At certain times of the year, your lawn will look dull, lifeless, and in need of a boost.

But just by following a few, relatively simple maintenance procedures, you can turn it around in time for barbecue season.

And lawn aeration is just one of those tricks.

Often overlooked, it’s one of the best ways to ensure healthy grass growth, as well as multiple other useful benefits.

Read on to find out all you need to know about aerating a lawn – how it’s done when to do it, and what to do afterwards.

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How to Aerate a Lawn – Simple Steps

As there’s always something that needs to be done and homeowners never seem to stop, I’ll add a brief summary of the article here if you’re in a rush.

  • Check your lawn needs aeration by sticking a screwdriver or pen into the surface – if it meets with any resistance – you need to aerate.
  • Remove thatch from your lawn if required.
  • Water your lawn if it’s too dry – best done the day before.
  • Highlight or remove hazards and obstacles if using an aerating machine.
  • Aerate!
  • Repeat if required.
  • Optional – overseeding and feeding to repair and boost the lawn.

That’s all there is to it, but if you would like to know more about each stage in detail, or if you have any more questions you’d like answering – then keep reading.

Alternatively, for more bite-sized information on how to make your lawn thicker and fuller – you should follow that link.

yellow aerator on green lawn

What is Lawn Aeration?

Over time, our lawns can become dense and compacted – especially if they suffer a lot of traffic (vehicles or feet/paws), or they sit under heavy snowfall for several months of the year.

If this isn’t addressed, it can cause a number of problems – as further explained below.

Simply put, lawn aeration is the process in which you either poke holes or remove material from the lawn by using a machine – called a lawn or core aerator, or by hand with a suitable tool.

There are two different types:

  • Spike aeration is where you poke holes in the lawn using a tool or machine with metal tines.
  • Plug aeration is where you use a tool or machine that removes “plugs” of soil from the lawn.

Spike Versus Plug Aeration – Which Should You Choose?

Both types of lawn aeration have their advantages and disadvantages.

Spike aeration leaves little mess and is probably the easier and more accessible of the two. It’s the ideal quick solution for improving many of your lawn’s problems.

However, bear in mind that you’re simply compacting the soil down under the tines, rather than actually removing any material from it.

Plug aeration addresses that and removes a “plug” section of the soil to be deposited on the surface.

Often called core aerators, there are some who might think that the material they leave behind is an eyesore, as they can look like animal droppings strewn all over your yard.

This can be a chore to clean up – although they really should be left to break down and benefit the overall health of the lawn.

And in particularly clay-heavy soil, a spike aerator isn’t going to be nearly as effective as a plug version.

Still, it’s entirely up to you, and although the pro landscape and lawn gurus will all tell you that core aeration is the way to go, using spikes is certainly better than nothing.

lawn aerating with spikes

Why Should You Aerate Your Lawn?

There are all sorts of benefits to aerating a lawn, including allowing nutrients to flow and reach the root system, improved irrigation and drainage, weed prevention and control, and as an important step in the overseeding process.

Quick tip: But to keep it simple, if your soil is too compact, it’s likely to be starving the grass of the essentials it needs to thrive – such as air and water.

A lawn needs to breathe and be hydrated – just like we do.

This is especially true when the hot season kicks in and a lawn is suffering through its most stressful time of the year.

If the soil is even moderately compacted, you’re going to see a withered, yellowing surface, and grass will eventually die off.

Thankfully, that nightmare scenario is easily avoided, and you should check now to see if your lawn is crying out for a bit of space.

You can also read this article for a more in-depth analysis of the benefits of lawn aeration, which explores all the plus points in detail, with a bit of the science thrown in for good measure.

The Screwdriver Trick

Whenever hearing or reading about lawn aeration, you’ll no doubt come across something called the “screwdriver trick,” or a similar phrase.

This refers to a technique you can use to find out if your lawn actually needs to be aerated.

Simply take a screwdriver (or pen that you don’t mind getting dirty) and stick it into the surface of your lawn.

If it goes in easily – there’s no need for action.

But if it meets with any kind of resistance, then you could well do with a spot of aeration to help free things up.

And if your lawn has never been aerated at all – to the best of your knowledge – then it certainly won’t hurt to give a bit of much-needed long-awaited release.

Think of it as letting out your waist belt after a particularly large meal.

person aerating a lawn

When to Aerate a Lawn

The good news is – this is not something you need to do as regularly as mowing.

Far from it in fact, and experts advise that you should only be aerating your lawn at least once every one to three years.

If your grass has never experienced the joys of aerating before (and you’ll find that the vast majority of residential lawns haven’t – it’s not exactly on every homeowner’s radar), then you should definitely give it a go.

But when is the best time to aerate a lawn?

That depends on the type of grass you have.

For cool-season grasses (usually if you live in the northern half of the United States – for example) the best time to aerate is in the spring or the fall.

For warm-season grasses (if you live in the southern half) you should be aerating late fall and early summer.

You can read this article for a more in-depth guide on when you should aerate your lawn.

Check out the video below for more information on finding out what type of grass you have. If you’re serious about lawn care, it’s essential that you know what species your lawn is rocking.

Hiring a Professional/Hiring a Machine

I’m not going to sugar coat this – aerating a lawn can be very hard work.

Particularly if you’re doing it by hand with a manual aerating tool.

I’ve literally done my relatively small front yard (somewhere between 700-1000 square feet) this week, and I did it all with the power of my own steam using this device.

After just one pass I was ready to call it quits as I was wheezing like I’d climbed Everest – and that’s even as the tool was working well.

As such, there’s no shame in hiring a pro to do the job for you – especially if you’re of advancing years, you’re not physically capable, or you have no time to dedicate to the process.

Alternatively, you could hire an aerating machine – which is a heavy, gas-powered piece of equipment that you walk behind similar to a lawnmower.

You’re probably looking at around $80-120 bucks for four hours rental, and considerably more if you’ll need it for the day.

Bear in mind that landscaping professionals often charge an arm and a leg – as this is a very labor-intensive process and can take time – especially on larger properties.

How to Aerate Your Lawn – The Tools You’ll Need

As previously mentioned, lawn aeration can be done with either a manual hand tool or a machine.

There is a third option, in the form of a tow-behind aerator, usually reserved for homeowners with, particularly large gardens.

This tool attaches to the back of a lawn tractor or even one of these commercial zero-turn mowers for anyone with an industrial-sized job ahead of them.

And that’s what choosing the right tool comes down to – the size of your lawn.

For tiny to small yards, a manual hand tool is the most suitable.

The Yard Butler Core Aerator is the device I’ve been using – and it works like a treat. I would really only recommend it for smaller lawns, however – or for spot-treating larger areas.

You can also try to use a regular garden fork – but that will be particularly backbreaking. I compared the two – and it was no contest.

A push along rolling lawn aerator might be worth a shot – and you need to add weight using a concrete block to make it work.

And you can get aerator shoes that strap to your footwear, so you can simply walk across your lawn for the desired result.

But the jury is out on just how effective – not to mention practical (and potentially gimmicky) this actually is. I doubt you’d ever see a pro wearing them.

For medium-sized lawns, renting is the way to go (which is what I should have done in hindsight).

You can purchase aerating machines, but they are ridiculously expensive and really only useful for landscaping and lawn-care professionals, considering you’ll only need it every one to three years.

For property remotely on the large side, you probably already have a decent lawn tractor, and so a tow-behind aerator will work best.

(If you don’t have a decent lawn tractor – or if you’re in the market for a new one – you can follow that link for an excellent comparison between the best Husqvarna, John Deere, and Cub Cadet machines.)

This 48-inch tow-behind plug aerator from John Deere is a good example, but there are so many available to choose from, there’s bound to be one to suit your needs and your particular vehicle.

John Deere Tow-Behind Plug Aerator

Take a look at this link for more of the best lawn aerators on the market, with an in-depth buying guide to help you pick exactly the right one.

Dethatching

Before you even begin to poke holes in your lawn, it’s a good idea to check for and dethatch if required.

Thatch is the layer of dead and living grass and other lawn material and debris that accumulates between the soil and the grass blades.

Quick tip: If your thatch layer is over 0.75 inches, your lawn could well be suffering, as it acts like a sponge and can starve the soil and roots of vital nutrients and prevent adequate drainage.

As dethatching requires a complete article unto itself, as luck would have it I’ve written one, and you can head over to this ultimate dethatching guide for more information.

You can also check out this post on the differences between dethatching and aeration – with some additional help in deciding which one is right for your lawn.

And this piece might prove useful if you’d like to know the full benefits of dethatching, and what it can do for a tired swatch of green space.

Aerating a Lawn – A Step-By-Step Guide

Now that you have your tool or machine of choice, you’ve figured out that your lawn needs aerating, it’s the right time of year for your grass to do it, and you’ve properly dethatched – it’s time to get started.

Follow my step-by-step guide below for professional-standard aeration.

Water the Lawn

Attempting to aerate a bone-dry lawn is going to spell disaster for you and the turf itself, resulting in a backbreaking, time-consuming process that could do some serious damage to the surface.

The day before you aerate, water the ground up to about one inch to ensure it’s nice and supple for when you’re ready to go.

Don’t overdo it – it doesn’t need to be a quagmire. Just make sure it’s adequately moist.

Read this article for more information about watering your lawn – with some top tips on how and when to do it like a pro.

Highlight/Remove Hazards

If you’re aerating by hand, you can probably skip this step, but for machine or tow-behind aeration, it is essential.

Mark out or remove any obstacles and hazards in the lawn, such as sprinklers or utility lines.

Make no mistake, if you drive or pass over something like that with a heavy aerator it’s going to all but destroy it.

I recommend using marking flags like the ones you can find at that link – but feel free to use any system that works for you.

It’s a good idea to give the lawn a general once-over and ensure there’s no debris, toys or equipment lying around.

perfect green lawn in backyard

Aerating

Finally, you’re ready to make that first pass.

For manual aerators, you’ll want to be poking holes or coring plugs every 6-12 inches. It doesn’t need to be measured out for accuracy, just get into a rhythm and eyeball it.

It’s not a woodworking project – you’re just poking holes in a lawn.

If your soil is particularly compacted, or you miss a few spots, it’s advisable to go over the ground again. To mix it up, make your second run perpendicular to the first.

However, with a decent machine or tow-behind aerator, this is unlikely, and you don’t want to overdo it. If your lawn looks like a cribbage board – then you’ve done a good job.

Make sure to leave any plugs of soil on the surface afterwards – don’t dare clean that stuff up. It’ll break down in about a week, and the nutrients it provides will be beneficial to the remaining soil.

Because science!

Water Again

Once you’re done, water the lawn again to hydrate down into the roots and boost the lawn’s health as a result.

That feeling you get when you satisfy your thirst – that’s what’s happening to your lawn’s root system right now.

Optional Overseed and Feed

Once you’ve turned the machine off, parked the tractor, or hung up the tool, you can feel free to leave it there – your lawn is already benefiting from your hard work.

However, now you have an opportune moment to keep up the pressure and achieve a really stunning surface that a groundskeeper would be proud of.

After aerating is the best time to overseed – which can promote new growth and cover up any bald patches in your lawn.

This is a particularly useful tactic when we come out of the cold season, and you can read this article for more information on how best to care for a lawn after winter.

Regardless of if you overseed or not, adding a turf builder or other such lawn feed at this point is also highly recommended, as it will give your lawn the jump start it requires – especially if it’s been dormant for so long.

Check out the video below for a full guide to overseeding – and what you can achieve with a bit of hard work and dedication.

FAQs

What is lawn aeration?

Lawn aeration is the process of poking holes or lifting plugs of soil from a lawn in order to decompact the soil and improve air and water flow.

It also has many other extensive benefits as outlined above.

When should I aerate my lawn?

You should aerate your lawn once every one to three years, depending on how compact the soil has become.

Use the screwdriver trick, by inserting a screwdriver into the soil, and if it meets resistance, you should think about aerating.

For cool-season grasses, aerate in the spring or fall, and for the warm season, go to work in the late spring or early summer.

What is the best way to aerate your lawn?

Landscape and lawn-care pros will tell you the best way to aerate a lawn is to use a core aerator – a machine or tool that removes plugs of soil from the surface.

Spike aeration also works, although it’s not as effective. Remember, you’re trying to decompact the soil, and the only way you can really do that is by removing some of it.

Does aerating a lawn make a difference?

Yes, it most certainly does. You’ll wonder why you’ve never tried it before. It should be just as accepted as mowing the lawn in households.

Aerating your lawn will improve drainage, help prevent and control weeds, promote thicker, greener grass, and helps the surface to withstand stressful summers – to name but a few benefits.

What do you do after you aerate your lawn?

Immediately after, you should water the lawn one more time. After that, you don’t have to do anything if you don’t want to – your lawn will naturally benefit from the breather.

However, this is the best time to overseed and feed – add new grass seeds for a thicker, healthier surface, as well as patching up any bare or bald spots.

And the effectiveness of lawn fertilizer will improve right after aeration – so it’s a good time to get some of that down to boost lawn health.

Furthermore, while dethatching and aerating can help with weed prevention, after the process is a great time to add a lawn-safe herbicide for a bit of extra help preventing undesirables.

Alternatively, you can check out this article on how to get rid of weeds in your lawn without chemicals.

Summary

Aerating a lawn is a simple maintenance process that can make a huge difference to the health of your turf.

Done at the right time, with the right tools, and in the right way – your grass is going to grow like never before.

They say that grass is always greener on the other side of the hill – and that “hill” can well be your own backyard.

Let me know your own lawn-care tips in the comments, or if there’s anything you’d like to share with the green-thumbed community.

Best of luck, and happy aerating!