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Aerating your lawn can kickstart grass growth when the soil becomes overly compacted by cars, pets, and general heavy use. There are several different garden tools you can use to aerate your lawn, like aerator shoes, which make small holes in the ground, allowing oxygen and water to penetrate and reach deep down the roots of your grass.
So, what are the benefits of aerating your lawn? Why should you do it? Well, for one, the grass grows deeper roots, making it more drought- and disease-resistant. Aerating your lawn also helps break down thatch and promote beneficial soil organisms.
Here's how to aerate your lawn—and when to do it.
How to aerate your lawn
There are three main tools you can use to aerate your lawn: aerator shoes, hand-held spike aerators, and plug aerators (also called core aerators). Plug aerators can attach to a lawnmower, or you can rent a motorized plug aerator.
1. Aerator shoes
Aerator shoes are strap-on soles with spikes attached to them. Similar to roofing nails, the spikes are about two inches long and one-eighth of an inch thick. You can get them with straps over your ankle and instep in red or blue, with a stainless steel sole plate, or straps like a hockey skate.
To aerate your lawn with aerator shoes, strap the shoes onto the sneaker you are wearing and take a walk on the bare patches and green parts of your lawn. (Pro tip: Don’t try this barefoot.) Your body weight drives the spikes into the lawn, creating aerating holes.
If your soil is wet or sticky, you may strip off the top layer of soil when you lift your foot too. Wait until the soil is drier to continue.
Aerator shoes are economical and will definitely make holes in your lawn, providing more nooks and crannies for grass seeds to sprout in if you’re planting or reseeding your grass. However, they’re not as effective at reducing compaction as core aerators.
Lawn and Garden Aerator Spike Shoe for $25
2. A handheld spike aerator
If you’d rather not push aerator spikes into your lawn with both feet, you can use a handheld spike aerator. The advantage of a handheld aerator is that you can precisely control where you’re making holes in your lawn.
Alternately, you can use a rolling push spike aerator that’s weighted with a cinderblock for more consistent, wider tracks of holes as opposed to walking with aerator shoes on your feet.
Yard Butler Spike Lawn Aerator for $42
3. A core aerator
If you want to effectively aerate a large lawn, a plug aerator that attaches to a lawnmower is a good choice. (Or you can rent a motorized aerator from your local hardware store.)
Plug aerators pull out soil cores that are longer (three to six inches) and much wider (half-inch to three-quarters of an inch in diameter) than the nail spike holes. They don’t crush and compact your soil more than regular lawn mowing, and the soil cores left on the surface help break down thatch.
Make sure you stay away from buried cables and utility pipes in your yard. You may need to go over your lawn twice with the aerator to make sure that you’ve opened up 20-40 holes per square foot.
Tow Behind Plug Aerator for $249
What to do after you aerate
After aeration, break up the cores with a rake to spread the dirt evenly over any thatch on the ground. Apply a top-dressing of half-inch of compost to your lawn. It will provide your grass with nutrients, improve the soil’s structure, and increase your lawn’s drought-resistance over time.
Finally, consider putting new walkways across your lawn in high-traffic areas so that your family members, friends, and pets don't compact all your new green grass when they spend time at your home.
Signs you should you aerate your lawn
Forgetting to aerate your lawn is one of the biggest lawn care mistakes you can make. Foot traffic, car traffic, and pet traffic can all compact your lawn’s soil.
Here are three signs that your soil is compacted, and your lawn could benefit from aeration:
- Puddles after a rain
- Patches where grass doesn’t grow
- Hard, bare soil at the edges of walkways and gates
You can also try the “screwdriver test”. One day when the soil is moist, push a standard screwdriver into your lawn. If it goes into the ground easily, your soil isn’t compacted and doesn’t need aeration. If it’s hard or impossible to push the screwdriver in, consider aerating your lawn.
Soil that contains a lot of clay or silt tends to get compacted easily, leading to bald spots in your lawn where grass can’t grow.
A layer of thatch about one-inch or thicker can also block air, water, and nutrients from getting to grass roots; some experts say a half-inch of thatch is enough to stunt your grass. Aerating your lawn can help fix these problems.
Be aware that If your lawn isn’t compacted, though, aerating your lawn isn’t necessary. Natural freeze and thaw cycles, as well as earthworm activity, will keep your soil open and airy enough for grass to thrive.
How often should you aerate your lawn?
Cool-season grasses and warm-season grasses benefit from different timing, but there’s one law that applies to every lawn: Do not aerate your lawn in the spring. Aerating in springtime encourages weed growth.
Aerate cool-season lawns in the early fall, when spring weeds are slowing down and the grass is entering a fast-growth phase and will have time to recover before frost. Aerate warm-season grasses in June and July when the yard is growing fast.
When aerations puncture warm season grasses’ underground roots, they re-grow at a vigorous rate, making your lawn lusher and greener.
Follow your aeration with a top-dressing of half-inch of compost to get more organic matter into the soil and improve your soil’s structure and drought-resistance.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.