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Become a Lawn Whisperer

By Kathy Connolly

Listening is a key life skill but we don’t tend to think of it in gardening. Yet backyard success often depends on the messages from our plants. This is nowhere more true than the lawn—that hopeful collection of grass blades to which many an hour and many a dollar are devoted.


And though we dream of green in February, and devote much energy to spring lawn restoration, fall is actually the best time to improve your rapport with that living carpet outside your door.

Why? For one thing, most grasses in our area are of the cool season variety. When summer heat is done, they come out of dormancy.

“September is the preferred time to establish or renovate a lawn,” says Victoria Wallace, UConn associate extension educator for sustainable turf and landscapes in Norwich. “There is less competition from spring annual weeds, more available surface moisture, and soil temperatures are just perfect for seed germination.”


But what if your past renovations haven’t worked? (It’s an all-too-common complaint.) Consider becoming what Bernadette Giblin, a Northampton, MA, speaker and activist in the organic land care movement, calls a “lawn whisperer.”

“Let the lawn tell you where it wants to grow and what it needs,” she says.

Bare spots under trees, for instance, may be speaking loud and clear: Your bag of grass seed is better used elsewhere. Can you hear the crabgrass laughing out loud? (I can!) Crab grass is an opportunistic annual (it dies over the winter) and actually emerges from seed late in the spring, a few weeks after our most desirable grass species. The war on crabgrass takes many forms, but for organic advocates like Giblin, “If you promote a dense lawn canopy in the fall, it’s harder for crab grass to emerge in the spring.”

If you use corn gluten for crab grass and other weeds, do so only with the proper spring timing for your area. (Never apply corn gluten in the fall.)

Other weeds may speak more softly, but they have a story to tell as well. Got dandelions and sorrel? The soil is probably too acidic. Got cinquefoil and quack grass? Consider the possibility that the soil is compacted. For an easy-to-read review of weeds as indicators of specific soil problems, visit Rodale’s Organic Gardening web site. If you’d like to identify your lawn weeds, Virginia Tech University offers an online “key” for lawn weed identification. (See below for both links)

All of this listening points towards one of the great fundamentals in all growing. As UConn’s Victoria Wallace reminds us, “Before any renovation, get a soil test.”

Be sure to ask for the percentage of organic matter. Also ask for a recommendation that shows the quantities of organic fertilizer—not just the conventional (synthetic chemical) fertilizer amounts.

If your lawn has less than 5% organic matter, fall is the absolute best time to add ¼” layer of compost. This is especially important if transitioning to an organic approach, which teaches that a healthy lawn is all about the roots and soil. “It’s a really good time to encourage deep, healthy roots,” says Bernadette Giblin, who has worked with dozens of institutions and homeowners to help them transition to organic lawn care.

After all this thoughtful homework, don’t skimp on the next steps. Treat your lawn to premium seed.


Use the newer, improved varieties,” says UConn’s Wallace. “If you buy the least expensive seed, the mixture may contain varieties less tolerant to drought, insects and disease.” And as if we needed further convincing, she added, “Inexpensive seed mixtures sometimes contain weed contaminants.”


Finally, what about those areas beneath trees? Linda Lillie, president of the Gales Ferry landscaping firm Sprigs & Twigs, aims for perennials, groundcovers and grass substitutes. For example, she uses epimedium, lamium, marginal shield fern, perennial geraniums, and Meehan’s mint for dry shade.


She also uses grass-like substitutes. “I love Liriope but it’s got to be planted in an area where it can spread,” she said. She recommends the plant where barriers such as sidewalks or house foundations limit it. “The other reason I like Liriope is that it’s very easy to maintain. You can cut it back once with a lawnmower before April.” She also uses sedges for naturalizing in dry shade, including our native Carex pensylvanica , Carex appalachica, and Carex laxiculmus.

“I very rarely use pachysandra,” she said. “There are too many other good plants out there.”

So take the time to listen. Grass plants, like all plants, will do their best when they have the right conditions.

Soil tests:

  • Free basic tests are available from Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station ( Remember to request the percentage of organic matter in your soil. This test will advise you on nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium (NPK) adjustments, as well as pH.
  • University of Connecticut supplies a variety of tests for fee. See for instructions. Remember to purchase the test that measures the organic matter in your soil. These reports will advise you on nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium (NPK) adjustments, as well as pH. Also remember to ask for organic fertilizer recommendations. If you don’t, you’ll receive only the recommendations for conventional fertilizers.
  • For an in-depth soil test that shows the chemistry and biology of your lawn soil, try the tests from Harrington Organics in Bloomfield: These tests, while somewhat more expensive, provide a deeper view of soil health and go beyond simple NPK and pH recommendations. This can be especially helpful if you have a problem lawn.

Copyright ©2014 Kathleen Groll Connolly, Speaking of Landscapes, LLC