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Originally published Friday, November 23, 2012 at 11:00 AM

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This garden goes with the flow of the moss

Moss volunteers, spreads and keeps down the weeds. You don't need to mow, edge or fertilize it.

Explore and read

You can visit a large and stunning moss garden open to the public at Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island.

Learn how to encourage and even propagate moss in George Schenk's "Moss Gardening: Including Lichens, Liverworts, and Other Miniatures" (Timber Press, 1997).

Local news partner - Plant Talk

Valerie Easton writes in her blog about gardens and the people who make them.

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Special to The Seattle Times

IT'S SHADY and damp on the shores of Lake Marcel, north of Carnation, where rainfall is nearly twice that of Seattle. When Jim and Paula Umbeck bought their lakeside acreage, they couldn't even see the water. As they cleared away the blackberries and brush, moss quickly moved in to colonize every bit of bare ground. Rather than pursuing the futile task of power washing the moss away, the couple decided to go with the conditions nature provided and invite the moss in.

Now the garden between the house and lake is so tranquil in its mantle of green that it's easy to forget it didn't always look like this.

The Umbecks moved to Lake Marcel from Bellevue, where they mostly mowed and trimmed their property. "And I thought that was gardening!" says Paula.

After clearing the new property, the Umbecks brought in good soil, built a network of pathways, unearthed rocks and hauled in more for definition and scale. Now they're busy mixing up a spray of four parts water with one part buttermilk to bolster the moss.

"We're the crazy people out in our garden with a broom," says Paula, who sweeps the moss to keep it free of leaves and needles. They've sought out a variety of mosses in their woods, transplanting them into the garden to create a tapestry of shades from glowing emerald to brilliant chartreuse. "We call it pillow moss, velvet moss or chenille moss, depending on the textures," says Paula.

The effect is stirringly primeval — a reminder that moss has furred the surface of the earth for millions of years, thriving, adapting and lasting.

But there's more than moss at play in this woodland garden. The Umbecks have created outcroppings of boulders beneath the canopy of native firs and hemlocks. Nurse logs sprout huckleberries, ferns thrive in the shade. Pines, black mondo grass, Japanese forest grass and Japanese maples look right at home growing up through the muffling of soft green. Exotic-looking cobra lilies and the huge, umbrella-like leaves of podophyllum make quite a statement set off by the carpeting of moss. "It looks totally different in winter," says Jim. "It's just moss, rocks and pines... it's very beautiful then, too."

Moss has many virtues besides its beauty. It volunteers, spreads and keeps down the weeds. You don't need to mow, edge or fertilize it. Because moss absorbs moisture and nutrients through its minuscule leaves rather than roots, it is unperturbed by rocks or stumps. It simply colonizes them, too. It sets off all the other colors and textures in the garden, from bare tree trunks to splays of sword fern. Moss stays green all summer and looks its best when the weather is at its worst.

The serenity of the Umbecks' garden is a lesson in working with nature instead of against it. "The moss just wants to be here," says Jim. "We had no idea we wanted to do this."

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "petal & twig." Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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