Go Inside This 15-Acre Moss-Covered Garden on Long Island
When a crisis specialist needed a space to decompress from his high-profile, high-stress job, he took inspiration from an elegant Japanese art form to reimagine his 15-acre garden on the eastern end of Long Island. During the past three decades, he's cultivated moss, the oldest land plant on earth, and transformed his woodland expanse into a soft—and endlessly verdant—place to land.
Mosses have inhabited the earth for more than 400 million years. Primitive, ancient, and abundant (there are more than 13,000 species worldwide), they are unique—without roots, stems, flowers, or fruits—and provide a living record of history, connecting the primordial past to the present.
For Vincent Covello, PhD, they are also a source of deep tranquility. The founder and director of the Center for Risk Communication, a consultancy specializing in crisis management and communications, he's advised organizations like the World Health Organization for decades, helping to control disease epidemics from the first Ebola outbreak to Covid-19, and travels globally to share his expertise. Thirty years ago, the intensity and stress of his job moved him to create a mossy oasis of calm at the Long Island, New York, home he shares with his wife.
Long fascinated with Japanese gardens, Covello fell in love with Kyoto's 14th-century Saihoji, also known as the Kokedera, or moss temple, which features a sublime 8.7-acre expanse, on a trip in the 1980s. Later, he studied suiseki, the Japanese art of displaying small weather-formed rocks, and in 1989 he published a book, The Japanese Art of Stone Appreciation (Tuttle Press), showing small landscapes using stones, bonsai, sand, and mosses. "Here, I wanted to create a larger version of the gardens I had written about," he recalls. Covello identified more than 120 kinds of moss growing naturally on his property, and started transplanting varieties like carpet (Hypnum haldanianum), hair cap (Polytrichum commune), and Hedwigia (Hedwigia ciliata) to new locations in the garden to create continuous, soft, thick mats. He then placed artifacts throughout, including an 18th-century Chinese gate; two-ton stones towering 10 feet tall; and a moon gate: "I chose ancient statues, rock formations, and old trees as elements to blend in and impart a feeling of serenity."
Covello provides his cherished plants with three things: acidic clay soil (though they will adapt to other conditions); friendly companions (other mosses, ferns, hosta, and bamboo); and moist, lightly shaded spots. He also irrigates daily, trims the lower branches of the trees above to create a cathedral of dappled light that accentuates all the different shades, and clears out leaves and debris that could prevent the moss from growing.
The place, which he named Yugen, a Japanese-aesthetics term suggesting both restrained elegance and profound mystery, is just that. "I love taking people around," Covello says. "I recommend they take off their shoes to experience the moss barefoot"—a feeling he equates to walking on a soft pillow. "Your foot disappears in a deep, lush carpet, and a sense of connectedness fills the space, like mist moving through early-morning light."
In the Chinese garden seen here, vertical stone monoliths, representing the eight Chinese immortals, are speckled with lichens and stand on the rolling mosses under a high canopy of local oak trees.
Covello designed a dry streambed that meanders through native white-pine and cherry trees, and placed large, moss-covered stones in it to resemble outcroppings of islands.
Light the Way
An Asian cast-iron lantern sits near a mountain-laurel shrub.
The home's driveway, lined with pines and oaks, envelops guests in green: In the foreground, a chartreuse Asian Cryptomeria nearly matches the moss underfoot, while silvery-blue eastern white pines (Pinus strobus) stand tall in the distance. In several areas, Covello underplanted the trees with ferns on miniature plateaus he built by moving soil into flat mounds.
After passing through the large circular opening of the moon gate, visitors stroll along a gravel path to reach the pond, which gently spills over to feed the natural streambed. Moss-covered boulders line the stream, providing resting spots to sit and enjoy the soothing melody of rippling water, birdsong, and rustling leaves.