Ordinarily, earthworms (and moles and termites) aerate the soil. And we’re happy with the worms. Less so with the burrowers and rodents. But when you’re looking at a lawn in need of ‘refurbishing’, a lawn aerator is an important tool.
You can use different devices to aerate your lawn. And they look a lot alike. So let’s begin by getting familiar with these machines.
How to Use a Lawn Aerator
Tip #1: Understand the Tools
If you look up lawn aeration, you’ll soon bump into multiple machines that all seem to do the same job. This can be puzzling for a DIY gardener, so start by distinguishing these devices so you can use the right tool for the right job. Let’s start with power rakes, aerators, lawn corers and dethatchers. They all resemble lawnmowers but it’s not just an issue of UK/US English.
- Lawn Aerator – Lawn aerators dig holes in your lawn to help the grass feed better. They can have electronic rotary spikes or ‘cores’. Rotary spikes don’t pull out any soil. They work best for loose soil types like sand, loam, or lightly mixed earth.
- Lawn Corer – Lawn corers have hollow spikes called tines. They poke holes in the ground and extract cylindrical cores called soil plugs, leaving open holes in the ground. They work best for dense soils like clay because the tines penetrate better than spikes.
- Dethatcher – Dethatchers have rotary blades that ‘slice the soil’. They cut through the top layers of your lawn so they’re ideal for light resurfacing and small-scale weeding. These are domestic devices that barely cut half an inch into your lawn.
- Power Rake – This gadget is stronger and cuts deeper than dethatchers. It’s a good way to prepare your garden for reseeding. Do this annually for general maintenance.
- Manual Aerators – You can find analogue devices that aerate in different ways. These include hand aerators, garden forks, Saxon push aerators, and even aerating sandals.
We’ll look at each type, explain how to use is, and help you decide what works best for you.
Tip #2: Comprehend the Process
What exactly is lawn aeration? Well, we know that plants help us breathe better by absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen. At least during the day. At night, the process reverses, but that’s okay because your typical lawn is outdoors. So you don’t have to worry about this. Also, grass roots and debris sometimes compact the soil so air and water can’t get through.
Your lawn won’t soak up all the oxygen and suffocate you while you sleep. It does need to breathe though, and it acquires thatch – a mixed layer of dead and living plant material. Thatch develops between the soil and the grass. It stops your grass from effectively absorbing water and nutrients. So aeration bores holes in the lawn to help your grass ‘eat and drink’.
Tip #3: Choose the Right Tool
You may have noticed the main difference between aeration tools is the type of tine. Forks and home-made aerators have solid tines. These might be long nails or garden prongs. Some forks like the Swardman Fork are specifically designed for coring so their tines are hollow. This type of hollow tine is best for dense clay soil. Solid tines are ideal for loose sandy soil.
Then of course there are electrical aerators that slice the soil rather than drilling it. These work like lawnmowers so you power them up and roll across the yard. These mechanical aerators use petrol or diesel so they’re not green. Check that the fuel is readily available.
Tip #4: Bring Out the Pitch Fork
Well, okay, the gardening fork. You probably have one lying around so no need to buy new equipment. But just like spades and shovels, there’s some disagreement about definition and usage. Plus, not all outdoor forks are equal. Some are curved to facilitate scooping. Others are enlarged for massive lawns or miniaturised for kids and gardeners of smaller stature.
You don’t need much guidance on how to use an aerator if your tool of choice is a garden fork. Simply point the fork at the lawn and use your foot to press it down. Wiggle the fork to widen the holes and create more space. Then pull out the fork, move a few inches, and repeat. The spacing between your holes will depend on how densely the soil is compacted.
Tip #5: Get the Right Footwear
If you’ve ever watched Pippi Long Stockings, you know all about her scrubbing shoes. So it may not surprise you that DIY landscapers came up with something similar for their lawns. Typically, gumboots are the best gardening wear. Here, you need ‘Air Spikes’, pun intended. You can buy a pair from the hardware store and assemble it or you can design a pair at home.
These ‘shoes’ are extremely easy to use. Just latch them under your garden shoes and walk around the lawn. The spikes attached to the sandal soles will dig holes in the soil, improving the circulation of air and water. This lets your roots push deeper so they can breathe and feed more efficiently. After your spiky stroll, water the lawn to let the goodies sink into the soil.
Tip #6: Construct a Lawn Roller
We mentioned a few aeration devices earlier and this one didn’t feature. It’s a crossbreed between manual and electric aerators. You do have to push (or pull) it so it applies the same … mechanics. But it doesn’t use a motor. It’s a home-made version with nails drilled into a log. A handle and wheels are then attached for ease of use. It’s more work, but it’s cheaper.
This DIY lawn roller relies on muscle power so it will only work on loose lawns. You’ll have to roll your lawn after watering or following an afternoon drizzle. The moisture softens the soil and makes it easier to roll your device along the lawn. You can still roll on a dry day, but you’ll sweat a lot more and your nails may not sink deep enough to do anything constructive.
Tip #7: Hydrate Before and After
You probably know coring works best when the ground is soft. You only need to do it once a year. Maybe twice if the lawn is unhealthy. So time it for a drizzly day when the lawn is damp but not waterlogged. Cut the grass before you aerate. This clears the pathway and makes that thatch more visible beneath the fresh grass. You can see how deep it goes – an inch is bad.
If it’s not a rainy time of year, cut the grass two days before coring and water the lawn a day before aerating. You can water the lawn again once you’re done aerating. If you’re using hollow tines, you’ll have to clean up afterwards. Do a quick lap around the yard collecting plugs. It’s not life-or-death, but those loose plugs could attract pests or track mud indoors.
Tip #8: Get the Spacing Right
Distance is an important consideration when you’re figuring out how to use a lawn aerator. With automated aerators, the machine has pre-set spacing. So before you start, you can calibrate the right distance between holes. But only if your lawn corer is adjustable.
Some corers have multiple blades so you can alternate blade type, blade size, or blade design. Others have hollow tines and allow you to adjust the depth of your soil plugs. Remember, aeration needs a lawn that is soft but not muddy, so water it two or three days in advance.
Tip #9: Do a Little Lift
With automated power rakes, you don’t actually push the machine. The motor runs independently, and if you stop paying attention, it may just run off! So rather than pushing, hold the handles and tilt the machine slightly towards your body. That way, the blades penetrate the lawn more efficiently. You may have to do several rounds if the soil is dense.
This is an engine-powered machine so if the weather is too cold, rev it for a few minutes to warm it up. Many aerators have adjustable speed so you can tweak the throttle if you need to. When you want to turn the aerator, pull the spies out of the ground before turning. And once you’re done, you can scatter sand over the yard. It stops the plugs from resealing too soon.
Tip #10: Try Doing it By Hand
Power aerators are convenient but pricy. And because they use petroleum-based fuel, they affect your carbon footprint. So if your yard is on the smaller side and you’re environmental ethics are uneasy with machines, try coring your garden using hollow two-pronged hand tools. Pre-wet the ground but not too much – these aerators are stronger than garden forks.
Besides, if the lawn is too damp, any holes you make will immediately refill. Hand aerators have footholds tailored to fit your foot so just position it and step down. Consider refilling the holes with organic manure. It holds water better than soil does, and as the manure decomposes, it will fertilise your lawn. Some kinds of manure deter garden pests as well.
Tip #11: Stomp, Spray, and Sharpen
Aerator sandals are among the easiest and most fun aeration devices. It’s a cheeky way to get kids involved in yard work as well. Use a spray bottle to spot treat weeds as you stomp through the lawn. But whether you’re stepping or rolling your lawn corer, keep it sharp. Manual corers are easy to maintain. Buy metal devices that you can sharpen at home.
Roller tines should be sharpened as well, even if it’s a DIY-nail version. For hollow tines, clean them to remove muddy residue. And if you don’t want to go plug-collecting, you can let them dry out then crush them with a powerful lawnmower. But be sure the lawnmower can handle the load. Otherwise, you may short-circuit the motor or damage your blades.
Tip 12: Check for Weights
With many aerators, you support the machine rather than actively pushing it. That’s because the machine’s motor and its counterbalance create enough force and momentum. But when you’re transporting or storing your aerator, you may struggle with the bulk. So check whether your aerator has removable counterweights. Many modern ones do so that helps.
In addition to solid weights, some have a water tank you can fill when you need extra kilos. You can also check whether your machine can turn in place or needs to be lifted. Raising the tines at the end of each row can get exhausting, even if the machine has a tine lever. So if you’re willing to spend a little more, invest in a device that can spin in place without rising.
Tip #13: Get Some Garden Flags
Your garden probably has other things in it besides grass. You might have pavers, flower pots, underground pipes, sprinklers, or even hidden rocs if you live in a stony area. Before you start aerating, walk around the yard with a few flag markers. Place them strategically to avoid damaging your aerator. Your flags should point out sprinkler heads and seedbeds.
You can also use the marker to identify especially pebbly spots. That way, you can pass your machine over the open grass but use a hand aerator on these stony spots. Another use for these flags is to mark the correct spacing for hand-coring. Just follow the flags!
Tip #14: Try a Weighted Wagon
You don’t see too many people driving their lawnmowers on this side of the pond. Maybe because our gardens are relatively small. You also won’t hear much about ‘cool grass and tropical grass’ because we have rain most of the year. In the tropics, it’s best to aerate in early spring to undo winter damage or early fall when there’s heavy leaf fall that clogs the yard.
And in ‘cool grass’ areas, it’s best to aerate during the ‘ber months’ after the fall – September, October, November, December. But if you do want to try a little ride-along, you can get a tractor, ATV, or even a golf cart and winch an aerator to the back. Now you can drive around the yard as it aerates itself. And you can use the cores for mulching when you’re done.
Tip #15: Don’t Use a Slicer
As a gardening novice, all these machines look like lawnmowers. So if you walk into a hardware store or gardening outfit, you might buy or rent the wrong thing. You don’t want to buy a power rake or a dethatcher, because they have slicing blades instead of tines. Their work is to cut off the top layer of thatch so you can weed, feed, or reseed your lawn.
The final issue is one of soil plugs. What do you do with them? We’ve already mentioned you can collect them. Or let them dry and run them over with a lawnmower. If you choose to gather them, you can dump them in your compost or veggie garden. But if you don’t mind the mess, just leave them on the lawn and let them break apart naturally, no harm done.
Do you have any tips on how to use a lawn aerator? Share them with us in the comments!