In Article, Yard Care by Mike Comstock

Annual Lawn Aeration

Homeowners often overlook problems associated with soil compaction. Insects, diseases, improper watering and a lack of fertilizer are often blamed for a lawns decline when the real culprit is compaction. The problem starts when the top 4 inches of the soil become compressed, impeding the movement of air, water and nutrients to the grass roots. This stresses the grass plants, making them less able to compete with weeds and slow to recuperate from injury. In time a compacted lawn needs renovation.

Compacted soil contributes to the accumulation of thatch because restricted oxygen levels in highly compacted soils impair the activity of earthworms and other thatch-decomposing organisms. Left unmanaged, thatch can lead to serious maintenance and pest problems. Thatch accumulates faster on compacted soils and heavy clay soils than on well-aerated soils. Therefore, some lawns may require frequent aeration to aid in thatch control. Most lawns in eastern Nebraska require annual aeration to remain healthy due to the common heavy clay soil.

If soil is compacted, the solution is straightforward: aeration. The practice of physically removing cores of soil and leaving holes or cavities in the lawn is defined as core aeration or aerification.

Where ever possible we us a cam driven aerator that leaves cleaner holes and creates less compaction than the commonly used drum type aerators. Our machine pulls roughly 5/8 inch plugs and averages 12-15 plugs per square foot.


Benefits of Core Aeration

Aeration helps fertilizers reach the root zone and reduce the possibility of run-off.

Aeration helps relieve compaction caused by day to day use.

Aeration allows water to penetrate the soil and alleviate puddling.

Aeration helps roots to grow deeper creating a more drought resistant lawn.

Aeration creates a thicker lawn.

Aeration allows soil amendments to enter the soil profile and get to work quicker.

Aeration reduces the thatch layer which harbors disease and insect pests.

When to Aerate

The type of grass will determine whether to aerate in the fall or in the summer. Lawns composed of cool-season grasses such as Kentucky bluegrass and tall fescue are best aerated in the fall, when there is less heat stress and danger of invasion by weedy annuals. Allow at least four weeks of good growing weather to help the plants recover. Warm-season grasses such as zoysia grass, centipede grass, carpet grass, St. Augustine grass and bermudagrass, on the other hand, are best aerated in late spring and summer, when they are actively growing. With either type of grass, choose a day when soil is moderately moist, which makes the soil easier to penetrate. Avoid aerating a wet soil, as it is messy and leads to further compaction of the soil as well. If the soil sticks to your shoes or if the core sample you take sticks to your probe, you should wait until it dries out some before starting the job.

Aeration of home lawns corrects soil problems but generally is not a routine practice. The best answer to the question, “How often should I aerate?” is, “As often as needed.” Most soils in Nebraska benefit from annual fall aerations. Turfgrass in high traffic areas may need aeration more often than the rest of the lawn. Turfgrasses with low traffic tolerance such as centipede grass and St. Augustine grass may need aeration more often than turfgrasses with good traffic tolerance, such as bermudagrass and zoysia grass.

Small Areas

Aeration is not expensive. The simplest and cheapest way to aerate a small lawn is with a spading fork. Push the tines into the soil as far as you can (at least 4 inches) and rock the fork back and forth to enlarge the holes. This movement will loosen up the soil and make room for new grass roots. One limitation of using a spading fork is that as you are make a hole, you are also forcing soil particles around the hole closer together, causing more compaction. This method is also rather labor-intensive for treating large areas.

For a few dollars you can purchase a sod-coring tool that does a better job. Like the spading fork, this tool is easy to use and ideal for small areas. Unlike the fork, the sod-coring tool removes cores of soil from the lawn instead of pushing the soil aside to create holes. The earthen plugs that are deposited on the lawn after each successive plunge actually benefit the lawn. They contain microorganisms that help to decompose any layers of thatch present.

Large Areas

Aerating larger lawns requires a power-driven core aerator or aerator. The working parts of these machines are spoon-shaped tines or hollow tubes. As the tubes are driven into the lawn, cores of soil are removed from the ground and strewn across the lawn. Both types of tines work equally well, but the hollow tine makes a somewhat cleaner hole than the spoon type and brings up less soil. The tine size varies up to three-quarters of an inch and in depth of penetration up to 3 1/2 inches, depending on the manufacturer’s specifications. The closer tine placement removes more soil, exposes more soil surface area for water and fertilizer movement and alleviates compaction quicker than the wider tine spacing.

Aeration Cores

Soil cores left on turf after aeration.

Penetration depth depends on soil type, soil moisture, tine diameter, and the weight and power of the aerator. Soil cores should be left on the lawn to be broken up by rainfall and traffic. If their appearance bothers you, you can speed up their disappearance by raking them into the grass.

Aerating, Seeding and Soil Amendments

After aerating is one of the best times to overseed and add soil amendments to your lawn. The holes left by the aerator are perfect microclimates for seed germination. Additional soil amendments such as calcium or compost can also be added at this time. The soil amendments will fall into the aeration holes and will be incorporated deeper into the soil profile.

After Aeration

After your lawn has been aerated, continue to water and mow your lawn as normally would. The soil cores left on the turf will slowly break down within a couple of weeks after the completion of the aeration. Be sure to maintain proper soil moisture especially if any overseeding was done at the time of the aeration. It is very important to keep the seed bed moist for the best seed germination results. In the fall, depending on weather conditions this may mean watering 1-2 times per day in late August or once every 1-2 days in late September.

Annual fall core aeration should be the basis of any lawn program in Nebraska. The clay soil that is commonly found in eastern Nebraska is prone to compaction which will lead to poor water infiltration, shallow roots and poor turf quality. Adding a fall aeration to your turf program will help protect the investment you have made in your lawn.

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