How to Aerate Your Lawn

Keep your grass healthy and green with these tips on how and when to aerate your lawn.

While just about every homeowner knows their lawn needs watering, mowing, and fertilizing to look its best, many people don't know that aerating a lawn is also part of basic yard care. The job can be a bit tedious, but it's not difficult, and the benefits of aeration—green, healthy grass—make those few hours well spent.

There are several ways to aerate your lawn with a variety of soil aeration tools such as aerator shoes and gas-powered machines, but with whichever method you choose, your soil will be perforated with small holes to penetrate the roots.

large trellis in lawn

Why Aerate Your Lawn?

Over time, soil tends to compact and become hard due to foot traffic, mowing, clay soil, or poor drainage. This prevents water, oxygen, and nutrients from reaching the hungry roots. As a result, the turf becomes thin, pale, or patchy.

Lawn aeration—a process of making holes in the turf—breaks up hard soil so that water and nutrients penetrate the grass roots more easily. There are two basic types of lawn aerators:

  • Spike aerators, which simply poke holes into the soil
  • Plug aerators, which actually remove a plug of soil and grass

Both break up hardened soil, but lawn plug aerators are more effective.

home exterior flower garden lawn out door seating

When to Aerate the Lawn

The best time to use aerating lawn tools depends on the type of grass you have. Cool-season grasses, such as fescue, bluegrass, or ryegrass, should be aerated in early spring or early fall. Warm-season turf, including Bermuda grass, zoysia, or St. Augustine, does best with aeration in the late spring. Whatever your type of grass, do not aerate the lawn within one year of planting seed or sod.

aeration strap on shoes
Blaine Moats

How to Aerate a Lawn by Hand

Large stretches of turf require gas-powered aerator tools, but if you have a fairly small patch of grass, a handheld (or footheld) aerator will work. There are several types of manual aerators.

  • Aerator shoes have sharp spikes on the bottom. Just strap them on over your regular shoes and walk across your grass, making multiple passes in different directions to thoroughly penetrate the turf. If you're looking for one of the least expensive and most popular aerator tools, consider getting lawn aerator shoes with strong metal buckles like Punchau shoes ($22.97, Amazon).
  • Handheld aerators come in a variety of configurations but most somewhat resemble a pitchfork. Most are spike aerators, but there are versions that remove plugs. Using a handheld aerator is simple but tiring: Stab the spikes deeply into the grass, pull out, and repeat, taking care to cover the entire lawn. If you have a smaller yard with tiny patches of grass, consider investing in a aerator with a foot bar for extra leverage like the Yard Butler Lawn Coring Aerator, ($32.52, Amazon).
  • Manual drum aerators—sometimes called lawn spikers—are a spike- or blade-covered heavy drum with a long handle. To use, push a drum aerator like the Agri-Fab Push Spike Aerator, ($69.99, Amazon) across your lawn, making at least two complete circuits in different directions. Most manual drum aerators are spike lawn tools, but some are plug aerators.
lawn aerator
Dean Schoeppner

Powered Types of Aerators

For larger lawns, or if you prefer to spare your back, gas-powered aerators make the job relatively quick and easy. These heavy-duty aerators usually remove plugs of soil and grass, which is the best method of lawn aeration. Lawn aerator rental is available at many garden centers or home improvement stores.

  • Pull-behind aerators look like manual drum aerators, but instead of muscling the aerating tool, a riding lawn mower does the work. This means that pull-behind aerators like the Agri-Fab Tow Plug Aerator ($245.99, Amazon) can be heavier and spikier than manual lawn aerators, thus they can also be more effective.
  • Gas-powered aerators look like lawnmowers, but instead of spinning blades that cut grass, they have spinning spikes that aerate the soil. Some multi-functional models like the VonHaus 2 in 1 Lawn Dethatcher Scarifier and Aerator ($169.99, Amazon) contain an additional dethatcher drum for added convenience.
close up view of lawn aerator
Dean Schoeppner

The Basics of Aerating a Lawn

Whatever type of yard aerator you choose, the basics of how to aerate a lawn are the same.

  • A few days before you aerate the lawn, mow it to about half its usual height, and then water it well.
  • Rake up any fallen leaves or debris.
  • Mark the locations of sprinklers with marking flags or chalk.
  • Aerate the lawn using your chosen tool. If it's a spike aerator, make at least two passes over the lawn, each in a different direction. If using a plug aerator, just one pass is needed.
  • Leave any soil plugs on the lawn; they will return nutrients to the soil as they decompose.
  • Fertilize your lawn or apply a top dressing of compost. This is also a good time to reseed any bare patches.
  • Return to watering and mowing your grass on its regular schedule.

To keep your grass looking its best, make sure you aerate annually in addition to watering, fertilizing, and weeding on a regular schedule.

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