Aeration is an often overlooked part of a lawn care regimen.
And yet it can be the difference between an average garden, and a great one, helping to encourage healthy growth, improve drainage, and keep diseases at bay.
But what are lawn aerators? How do they work? Do you know how to use one? Why are they important?
In this article, we take a look at the different types of lawn aerators on the market, and help you decide which one is right for your needs.
Let’s get stuck in.
Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links. If you shop through the links on YardThyme, we may earn an affiliate's commission from qualifying purchases at no additional cost to you. For more information, read full disclosure here.
Types of Aerators – Too Long, Didn’t Read
Life can be pretty fast-paced, and not everyone has the time to read a full article – however short. With that in mind, here’s a brief summary of what’s to come:
Other gardening websites might try to tell you otherwise, but there are, essentially, only three types of lawn aerators:
- Spike aerators.
- Core/plug aerators.
- Liquid aerators.
And within those three types, there are several more “subdivisions” of aerators:
- Hand/manual aerators.
- Aerator “shoes.”
- Electric/gas-powered aerators.
- Tow-behind aerators.
- Soil looseners.
But they will all fall under at least one of the main three types of aerator.
That’s the basic gist of it, but if you want to learn more – including the pros and cons of each, some top tips on how to use them, and if you actually need an aerator at all, I suggest reading on!
What is Lawn Aeration?
For all you rookie green thumbs out there, lawn aeration simply means a process that is designed to loosen compact soil in a lawn and allow the earth to breathe.
And it typically involves using some kind of tool or machine to poke holes in the surface or to remove/break down the material.
While this might sound like a somewhat strange practice to the uninitiated (my neighbor wondered what on earth I was doing), it comes with several benefits that are essential to the life of a healthy lawn.
This includes improving drainage, reducing thatch, encouraging nutrients, air and water to flow into the soil, and more.
This article on the differences between aerating and dethatching explains what sets them apart.
And for a more in-depth explanation of the advantages of lawn aeration – and why you should do it – follow that link.
Does My Lawn Need Aeration?
Before we get stuck into explaining the different types of aerators, it might be a good idea to ascertain if your lawn needs to be aerated in the first place.
In which case, you need to stick something into it.
Grab a pen or a screwdriver, and push it into the soil on your lawn. If you meet with any kind of resistance, then there’s a good chance you need to aerate the area.
Another key tell happens during/after rainfall.
Keep an eye out when the clouds open, and if you have any puddles or patches of water left on your lawn for any length of time, then it could probably benefit from some drainage assistance.
And if you happen to live in a region with heavily clay-based soil, then you don’t even need to do the screwdriver test – your lawn is definitely going to need aerating at least once a year.
As mentioned in the introduction, aerators will fall into three main categories – spike, core, and liquid. Each is explained in more detail, below.
A spike aerator is any tool or device used to poke a hole in the surface of a lawn. Simply put, they use metal tines to drive into the soil, creating as many holes as there are spikes with each pass.
So, you can use anything that pokes holes?
Pretty much. A standard garden fork can be used as a spike aerator, by walking on your lawn, and then driving the tines into the turf every few feet.
In fact, the humble garden fork has so many uses, it’s easily included in the most essential garden tools list.
But this sounds so simple – why would anyone need any other kind of grass aerator?
Well, apart from it being backbreaking work (believe me – I’ve tried), spiked aerators have significant disadvantages from other types.
As the tines drive into the surface, the soil underneath is only being compacted downwards, as each hit with the spike simply compresses the material, rather than removing it completely.
Which kind of defeats the object, doesn’t it?
Technically, the soil is still going to have the same volume, so has there really been any decompacting at all?
They’re also the cheapest of all the options available, and they don’t leave soil or material on the surface, like core aerators do.
This can look like animal droppings until it decomposes, and – although it’s actually beneficial for the grass – some gardeners don’t like this aesthetic strewn across their lawns.
Next up, we’ve got core aerators, which, as you might have guessed, actually removes material from the lawn, using hollow tines.
Think about when you core an apple – and you’ll get the idea.
Otherwise known as plug aerators, they work in a similar fashion to spikes, but instead of driving the soil down, the tines actually collect material, bringing it up to the surface, and then depositing it on top of the lawn.
This can be done by hand, or with gas-powered machines, or tow-behind aerators for use with a lawn tractor or ATV (more on this, below).
The major advantage that core aerators have over every other type, is the fact that they genuinely do the job they’re being asked to do – removing material, and allowing the soil to decompact.
However, their one main disadvantage is that they leave little plugs of soil deposits all over the yard – which can look unsightly, and take a while to break down.
But if you don’t mind your lawn having a few “soil turds” scattered around for a couple of weeks, this can actually benefit the turf in the long run, as the material breaks down and turns into compost.
Another potential downside is that soil and material can get stuck in the tines – especially with manual core aerators. In order for it to continue to be effective, you need to stop and clear the blockage.
With that in mind, core aerators are arguably more suitable for clay-based soils.
For a more detailed look at spike vs plug aerators, follow that link, and find out which comes out on top overall.
The third most common type of lawn aerator is a liquid version. And of the three, this is the one that causes the most discussion and debate.
Does it actually work?
First, a word on how it’s dispensed.
A liquid lawn aerator is a non-toxic compound that is mixed with water and sprayed on the soil surface. They might also be called “soil looseners.”
To make things easier, they’re usually applied in conjunction with a special adaptor for your garden hose.
This Dial and Spray product from Ortho is a good example, and is the one I’ve been using when testing out liquid lawn aerators. I highly recommend it.
The problem is – the jury is well and truly out on whether it actually works!
Case in point – I tried it last year, after watching a couple of YouTube videos claiming that it was effective, and that you will clearly see results.
But I wasn’t particularly impressed, and couldn’t really tell if anything had happened at all.
Then again, maybe I did it wrong? Perhaps I didn’t use enough? Maybe I had an inferior product? Perhaps my lawn didn’t actually need aerating in the first place.
There’s no doubt that liquid aerators can save you a lot of time and effort – and money, too, if you’re not hiring a machine every year, or buying an expensive gas-powered model outright.
And the technology is thought to be improving all the time – so perhaps a truly effective liquid aerator is within our grasp?
Take a look at the video below, which champions liquid as the best type of aerator for lawns, and see if it makes your mind up.
Manual vs Machine vs Tow-Behind
Liquid aeration aside for one moment, let’s further explore the different types of aerators available – when it comes to how they’re powered.
Each of these options are typically available as either spike and/or core aerators.
“Manual” aerators can include versatile tools like garden forks, but there are more dedicated aerating tools and equipment out there.
However, it’s going to take a lot of effort to use on larger areas, and you’re in for a serious work-out.
You need to have a decent level of fitness to use one, and it’s probably best reserved for spot treatments, or aerating smaller lawns.
And you will most certainly need to wear some good quality gloves while using it – so follow that link for some excellent options.
You can also purchase aerator footwear – which is as gimmicky as it sounds. Sandals with spikes on the bottom that you strap on over your shoes.
In theory, it’s genius – take a walk around your yard and let the spikes on the bottom of your shoes do the work for you. Or, better yet – get the kids to do it, if you have some running around.
But theory doesn’t always translate to practice. If the ground is particularly packed, then it’s not going to be that easy to take each step, and your gentle stroll has suddenly turned into a hike up Everest.
And if a shoe does get stuck, then a fall and possibly a twisted ankle might be the result.
Another manual alternative is a rolling aerator, which works in a similar fashion to a cylinder push lawnmower, or even a lawn roller.
Instead of blades to cut the grass, it features a drum wheel with spikes, which penetrate the ground with each rotation as it’s pushed along.
There are pros and cons with this method, however, as while it can save a lot of time and effort compared to the manual stick-and-stamp aerator, it isn’t nearly as effective at the job.
That’s because for a tool to be genuinely useful for aeration, it needs to have enough weight behind it to properly dig into the turf – especially if said turf is particularly dense.
Which brings me nicely onto motorized/machine aerators – and tow-behind options.
If you don’t fancy the hard slog, then these aerators could well be the better choice for you. However, they certainly come with a few caveats.
Walk-behind, gas-powered aerators are extremely expensive, and given that most people need them less than once a year, they’re really only useful/practical for lawn-care professionals, or if you have the money and the storage space.
If you’re serious about lawn aeration, and you have a medium to large lawn to cover, then consider renting a gas-powered core machine each year, or as and when necessary.
Electric aerators are more affordable, and they often come as part of a dethatcher/aerator package. You can switch out the drum depending on the job you need them to do.
Remember – don’t confuse the two – and make sure you get a machine with a dethatcher and an aerator tool.
Alternatively, you can visit this link for a comparison between power rakes and dethatchers, to find out which one you need. (Clue – they’re pretty much the same thing.)
Another option is to use a tow-behind aerator, which, again, can be of either the spike or the core variety.
Tow behind aerators are actually relatively inexpensive, but they do come with one major downside – you need the right vehicle with which to pull them.
They also need to be weighed down in some manner. Some will be drum rollers, which you need to fill with water or sand (again, similar to a lawn roller). Others, you weigh down by strapping bricks or cinder blocks to the top.
But they can certainly get the job done, and can be the best choice if you have a particularly large area of lawn to cover.
Finally, you can also purchase aerator attachments that are compatible with zero-turn lawnmowers and other ride-on machines, and sit in front of the cutting deck – rather than towing behind.
It’s possible that there is a fourth type of lawn aerator – a granular/dry soil conditioner.
Sometimes called soil amendments, soil conditioners are products designed to improve the overall structure of the soil, and increase its fertility.
They’re useful for areas that need a boost, to generate lawn health, and/or to revitalize growth, and they work by increasing soil carbon, adding organic matter and improving nutrient and water uptake in plants.
And, potentially, improving aeration at the same time.
However, as it isn’t a dedicated lawn aerator, I wouldn’t rely on a soil conditioner alone. Perhaps when used in conjunction with another method, you will see the best possible results.
Lawn Care Program – Where Does Aeration Fit In?
There’s a lot to consider when it comes to lawn care.
When and how much to water? How do you overseed successfully? How do you deal with yellow grass?
And where does lawn aeration fit into all the chaos?
The general rule of thumb is after dethatching but before overseeding.
And speaking of dethatching, check out this review of the best dethatchers on the market. Perfect for removing dead grass, debris, and other material from your lawn, before you bust out the aerator.
Our complete lawn aeration guide will tell you all you need to know about poking holes in your garden – including how to do it, suggestions on what to use, and how often it needs to be done.
What is the Best Lawn Aerator?
So, after all that, of all the different types of lawn aerators available, have we come to a conclusion on which is the best one?
The answer is – not really.
What works for me might not work for you.
Some folks prefer the affordability of a garden fork, others the novelty of aeration shoes, some the heavy-duty gas-powered aerator machine, while many choose the tow-behind option if they already have an ATV or tractor.
It’s up to you to decide which type is right for you and your lawn. And sometimes, the final decision will come down to the trial and error of a number of options.
This general article on the best lawn aerators should point you in the right direction if you’re still figuring things out.
As there are several types of lawn aerators out there, you might have a spot of bother choosing the right one.
Hopefully, this article has helped you decide – and you should tell us in the comments which method is right for you.
Alternatively, do let us know if you’re seeing success with a particular type – and share it with the community. Us gardening folks are always on the lookout for products and techniques that actually work.
Good luck with your lawns, stay safe out there, and happy aerating!