Aerating involves piercing numerous holes into the lawn soil a few inches from each other. These holes are beneficial to a lawn because they allow for increased air flow in the soil, better water penetration, improved root growth, and an overall easier route for vital nutrients to gain access to the soil/roots. The best time to aerate is in the fall for cool-season grasses and late spring for warm-season grasses.
Aerating is particularly useful on compacted lawn soil. Compact soil creates a barrier that makes it difficult for the roots to receive water and nutrients. The holes created by the aerator loosen the soil and provide a gateway for nutrients to enter.
Compacted lawn soil can sometimes be obvious to detect. Some of these obvious signs are pooling rain water on the lawn surface or runoff on sloped areas.
If compacted soil is suspected but not evident, a homeowner can probe the soil with a screwdriver or pitch fork to gauge how easy or difficult it is to penetrate deep into the soil. A struggle to insert the probe is often a sign of compaction.
Another method to determine compaction is to remove a small section of the lawn with a shovel or spade about 7 inches deep. If the grass roots are shallow into the soil (less than the 7 inches removed), this is a red flag that the soil is compacted. Yearly or biannually aerating will commonly help these roots grow deeper.
Aerating With a Machine
The common and often most efficient method to aerate a home lawn is to rent a core aerator machine from a local tool rental place. The cost to rent one at Home Depot in our area is $63.00 for 4 hours or $90.00 per day. Do not be fooled, it will be a laborious task to maneuver the machine around the yard. You can view the below video for a example of machine core aeration for first time use.
If renting a core aerator is unappealing to you, you can hire out the work from a local lawn maintenance company. Prices will vary based on your location, but expect to pay more than the rental cost for doing it yourself. As an alternative, you can manually aerate your lawn for a fraction of the cost of using a machine.
Aerating By Hand (Without a Machine)
While machine core aerating is recommended, there are a few options to aerate by hand. These methods typical will not produce superior results to machine aerating and can be tedious if you have a large lawn. Let’s take a look at a few option on how to aerate by a lawn by hand:
Manual Core Aerator
One of the best ways to aerate a lawn by hand is to use a manual coring aerator such as the Yard Butler pictured below. To use this aerator, you grip the handle with both hands and then drive it into the lawn soil. The foot bar can be used to provide additional leverage to help penetrate the soil.
The Yard Butler pulls out two cores of soil that are approximately .5″ x 3.5″. Once the first cores are pulled, you move forward about 6″ and drive the aerator tool into the lawn again. The newest cores push out the previous cores when the soil is moist. You repeat the process of driving the tool into the ground and pulling out plugs until the whole lawn is aerated. The plugs can be left on the grass. They will quickly disintegrate within a week or two. Otherwise, you can allow the cores to dry and then rake them up.
The below video provides an excellent tutorial on how to use a manual core aerator.
Having used this aerator and as recommended in the above video, you should keep a small pole or similar object in your pocket to clear the tubes. If your lawn soil is dry, you may want to turn the sprinkler on for a few minutes before aerating to reduce the amount of clogging. You will likely experience some level of clogging no matter the soil conditions so be prepared to clear the plug holes.
Furthermore, this type of manual aerating is extremely time consuming. If you have a large lawn, it may not be practical for you to spend many hours repeatedly driving the tool into your lawn. Most people likely want to spend their free time doing more pleasant tasks.
Lastly, if you think this type of aerating will work for you, you may also want to consider the Garden Weasel Core Aerator as an alternative to the Yard Butler featured above. Both products are similar in design and purpose.
Manual Spike Aerator
A manual spike aerator (see the below picture) works similar to the core aerator above but it does not pull plugs. Instead, the spikes on the aerator drive small holes into the lawn soil in an attempt to loosen compacted soil so that the lawn can better receive nutrients.
We highly recommend manually core aerating over the spike method. Spike aerating does not remove soil like core aerating. In fact, there is evidence that spike aeration actually compacts the soil more, or at best has a minimal impact on the lawn.
While spiked shoes seem to be a convenient method for aeration, we recommend staying away from them. The holes they create are typically not deep enough to offer a significant benefit to the lawn. Additionally, as the lawn experts at BioAdvanced indicate, “Spiked shoes don’t work because they impact too small an area and further compact already compacted soil.”
Stick with core aeration, if you plan on manually tackling the job in your yard. It will provide the best manual results, albeit, it will also be a time consuming process. We highly recommend only manually aerating a small yard given the labor hours involved in the task. Lastly, a manual core aerator tool is extremely inexpensive (generally under $30), so even if you buy one and it isn’t for you, you won’t be out a significant amount of money.