The Best Time to Aerate a Lawn for Beautiful Landscaping

If you’re new managing a lawn, it is very likely that the process of aerating soil is foreign to you. Aerating your lawn improves the soil beneath it so that grass roots are strong and grass leaves are bright and healthy.

The best time to aerate a lawn is when it has just started its biggest growth spurt of the year. The exact time of year depends on your climate and the grass type you have.

If you live in the northern or central US, you very likely have cool-season grasses, like perennial ryegrass. These grass types grow during the spring and fall and are dormant during the hot weather of summer. The best times to aerate the lawn will be at the start of one of those growth spurts, so lawn aeration should happen in either early spring or fall.

If you live in the southern US, you very likely have warm-season grasses, like Bermuda grass. These grasses grow as temperatures rise, so you should aerate when those high temperatures are just starting during the late spring.

(If you aren’t sure what type of grass you have, use this grass identifier to find out before starting lawn aeration.)

Do You Need to Aerate Your Lawn?

It’s very easy to tell if your lawn needs aeration.

Find a screwdriver, go outside to your lawn, and try to push the screwdriver into the ground. If the screwdriver slides in smoothly, like a fork going through a cooked potato, you don’t need to aerate.

If you struggle to insert the screwdriver, like a fork going through an uncooked potato, your soil is too compacted. You need to aerate the soil, or your grass will eventually die.

Some lawn care experts recommend aerating once every year, even if your soil isn’t compacted. Others say aeration is only necessary if your lawn fails the screwdriver test.

Ultimately, you’ll have to decide for yourself—while aeration won’t harm your lawn, it is a fairly big job.

What Does Aeration Do?

When you look at your lawn, you aren’t seeing the full picture of its health. The most important action is going on below the surface, in the soil. Here, new roots are establishing themselves, getting stronger, and preparing to shoot up new blades of grass for you to water and mow.

When soil gets too compacted, the roots aren’t strong enough to push through—like if you tried to walk face first into hurricane-force winds.

Aerating a lawn loosens compacted soil so roots can spread out and capture the nutrients that all plants need to grow. Aeration improves soil texture and soil structure around the root zone—the area of soil surrounding the roots. This allows the roots to more easily absorb water and nutrients, promoting root growth. Strong roots mean healthy leaves and green grass.

Aeration is also the best time to add fertilizer and soil conditioner. Loosening the soil will help the grass plant digest nutrients. You can also aerate and overseed, which is adding new grass seed to your lawn. The loose soil will help the new seeds establish better. One drawback: Your improved soil will also give weeds a better place to go. As you water your lawn in the days and weeks after aeration, keep an eye out for weeds trying to compete with your growing grass.

Why Does Soil Get Compacted?

The most common reason that lawn soil gets compacted is simply from using the lawn. If you host parties on your lawn, or play badminton on it, or use it as overflow parking, the soil surface will get compacted and require aeration.

Lawns in areas with new or recent construction are often compacted too, from the weight of construction workers and their equipment.

Dead grass buildup, also called thatch, can also be a problem. Lawn care experts recommend lawn dethatching if the thatch layer is more than ½-inch thick. If thatch builds up, it prevents the soil from absorbing moisture, which can dry it out and cause soil compaction.

Heavy thatch may make a lawn feel spongy to the touch, may cause water to puddle on the grass, and will inhibit root growth as well. If your lawn thatch layer is more than ½ inch, use a thatching rake (also called a dethatching rake) to pull up the dead grass. For extremely heavy thatch, you may want to dethatch your lawn with a power rake.

Even if nothing heavier than a fly touches your lawn, and you keep your thatch layer under control, you may just be in an area with heavy clay soil. This type of soil simply requires more frequent aeration.

What’s the Best Way to Aerate a Lawn?

If you want to aerate your lawn, you have three main options.

1) Buy, Borrow, or Rent a Spike Aerator

Don’t do this, except in rare cases. Lawn care experts agree that spiked aerators—the rolling kind, the kind you strap onto your shoes, and the kind that attach to lawn mowers—don’t make large enough holes in compacted soil to loosen it.

Some experts suggest using spike aerators if you have sandy soil. Consult your agricultural extension office about this. For most homeowners, a spike aerator is not an effective way to aerate a lawn.

2) Buy, Borrow, or Rent a Manual Plug or Core Aerator

Plug or core aeration is the way to go. This process removes small cores of soil, relieving compaction as the remaining soil fills into the holes.

With a manual or hand aerator, you use your foot to press hollow tines into the ground. You then pull the aerator up to extract soil cores. It’s hard work, especially if your soil is extremely compacted or if you have a very large lawn.

A manual aerator is the least expensive option, but success will depend on your own strength and stamina levels.

Most hardware stores carry manual aerators, or you can order them online. Prices start at around $30.

3) Borrow or Rent a Aerator Machine

Plug aerator machines come in many shapes and sizes. Smaller models are built especially for the inexperienced homeowner who’ll be doing soil core aeration once a year; larger ones for aeration pros like lawn service companies and golf course groundskeepers.

We don’t recommend that the average homeowner buy an aerator. It’s not so much the cost of aerator machines as the fact that they are the same size as a lawnmower. Is it worth devoting that much storage space to something you’ll use once or twice a year?

Borrowing or renting an aerator machine is the best option for a homeowner. We wish we could help you here, but while BigRentz does rent a variety of earthmoving equipment, we don’t rent lawn aerators. We’d suggest searching “aerator rentals” in your favorite search engine to find a nearby option. When we checked recently, machine aerators were renting for about $100/day.

Renting a lawn aerator does require a bit of advanced planning. Since aerating the lawn is recommended at about the same time for everyone in your area, demand can be fierce. You’ll want to call ahead to reserve an aerator. You’ll need a truck to get the aerator from the rental place to your house, and at least one other person to help you lift the aerator from the truck onto your lawn and back again.

Before aerating, you’ll need to mark sprinkler heads and tree roots to avoid destroying them with the aerator. And because aerators are heavy, you may want your friend to stick around and take a shift in case you need to rest.

Is a Lawn Service the Best Choice?

Soil aeration is preventative medicine. It helps save lawns before soil compaction squeezes the roots, and eventually the leaves, to death. If that happens, you’ll have to re-sod your lawn—a much bigger, much more expensive project.

So, if you have a large lawn, heavy clay soil, or are too busy to spend a whole day aerating, paying a lawn service might actually be the least expensive choice in the long run.

A good lawn service will handle soil aeration, fertilization, dethatching, crabgrass control, planting grass seed, watering your lawn, and all other lawn-related tasks.

With a good lawn care provider, the only thing you’ll be digging in is your wallet.