What You Need to Know About Lawn Aerators

By: Andrea Pisani Babich

If your lawn is suddenly showing brown spots after a few days of warm weather or water pools after watering or a storm, you may need to supplement your supply of lawn care tools with a lawn aerator.  

When thatch builds up under the grass and soil becomes compacted, water can’t penetrate to the roots which can’t grow long enough to resist high heat and temporary drought. Under these conditions, mowing, edging, and watering your grass are not enough to keep your lawn healthy. Keep reading to learn how lawn aerators work and how to determine when lawn aeration is necessary.

How lawn aerators work

Lawn aerators use rows of spikes or hollow tines to penetrate the soil, cutting through thatch and breaking up compacted soil to allow air, water, and other nutrients to reach the roots of your grass. Aerating your lawn promotes the decomposition of organic matter, helping to fertilize the grass.

Aeration also encourages deeper and stronger roots, making your lawn more resistant to heat, drought, and insects. Using a lawn aerator can help your grass grow thicker, greener, and more robust.

How to determine if your lawn needs aeration

A few simple tests can help you decide if your lawn needs to be aerated.

Test for soil compaction

The simplest way to determine if your lawn needs aeration is the screwdriver test. Simply push a screwdriver into the soil of your lawn. If the soil doesn’t give easily, it’s too compact to sustain a healthy lawn. Aerating your lawn can fix that.

Check the roots

Dig up a small patch of grass about six inches deep. If the roots are shorter than two inches long, your lawn could benefit from aeration.

Assess the thatch

Thatch is a buildup of dead grass and other organic debris that collects on top of the soil. A thatch layer that is thicker than a half inch can choke your lawn of air and nutrients.

Simpler than raking the thatch manually, aerating your lawn will break up the thatch allowing your grass to breathe, hydrate, and ultimately—grow.

Other reasons to aerate your lawn include:

  • Areas of thin, patchy grass
  • High foot traffic or playing
  • Parking vehicles on the grass
  • High concentration of clay in soil

Physical signs Brown spots and compacted soil can indicate the need for lawn aeration.

When to aerate your lawn

The best time to aerate your lawn is during the growing season for your grass. Not all grasses grow at the same times during the year. Cool-season grasses such as fescue, bluegrass, and rye should be aerated anytime from August through October.

Warm-season grasses like Zoysia, Bermuda, and St. Augustine should be aerated in the spring from April through June. After you aerate your lawn, apply a top dressing to add organic matter into the soil that will help nourish your grass.

Types of lawn aerators

There are two main types of rolling lawn aerators: spike aerators and core aerators.

As the name suggests, a spike aerator uses spikes fixed on a rolling drum to poke holes in the soil as the aerator is pushed or towed across the lawn.

A core aerator uses hollowed-out tines to pull out plugs of soil from the lawn, leaving two- to three-inch holes. Both types can be motorized, manually pushed, or towed. You can purchase an aerator or rent one at a home improvement store or garden center relatively inexpensively.

If a motorized lawn aerator is too elaborate for your needs—maybe your yard is small, or you just want to aerate the trouble spots—here are five other aeration techniques that can be used for smaller jobs and make this DIY task as easy as a stroll through your yard.

Core aerators Core aerators used hollow tines to extract cylindrical plugs of soil.

5 alternative lawn aeration techniques

1. Spiked shoes

This is the easiest way to aerate your lawn. Simply strap on these spiked soles and take a walk through your grass. While not practical for very large yards and too labor intensive for severely compacted lawns, this tool can be an inexpensive way to maintain proper soil conditions.

2. Scarifier

Also called a dethatcher, this tool works mainly to break up deposits of grass cuttings, moss, and other debris that collect on the surface of the soil.

Powered by electricity or manually pushed, a scarifier is a wheeled machine with a series of blades that rotate through the surface of the lawn as it passes over it. Its cutting action also helps to aerate the soil.

3. Pitchfork

You can easily aerate small areas of your lawn by simply pushing a pitchfork into the soil about three inches deep. Wiggle the fork around a bit to widen the holes and repeat the process every four inches over trouble spots.

4. Hollow tiner

This tool, sometimes called a core aerator, works the same way as a pitchfork but uses hollow tines to remove cores of soil.

5. Slitter

Using a series of blades to penetrate the soil, a slitter cuts through grass roots, encouraging air circulation and new growth.

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