss, as well. He dared Spain to try.
So Spain set out to learn, and discovered that there was nobody to teach him. Experts on moss in the wild, yes, but no expert on moss cultivation. He considered taking a course in briology (botany relating to mosses), but realized the curriculum would cover how the plants live happily in nature, but not purposefully in landscapes. “It was so fascinating to me that I couldn’t find anyone who I could learn from,” he says. “It was an a-ha moment. It made me realize I could be a very large fish in a very small pond. And I didn’t have anyone telling me: ‘No, you can’t do that.’”
So he read and learned and experimented. He tried treating fields of moss with different acid levels, watering levels, and types of moss. He failed and tried again. In two years, “I cracked the code.” He did his first major garden in 2011 and hasn’t looked back.
With Spain at the forefront, moss gardens have become popular for their beauty, hardiness, sustainability, and eco-friendliness.
Today, Spain’s Raleigh moss fields supply thousands of clients from Five Points to Big Sur. They are big and small, appreciated by residents of modernist mansions and modest bungalows alike. Turns out people of all kinds love his otherworldly places of quiet beauty and contemplation.
“Moss is just this verdant connection, connecting all of the other elements in the garden,” he says. “It gives you a feeling of antiquity, like it’s been there for a long time. Part of it is the way the moss glows with this vibrant, verdant green but also has this softening quality. And it looks good year-round.”