How to Aerate Your Lawn

close-up of an aerating machine on a lawn

One of the key secrets to achieving that healthy, green grass is lawn aeration. Often overlooked, this fundamental lawn care practice is crucial in maintaining the vitality of your lawn. So, if you want a lush, healthy lawn, you must know how to aerate your lawn properly.

Understand the ins and outs of aeration – from why it’s essential to the step-by-step process of aerating your lawn.

How to aerate your lawn

Homeowners who want a lush, green lawn must know how to aerate. With aeration, you will remove small plugs of soil from your lawn or perforate the soil with small holes that allow nutrients, oxygen, and water to penetrate deep into the roots, promoting grass growth.

Let’s break down the process and guide you through the tools you’ll need and the simple steps you must take.

illustration showing how aeration works and the benefits of aerating soil
Infographic by Juan Rodriguez

Tools and materials needed

Before you begin aerating your lawn, you must gather the right aeration tools and materials. Have the following tools and materials ready so you can start aerating your lawn and promote healthy, green grass growth:

  • Lawn aerator: This is the most important tool for lawn aeration. You can find different types of aerators, but the most common ones are spike aerators, plug aerators, and core aerators. Choose the one that suits your lawn size and type.
  • Lawnmower: You’ll need a lawnmower to trim your grass to the right height before aeration. It helps the aeration tool work better.
  • Garden hose and sprinkler: These are used to water your lawn a day or two before aeration. Since moist soil is easier to aerate, soaking it a bit will do the trick.
  • Markers: Grab some colorful flags or stakes. Use them to mark things like hidden pipes, sprinkler heads, cables, or any obstacles in your lawn. This way, you won’t accidentally damage them while aerating.

Step 1: Choose the right aerator

Depending on your lawn’s size and equipment, select the right type of aerator. Just like there are different tools for different jobs, there are various types of lawn aerators. Let’s take a look at the most common ones:

  • Spike aerators: Like a fork for lawns, spike aerators have sharp tines that poke holes into the soil as you walk or roll the machine across your lawn. They’re simple and can work well for small lawns, but they may not be the best choice for clay soils because they can compact the soil around the holes.
  • Plug or core aerators: Also known as hollow tines, these machines are more effective at relieving soil compaction and allowing nutrients and air to reach the roots. Available in both manual and mechanical (powered) versions, plug aerators are a popular choice for larger lawns.
  • Slicing aerators: This type of lawn aerator uses rotating blades or disks to cut slits or grooves into the soil without removing cores. While it is less invasive than plug aerators and suitable for lighter compaction, it may not be as effective at improving soil aeration and structure.
  • Rolling aerators: These aerators that you can tow behind a riding mower or lawn tractor use a roller with spikes or blades to perforate the soil. While they’re great for covering large areas quickly and often come with adjustable settings for varying soil conditions, rolling aerators may not provide as deep or effective aeration as the other types.
  • Liquid or soil conditioners: They are not machines but rather liquid products applied to the lawn. Liquid aerators work by breaking down compacted soil particles and improving soil structure over time. They are a non-mechanical alternative to traditional aerators and are best suited for addressing light compaction and promoting long-term soil health.
  • Tine rake aerators: These hand tools have multiple metal tines that are manually pushed or pulled across the lawn. They create shallow channels in the soil, improving aeration and allowing nutrients to penetrate the root zone. Tine rake aerators are suitable for small lawns and spot treatments.
  • Aerator shoes: If you have a small lawn and want a low-cost option, consider aerator shoes. They’re like sandals with spikes on the bottom that you strap to your feet. You simply walk around your lawn, and the spikes do the aerating. It’s a bit more work, but it can be effective for tiny lawns.

Step 2: Mow your lawn

Give your grass a trim with your lawnmower, and aim to cut it to the recommended height for your specific type of grass. Without mowing first, longer grass can interfere with the aeration process, making it less efficient in addressing soil compaction and limiting the benefits to your lawn.

When you mow the grass to a shorter height, you allow better access for the aerator’s tines or spikes to penetrate the soil. This means the aeration machine can reach deeper into the ground, breaking up compacted soil and creating channels for air, water, and nutrients to reach the grassroots.

Here are some general tips to help you mow your lawn effectively:

  • Alternate mowing patterns
  • Keep mower blades sharp
  • Mow when the grass is dry
  • Maintain the right mowing height
  • Recycle grass clippings back into the lawn
  • Always follow safety guidelines when using a lawnmower
  • Avoid scalping or cutting more than one-third of the grass height
  • Use a string trimmer or edger to maintain clean and well-defined edges

Step 3: Water the lawn

hand watering using a hose

A day or two before aeration, water your lawn thoroughly to make the soil softer and more receptive to aeration. You also can aerate the day after a rain shower.

Watering the lawn before aerating is essential for these reasons:

  • Moist soil is more pliable and easier to penetrate, allowing the aerator’s tines or spikes to reach deeper into the ground – resulting in a more effective aeration process.
  • In dry or compacted soils, the aerator may struggle to penetrate the ground, potentially causing undue stress on the machine. Adequate moisture in the soil makes the process smoother and minimizes the risk of damaging your lawn or the aerator itself.

Overall, pre-watering ensures that the aeration process is efficient and maximizes the benefits to your lawn, promoting healthier grass growth and improved soil structure.

Step 4: Mark sprinkler heads and shallow utility lines

Marking sprinkler heads and shallow utility lines before aerating your lawn is crucial to prevent damage and ensure safety during the aeration process.

Sprinkler heads, which are often located just below the soil surface, are vulnerable to being struck by aerator tines or spikes. Impacting a sprinkler head can lead to costly damage and disruptions to your irrigation system.

Similarly, shallow utility lines, such as electrical, cable, or irrigation lines, are at risk of damage if not identified and marked before aeration. Striking these lines can result in safety hazards, service interruptions, and costly repairs.

Step 5: Aerate the lawn

Now, it’s time to start the aeration process. Push the aerator across your lawn in a crisscross pattern. Remember to overlap each pass slightly to ensure good coverage. The aerator will make small holes or pull out small plugs of soil.

Aerate your lawn twice, with the second pass intersecting the first at a right angle, forming a checkerboard or crosshatch pattern. Consider doing additional passes, especially in areas prone to soil compaction due to frequent foot traffic.

Step 6: Leave soil plugs on your lawn

After waiting a few days for the soil plugs to dry, use the back of a rake to break them up before distributing them across your lawn. These plugs consist of compacted soil that has been removed from the ground during aeration.

Over time, these plugs will break down and return valuable organic matter to the soil, enriching it with nutrients and enhancing its structure. This organic material acts as a natural top dressing, reducing thatch buildup and promoting healthier grassroots.

Additionally, the soil plugs act as a protective layer for your lawn. They provide insulation, helping to regulate soil temperature and moisture levels. This protective barrier shields the grassroots from extreme temperature fluctuations and excessive moisture loss.

Step 7: Apply post-aeration care

Give your lawn another light watering to help the soil recover and give your grass a boost. After aerating your lawn, continue your normal lawn care practices, such as mowing, watering, and fertilizing.

Pro tip: Feel free to apply herbicide – Many people think applying a pre-emergent herbicide to lawns before aeration will cancel out any weed prevention or control measure, but that’s not true. You can go about your normal lawn care routine.

Does your lawn need aeration?

illustration explaining thatch on grass
Infographic by Juan Rodriguez

Aeration aids your lawn by helping the grass produce a deeper and stronger root system, helping it withstand environmental stressors such as pests, drought, and disease.

You can determine if your lawn needs aeration by considering a few factors. You need to aerate your lawn if:

  • Your lawn was established with sod: You can’t avoid soil layering when you start your lawn with sod. The layering created when sod is laid down on coarser soil can disrupt soil drainage –  leading to poor root development.
  • Your lawn feels spongy and dries quickly: A lawn with a spongy feel may have a thatch problem. Take a sample with a shovel that goes about four inches down. If you have a layer of thatch greater than a half-inch, it’s time to dethatch and aerate.
  • Your lawn is new: Lawns that are a part of newly constructed homes often need aeration to help the lawn develop properly. The topsoil is often stripped away, and lawns are established on subsoil that has seen a lot of traffic, so it’s likely compacted.
  • Your soil feels compacted: It may be time to aerate if your soil feels compacted, water tends to puddle or run off rather than soak in, or you notice thinning grass. A simple test involves pushing a screwdriver into the ground. If it meets resistance, it’s a sign of compacted soil.
  • Your lawn gets heavy foot traffic: Aeration can be especially beneficial if your lawn gets heavy foot traffic or you have clay soil. Even lawns with sandy soil can benefit from aeration.

When to aerate your lawn

picture of a lawn after aeration
Aerated Lawn
ArtBoyMB | Canva Pro | License

Timing is everything when it comes to lawn aeration. Here’s when you should consider aerating your lawn:

  • Spring or fall: It’s recommended to aerate in the spring or fall. This is when your grass is growing the most, and the weather is usually mild.
  • When the soil is moist: Aeration works best when the soil is slightly moist but not soaking wet. So, if you can push a screwdriver into the ground without much effort, it’s usually a good time to aerate.
  • Before overseeding: If you plan to overseed your lawn, aerate just before you sow the new grass seeds. Aeration creates little holes for the seeds to settle in, which helps them grow.
  • Every one to three years: While some lawns may need it more often, most lawns benefit from aeration every one to three years. If your lawn gets a lot of use, like kids playing or pets running around, consider aerating more frequently.

The best time to aerate your lawn is during the growing season for your grass, as it allows your grass to fill in any open spaces left behind by aeration. If you have cool-season grasses, early spring or fall is the ideal time. But if you have warm-season grasses, late spring will be better.

Here’s a quick guide on when it’s best to aerate your lawn, depending on the type of grass you have:

Type of grassWhen to aerate
BermudagrassLate spring to early summer (Avoid when the grass is dormant in winter)
FescueEarly fall aeration allows for root growth before winter
Kentucky bluegrassEarly fall
Perennial ryegrassEarly fall
St. AugustinegrassLate spring to early summer (Avoid during its dormant period in the fall)
ZoysiagrassDuring its growing season – late spring to early summer

Remember, the right timing can make a big difference in the success of your lawn aeration. So, choose the right season for your grass type, check the soil type and moisture, and plan your aeration accordingly for a healthier, happier lawn.

Pros and cons of lawn aeration

person manually aerating a grass area using a pitch fork

Like most things in life, lawn aeration comes with its own set of advantages and disadvantages. Understanding both the benefits and potential drawbacks will help you make an informed decision about whether aeration is the right choice for your green space. Let’s dive into the good and not-so-good aspects of this essential lawn care practice.

Pros of aerating your lawn

Aerating your lawn is like giving it a breath of fresh air, and it comes with some pretty cool benefits:

  • Enhanced airflow: Aeration pokes tiny holes in your lawn, kind of like windows for air. This helps oxygen reach the roots, and just like we need air to breathe, so do your grassroots.
  • Healthy roots: Aerating your lawn helps grass roots get the oxygen, water, and nutrients they need to grow strong and deep. Healthy roots mean healthier grass that’s more resistant to drought and disease.
  • Thicker grass: By creating space in the soil, aeration allows new grass shoots to grow, making your lawn denser and more beautiful. It also helps existing grass spread and fill in bare spots.
  • Nutrient access: Your grass needs food, too. Aeration makes it easier for essential nutrients, like top dressing, fertilizer, and water, to get down into the soil where the roots can grab them. Think of it as serving a delicious and nutritious meal to your lawn.
  • Less compaction: Over time, your lawn can get compacted, especially if you have heavy clay soil, lots of foot traffic, or heavy machinery on it. Aeration loosens up the soil, giving the roots more space to grow and stretch out comfortably.
  • Better absorption: When it rains or you water your lawn, the water soaks into the ground more easily after aeration. This means less runoff and more water reaching the grassroots.
  • Weed control: A thicker lawn can crowd out weeds, making it harder for them to take over. So, aeration indirectly helps with weed control.
  • Improved fertilizer effectiveness: Fertilizers can work better when they can reach the root zone more effectively. Aeration lets them do that, ensuring your grass gets the most out of your lawn treatments.

Cons of aerating your lawn

While lawn aeration has many benefits, it’s important to consider the potential downsides as well:

  • Time and effort: Aerating your lawn can be a bit of work, especially if you have a large yard. You’ll need the right equipment, and it may take some time to complete the process.
  • Cost: If you choose to rent an aerator or hire a professional, there can be associated costs. Buying your own aerator is an option, but it can be expensive upfront.
  • Temporary disruption: Right after aeration, your lawn might look a bit messy with all those soil plugs scattered around. However, this is usually temporary, as the plugs break down and disappear over time.
  • Timing challenges: Timing matters with aeration. You need to do it during the right season and when the soil is moist enough. If you aerate at the wrong time, it may not yield the desired results.
  • Minor lawn damage: In some cases, aeration can cause minor damage to your grass, especially if not done correctly. But when done properly, this damage is temporary, and the grass recovers quickly.
  • Not always necessary: Aeration isn’t always needed. If your lawn is healthy and doesn’t suffer from compaction or poor drainage, you may not see significant benefits from it.

Cost of lawn aeration

macniak | Canva Pro | License

When it comes to aeration, the cost can vary depending on several factors. Here’s what you need to know:

  • DIY vs. professional: If you choose to do it yourself, the main costs will be renting or purchasing an aerator, which can range from $100 to $300 or more, depending on the type and size. Hiring a professional lawn service provider to aerate your lawn typically costs between $75 to $225, depending on the size of your lawn.
  • Frequency: How often you need to aerate your lawn can affect the overall cost. A one-time aeration is less expensive than a regularly scheduled aeration.
  • Additional services: If you decide to combine lawn aeration with other services like overseeding or fertilization, expect additional costs for those services.
  • Maintenance: If you buy your own aerator, you’ll need to consider ongoing maintenance costs, such as blade sharpening or repairs.
  • DIY supplies: If you choose to aerate your lawn yourself, you’ll also need to budget for things like fuel for your lawnmower and any other supplies like marking flags or water.

While there are costs associated with lawn aeration, it’s an investment in the health and beauty of your lawn. An aerated lawn is more likely to thrive, requiring less maintenance and fewer treatments over time. So, weigh the costs against the long-term benefits for your specific lawn care needs and budget.

FAQ about aerating your lawn

How deep should I aerate my lawn?

The ideal depth for lawn aeration is typically between 2 to 3 inches. This depth allows for adequate soil penetration without causing excessive disruption to your grass.

Most aerators come with adjustable settings to control the depth, so follow the manufacturer’s recommendations and not go too deep, as overly aggressive aeration can harm your lawn. Aeration plugs or holes should be evenly spaced and overlap slightly for the best results.

Can I aerate my lawn in the summer?

Generally, it’s not recommended to aerate your lawn during the hot summer months. Aerating in summer can stress your lawn, as the high temperatures and potential lack of moisture can make recovery more challenging.

However, if you live in a cooler region or your lawn shows signs of compaction or other issues, you can aerate in early summer, but water the lawn adequately afterward and provide extra care during recovery.

Should I dethatch my lawn before aerating it?

Dethatching helps create a healthier environment for the aerator machine to work effectively, allowing for better soil penetration and root growth. However, it depends on the severity of the thatch buildup in your lawn’s soil surface. 

If the thatch layer is less than half an inch thick, dethatching may not be necessary, and you can proceed with aeration. But if you have an excessive thatch layer exceeding half an inch, it’s advisable to dethatch first to address the barrier that prevents proper aeration.

Give your lawn a boost

Like a breath of fresh air for your lawn, aeration can transform your patchy, struggling grass into a lush, vibrant carpet. By allowing essential nutrients to reach the roots, this lawn service promotes healthy growth and a more resilient lawn. Remember to choose the right time, use the appropriate tools, and follow the steps on how to aerate your lawn.

If you’d rather let the professionals poke holes in your lawn, call a local lawn care pro who knows best how to aerate your lawn. Your lawn will thank you with thicker, greener, and more beautiful grass.

Main Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Melanie Joseph

After discovering her passion for writing through her beauty blog, Melanie left her engineering job in California, became a writer, and never once looked back. When she isn't writing, she loves dipping in the pool, tending to the garden, or doing simple home improvement projects.