About Magic Moss
They call him ‘the moss man’ and with good reason. Allan Paterson’s 65-hectare block of
Maruia basin land on the south Island’s West Coast is a hobbit habitat packed with peat and filled with dripping mosses. The peat, says Allan, is best left alone, where it can contribute to the growth of the sphagnum moss that he harvests sustainably and presents to the New Zealand market in a number of different guises. Along with ornamental mosses, it forms the basis of his business ‘Magic Moss’.
A plant without roots, Allan describes sphagnum moss as “an epiphyte that grows on the ground”. strictly speaking, an epiphyte is a plant which ‘grows upon another plant’ but much of Allan’s sphagnum is found in a huge peat swamp where temperatures soar to 40°C in summer and drop so low in winter that a permafrost situation exists. The moss also grows beneath rushes, over the stumps of fallen trees, across waterways, and beneath the fivemetre-high canopy of native beech trees that cover the swamp’s surrounding terraces. It’s beneath the shady beech that the sphagnum can reach a depth of 1m. When he’s out harvesting (a task he prefers to do himself rather than leave to a contractor), Allan often comes across sphagnum in a range of colours.
“The moss exposed to direct sunlight can vary from blonde to almost orange. When the ground is very dry, it will turn silver because it’s stopped photosynthesising. Give it some water, though, and it will begin growing again in a matter of hours.”
While the tip of sphagnum continues growing in the right conditions, the lower section of the plant is continually dying off, a cycle that contributes to the formation of the peat upon which the whole system is based. Interestingly, the most intense periods of growth occur in spring, following snow. As snow falls through the atmosphere, it gathers nitrogen. The ensuing white blanket that covers the peat swamp leaches into the ground to become a natural supplier of nutrients. In some cultures, it is traditionally referred to as ‘poor man’s fertiliser’.
The top 20–30cm of the moss is hand harvested, year round, with a ‘drag’, (think “five-pronged pitchfork with the prongs bent well over”). The sphagnum is then loaded into 1000-litre tanks hitched to the back of Allan’s Argo (an eight- wheeled amphibious vehicle he affectionately refers to as Barry). Before Allan leaves the site, he scatters some of the sphagnum’s growing tip back onto the harvested area.
“sphagnum will grow from tips, stem cuttings – providing there are buds present – and from spores. But the most efficient way to propagate is with tips.”
only the inner section of an area of sphagnum
is removed, allowing the moss to regenerate from the perimeter inwards. It will be a minimum of four years before Allan can return to the site, by which time the moss will be a lot cleaner than the first crop.
“The first harvest of sphagnum is likely to be heavily discoloured by tannin from having had years of leaf debris falling onto it. After five to six years of regrowth, it’s much cleaner.”
The sphagnum is transported to one of two drying facilities; the drying shed on the Maruia property or the racks at Leithfield, 200km (and a whole different climate) away.
“Leithfield offers much better drying conditions because of the warm north-west winds it receives, so we do more of the drying there than on the coast To speed things up at Maruia, the roof of the drying shed is a silo-cover laid black side up to suck in the warmth from the sun. roll-up sides facilitate the movement of air through the moss, which is spread out on wire mesh racks.
Allan isn’t looking for a total dry, though, something which is a point of difference between his product and that of other sphagnum harvesters.
“I’ve always worked in the horticultural industry so I was used to seeing short, brittle strands of sphagnum which had had the life kilndried out of it. It didn’t hold together well, even when rehydrated, but it had to be that way for the export market. By offering a domestic product, I knew I could supply a greener, more durable, ready-to-use moss.”
Allan’s hunch paid off. He now sells as much sphagnum as he can produce – and the potential is there for an increase in sales. orchid enthusiasts can’t get enough of it; and with sphagnum able to hold 20 times its own weight in moisture, councils have leapt upon as a way to cut back on water use in ornamental beds. strawberry growers rave about Allan’s seaweed enriched moss-mix, and anyone transplanting seedlings or larger plants As if the sphagnum wasn’t enough to keep him a perfect gift for a gardener. busy, Allen has also branched out into decorative mosses – the sort that can be found growing on rocks and trees on his Maruia property. It’s a market he says arose more from more “presentation than perseverance”.“It began in a very small way when I was asked to supply a banana box of moss to a Christchurch florist once a month. Florists are notorious for rummaging through boxes at flower markets and leaving a wake behind them, so I knew I had to go to them directly with my idea. Now supplying decorative moss makes up a third of the business, and we even have Auckland restaurants serving food on our moss!”Allan’s sustainably harvested decorative moss is also in demand by the film industry, especially companies keen to advertise the fact that ‘no plants were harmed in the making of this movie’! “They use our moss on logs and between the tiles on movie set roofs. I’ve also been asked to supply a few bales of beech leaves as well! I think it’s because I have the attitude ‘don’t do to a plant what you don’t want done to yourself’ It was through talking to a friend familiar with Japanese gardening techniques that Allan was introduced to the art of kokadama, and realised yet another the potential for his moss. In Japanese, koke means ‘ball’ and dama means ‘moss’. So, put simply, kokedama are small plants encased in balls of sphagnum moss (or, sometimes, in balls of soil within a covering of sphagnum moss). When bound with twine, they can be hung up. Allan imports from scotland a twine that contains an organic fungicide which prolongs its life. He says that simply wrapping the moss ball in untreated jute twine results in the binding breaking down within just a few weeks. “If you want to create a kokedama ball which is long-lasting, it’s best to use an inorganic twine. on the other hand, most people want to repot a plant after a couple of years, anyway, so this is an opportunity to use fresh twine.”
From harvesting in his personal peat swamp, to providing moss to movie stars, it’s not surprising that ‘the moss man’ is looking to expand his business. But wherever he goes next, it will be in his own quiet way.
“I like to do things right,” he tells me. “I’m all for the plants. Not so much for the dollar.”
Kiwi Gardener August 2019