Spike vs Plug Aerator – Which is Better and Why?


Aerating your lawn is one of the best ways to give the turf a jump start in health.

The benefits are numerous – especially if you’re looking to establish new grass seed, improve drainage, and control weeds.

And while there are several ways in which you can achieve this with multiple tools, there are really only two main aerator types.

In this article, we take a look at the spike vs plug aerator, and try to figure out which one is the best, and which one is the right option for your lawn.

Let’s get stuck in.

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Spike or Plug Aerator – In a Few Words

In our crazy-busy world, I can appreciate not everyone has the time to read through a full article on the differences between spike and plug aerators.

With that in mind, here’s the straight answer for anyone in a rush:

  • Plug aerators are much more effective, and most lawn care professionals will tell you that this is the method you should be using.
  • Spike aerators are certainly better than nothing, and are useful for quick spot-treatments of problem areas, or if you don’t have immediate access to a plug aerator.

Of course, there is much more to it than that – including how we came to this conclusion, and some extra tips and advice for using each type of aerator.

So, read on if you’d like to understand a bit more about the advantages and disadvantages of each.

What is Lawn Aeration?

Without going into too much detail, (I’ve written a full lawn aeration guide you can discover at that link), Let’s briefly touch on what it actually is.

Lawn aeration is the practice of poking holes or removing plugs in the soil of established turf. You can also use it to loosen compact soil where no grass currently grows if need be.

But why would you do this?

lawn aerator on green lawn closeup

There are a number of key benefits that lawn-care professionals will swear by – but perhaps the main reason is to improve the overall aesthetic and health of your lawn.

All plants need sunlight, water, and nutrients to thrive, and your grass is no different. If it’s being denied them with tight, compact soil, then it’s not going to be looking its best.

Imagine how you’d look and feel if you went without water for a day or two. More than three days and you’d likely be dead.

Compact soil can also encourage thatch build up – and not in a healthy way – which can be like a sponge when it comes to soaking up the natural goodness and preventing it from reaching the turf root system.

Check out this post on the differences between aerating and dethatching if you need to understand the two – and an adequately aerated lawn can seriously help with keeping thatch to a minimum.

And read this article on the top benefits for lawn aeration if you want to know more about why you should be including this as part of any essential gardening regimen.

Spike and Plug Aerators – The Differences

So, we know what lawn aeration does – but how do we achieve it?

Well, you can take a look at this article on the best lawn aerators on the market – but I would ask you to stay your clicking finger a moment longer.

You’ll notice there’s plenty of aerating tools out there, but they can all be divided into two camps – spike or plug – each with their own set of advantages and disadvantages.

Spike Aerators

Spike aerators are identified by their solid metal tines that look not too dissimilar to a set of spikes – funnily enough.

They poke holes in the turf which decompacts the soil and allows water and nutrients to get down to the root system. Their main advantage over plug aerators, is that they don’t leave soil or mess on the lawn surface – which some people prefer.

However, if you imagine the action of a spike aerator, all it’s doing is forcing the soil downwards, and compacting it below the tine.

This is basically defeating the object.

While this might be a decent temporary solution – and can certainly help with quick drainage or spot treatment – it’s not nearly as effective as taking material out of the lawn.

Still, they have their place, and can be useful for speedy results, or if you don’t have immediate access to a plug aerator.

Types of Spike Aerator

Below, you’ll find some popular examples of spiked aerators. Some are more effective than others, and if you’re going down this route, choose a device or tool that’s suitable for the size of your lawn.

Garden Forks

The most basic type of spike aerator is actually a common garden fork. It’s likely you’ll already have one in your shed.

You can use it to poke holes in the turf, as it does pretty much exactly the same job as all the other spike aerators in this list.

This version by True Temper is probably one of the best on the market.

However, while a garden fork easily offers the most versatility of any aerating tool – it’s also the most backbreaking, and probably best reserved for very small plots of land.

Rolling/Push Aerators

Rolling or push aerators look similar to cylinder push mowers, in that they have a handle with a rotating drum attached to the end.

The difference is there are spikes instead of blades, and in theory, you roll the device over the turf, and it punctures holes as you go.

Some models require you to weigh the tool down with cinder blocks or bricks, such as this 16-inch rolling spike aerator from Agri-Fab.

Either way, it’s certainly more preferable than doing it tediously by hand with a fork, but it can still be something of an effort, and you need to make sure you’re physically up to the task.

Tow Behind Spike Aerators

If you happen to have a larger yard or garden, then you’ll no doubt have a garden tractor or some such vehicle.

(If you don’t, you can always take a look at this article on the best Cub Cadet, John Deere, and Husqvarna lawn tractors on the market – and treat yourself to a new toy.)

With such a machine, you can use a tow-behind spike aerator, such as this 40-inch version from Brinly-Hardy.

Brinly-Hardy Tow-Behind Spike Aerator

Again, you’ll need to weigh the tool down with appropriate bricks, but this will certainly help get the job done in no time, with just a few passes over your lawn required in order to complete the process.

Spiked Shoes

When I first saw these, I thought they were something of a gimmick, but I discovered they are a legitimate way to spike aerate a lawn.

You simply strap them on over your boots or shoes and take a stroll around your garden’s turf.

While I’ve not tried them personally, I must admit the jury is out when it comes to the reviews, and it appears they work for some folks but not for others.

There are several varieties available, but this version from Abco Tech appears to be just as effective as any.

The “need to be athletic” is mentioned in one review – and I think never a truer word was spoken.

I think this option is perhaps best left to the fitter and younger gardening generation out there. Better yet – stick them on the feet of your kids and send them out to play.

But if you have clay soil in your yard – I wouldn’t even bother.

Plug Aerator

Often known as core aerators, the plug version of the tool actually removes little “plugs” of soil from the turf, rather than simply poking holes in it.

They use hollow tines that drive into the turf to remove material.

And as you might expect, when it comes to solving the problem of compact soil, this method is much more effective.

So, what’s the downside?

There isn’t one – save the fact that it does leave little soil deposits on your lawn – which some homeowners don’t like.

They can be a bit of an eyesore for a while, and they do look like animal droppings.

However, they break down eventually and will nourish the topsoil and grass as they decompose. So as well as allowing the earth to breathe, you’ve also got yourself some natural fertilizer.

Now, isn’t that worth the price of a messy lawn surface for a week or two?

Types of Plug Aerator

Plug aerators tend to be heavier duty than their spiked counterparts, largely due to the fact that there’s more to them because of the way they work.

You still need to consider the size of your yard when making a choice.

Manual Plug Aerator

Special tools exist that are designed with one goal – to remove plugs of soil from your lawn.

They’re affordable, easy-to-use, and they work relatively well – depending on the quality of the product you’re using.

I have this Yard Butler manual aerator – and it works like a charm.

The problem is, it’s absolutely knackering. Manually removing the soil plugs from the tines after every stake into the ground can be tedious and time-consuming, too.

But if you need to aerate your lawn and get a workout, this comes highly recommended with the official YardThyme seal of approval.

Still, for small yards and gardens, a manual core aerator is a practical and affordable solution.

Core Aerator Machines

For anything larger than about 500 square feet, I would suggest a core aerator machine to do the job.

These are heavy, dedicated, gas-powered pieces of equipment that you push similar to a lawnmower, while the tines turn and remove plugs from your soil.

Unfortunately, such a machine is ridiculously expensive to buy, and really only purchased by lawn-care professionals who will use them on a more regular basis.

Especially when you consider you’re only likely to use it once every few years.

Still, if you’re interested, you can check out this Billy Goat model (link to mowersdirect.com) as a good example.

Renting seems to be the preferred option, and a local tool hire company should have one available.

But out of all the methods for aerating your lawn, I can safely say this is easily the most effective. Once you’ve done a pass with one of these machines, it’s unlikely your lawn will need to be aerated again for a while.

red tractor with tow behind aerator

Tow Behind Core Aerator

Finally, there are tow-behind core aerators, that are very similar to their spiked counterparts.

The only real difference, is that they use those hollow tines to remove soil, rather than just a solid tine point.

This model from John Deere is a fine example, offering a 48-inch width with independent tines and a universal hitch to fit any lawn tractor.

I can confidently say that outside of using a dedicated aeration machine, this is a very close second when it comes to achieving success.

John Deere Tow-Behind Plug Aerator

Liquid Aerators

Although it’s often overlooked in favor of the two methods mentioned above, there is a third option to decompact your soil, and that’s to use a special liquid aerator.

This example from LawnStar seems to be one of the most effective and popular choices, and it makes a decent alternative than doing all the physically demanding work yourself.

It’s environmentally friendly, and contains no harsh chemicals that might damage your lawn or other desirable plant life.

At the same time, it conditions the soil, while being capable of treating up to 30,000 square feet with an easy application using a tank or hose end garden sprayer.

Check out the video below to find out if this method is as successful as physical core aeration – and I think you might be in for a shock!

How Often Should You Aerate Your Lawn?

Thankfully, you don’t need to aerate your lawn that often as part of a gardening schedule – it’s certainly not like cutting the grass.

Professionals estimate you should be aerating once every one to three years – but more in cases of particularly dense soil or areas of high foot and/or vehicle traffic.

And if you have clay soil in your yard, you’ll likely need to aerate at least once and possibly twice a season.

Check out this full guide on when to aerate your lawn, which covers the subject in more detail.

Extra Tips

If there’s one thing I must stress before you attempt to aerate – no matter which method you choose – is that you need to water your lawn beforehand.

It shouldn’t be soaking, but nor should it be bone dry. Too far either way and you’re asking for trouble and likely to damage the turf, create backbreaking work for yourself, or end up with an unholy mess of a yard.

You should water your lawn to at least one inch the day before you aerate, so it’s nice and moist, and ready to be penetrated with your tool.

lawn being watered in closeup

Get your mind out of the gutter.

Top tip – in order to see how much you’ve watered your lawn, you can buy a simple rain gauge, or you can use an empty tuna can – which is conveniently about one inch in size. When it’s full – you’re done.

And you can follow this link for even more tips and tricks for watering your lawn successfully.

FAQs

Which is better – a spike or plug aerator?

While spike aerators have their place – mostly for temporary, fast-treatments that are budget-friendly, a plug aerator is significantly more effective.

The only way to truly decompact the soil, is by lifting material out of it – so core aeration is naturally the preferred choice of the professionals.

Are plug aerators worth it?

Yes. It’s well worth getting a tow-behind aerator or hiring a machine for larger yards, or picking up a good manual core aerator over a spiked version.

Remember – you don’t need to do this every week – or even once a month – and it’s well worth using the best tool for the job.

Do it right the first time, and you and your lawn will reap the rewards.

What type of lawn aerator is best?

As mentioned, I would say the best tool for aerating your lawn is a core or plug aerator. And of these, the best version is a core aerating machine.

But feel free to try whatever method works for you.

Do liquid lawn aerators work?

Surprisingly, yes – they do!

I must admit I was skeptical, but after doing some research and checking out a few videos, I’m going to give this method a go come overseeding in the fall.

Sorry Yard Butler core aerator – I love you – but you wear me out, and you’re much better suited to smaller lawns and spot treatments, anyway.

How often should I spike aerate my lawn?

You only need to aerate your lawn once every one to three years – or if your turf has suffered a particularly dry spell and/or heavy traffic.

If you have pets, kids, or people who like to drive vehicles across your lawn – then you might need to do it more often.

You can always do the screwdriver test – by sticking a screwdriver into the soil, and if it meets with resistance, it could probably do with a spot of aeration.

In the end, there’s no hard and fast rule to this – go with your gut, and you should be fine.

Should I mow before aerating my lawn?

Yes – it’s a good idea to take your grass down to half of what it normally is, and use one of these dethatchers to clear the ground of any dead material, yard waste, and debris.

That said, you don’t have to do this step – and mowing, dethatching, and then aerating in sequence is more useful when you’re putting down grass seed or overseeding existing turf.

Read this article on how to boost the health of your lawn after winter for more information – which can still apply well into spring.

Should I remove the soil plugs after aerating?

Heavens no!

Sure, they might look a bit unsightly for a while – but they’ll break down soon enough, and add vital nutrients to your now grateful soil and grassroots.

Leave ‘em where they lie – and wait for the magic to happen.

Summary

Who would have thought that aerating your lawn could be so interesting?!

Jokes aside, in this battle of the spike vs plug aerator – there really is only one winner.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below, or if you have any lawn aeration experience, tips, and tricks you’d like to share with the community.

Happy aerating!

Andy Gibson

My name's Gibson. Andy Gibson. I like to think of myself as the Bond of the backyard, that is if yard work ever became sexy. I write about everything about indoor and outdoor gardening and the dread-it-but-still-need-to-do-it chores around the yard, like cleaning out the gutter guards.

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