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How to aerate your lawn

How to aerate your lawn: A rusty wrought iron white bench on the grass in a sunny English Garden
(Image credit: Getty Images)

To achieve a beautiful backyard paradise, learning how to aerate your lawn is a must. While proper lawn care can feel a little daunting when you’re just getting started, it’s much less complicated than it sounds. If you already own one of the best gas lawn mowers, you’re already well on your way to a healthier lawn, and aeration can help get you that next step closer.

If you’re wondering what on earth aerating is and why your lawn needs it, you’re not alone. Lawn aeration and aerifying are two terms you might come across when researching how to aerate your lawn, but these are just fancy names for a procedure that helps your lawn to breathe. In much the same way that we can get congested when we have a cold, your lawn can suffer from getting blocked up too.

That’s where learning to aerate your lawn properly is really beneficial. Aeration involves perforating the soil with small holes of about three inches deep to allow air, water and nutrients to travel down to the roots of grass and plants. When this happens the roots can grow stronger and deeper, resulting in a vibrant and healthy lawn.

If you’ve ever found yourself researching how to make your lawn greener, you’ll be pleased to know that aeration is one of the best ways to give your grass that enchanting emerald hue. Now that you know more about what aeration is, let’s dig a little deeper so you know exactly how to aerate your lawn for the best results.

How do you know if your lawn needs aerating?

How to aerate your lawn: Five children run across a bright green lawn

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The first step is to figure out if your lawn even needs to be aerated. The main reason to aerate is to avoid soil compaction, which tends to occur with frequent walking on the grass, or if you're mowing it too often. Yes, even if you have one of the fanciest, best electric lawn mowers in the world, you can still overdue it on your lawn.

Have you ever been out walking and spotted fields with dry, dense and cracked soil? Well, those are all signs of compaction and you really don’t want that happening to your lawn. When the soil compacts it becomes solid, almost like a pile of bricks, and the roots of plants and grass have to work that much harder to access water and nutrients. 

So you want to be aerating your lawn long before severe soil compaction sets in. How do you know if your lawn even needs it though? If your lawn meets any of the following criteria, it’s likely a good candidate for some aeration:

  • It gets heavy use, such as children riding their bikes or playing on it, or from pets bounding around all over it regularly.
  • Your home is a relatively new build. Homes built more recently, particularly those in large developments, can have a shallower layer of soil and the topsoil has often been buried. These lawns require a little extra love to help them develop.
  • Your soil base is heavy in clay content
  • The soil in your yard is hard to the touch and/or rainwater tends to collect on the surface and takes a long time to absorb.

You can do a simple screwdriver test to confirm that aeration is needed. Take a screwdriver and stick it into your lawn’s soil, if you can slide it in easily then the soil is fine, but aeration is needed if you meet resistance.

When to aerate your lawn for the best results

How to aerate your lawn: A lush green English garden in the summer

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Lawn aeration is best done when your grass is in its peak growing period as this will help your lawn recover quickly. For cool-season grass, the best time is in early spring or late fall, and for warm-season grass, it’s late spring or early summer. However, there is an exception...

If you’re trying to get rid of lawn weeds or want to prevent them from sprouting up, we recommend avoiding early spring for cool-season grass and opting for fall instead. Why? Because early spring is when weed seeds are looking to germinate and the open holes that aeration adds to the soil provides those seeds with the perfect home. 

If you have severely compacted soil and need to aerate in spring, opt for late spring when weed seeds have already germinated but before they’ve had a chance to flower and go to seed. Unsure whether you have cool-season or warm-season grass? We breakdown the two types in how to cut your lawn to the best height.

When it comes to the frequency of aeration, every two to three years is likely to be sufficient for sand-based soils. For clay-based soils, or if your lawn gets a lot of heavy use, you’ll want to make aerating your lawn an annual event.

Choosing the best aerating tools for the job

Now that you know whether to aerate your lawn, when to do it and how, it’s time to pick the right tool to get the job done. When it comes to aerators, you have two basic types: spike aerators and plug aerators.

A spike aerator has sharp 'tines' that make holes in the ground without removing any soil, and provides short-term soil decompaction. A plug aerator has hollow tines that remove a core of grass and soil from the lawn. This provides long-term soil decompaction as more air space is created.

For the best results, we recommend using a plug aerator as these are more effective at breaking up compacted soil. They’re also easier for large lawns as they’re usually mechanical, versus spike aerators that tend to be manual.

How to aerate your lawn: Step by step

How to aerate your lawn: A red lawn mower cutting bright green grass

(Image credit: Getty Images)

While you could just grab one of the above tools and start poking at your lawn, a little bit of preparation work and following some specific steps can help ensure your lawn gets the most out of aeration. With that in mind, here’s how to aerate your lawn for maximum benefits:

  1. A few days before you aerate, mow your lawn low. Choose a mower setting of approximately 1.5-2 inches above the ground as this will make aerating it easier.

Step 1.
A few days before you aerate, mow your lawn low. Choose a mower setting of approximately 1.5-2 inches above the ground as this will make aerating it easier.

Step 2.
If the days before you plan to aerate have been dry, water the ground thoroughly after you’ve mowed it. Apply at least an inch of water as you’ll get better and deeper aeration in soft soil, not to mention the fact that it will make the job easier for you.

Step 3.
Use irrigation flags to flag any area of your lawn that might have hidden objects, such as tree stumps, as this will prevent you from running over them.

Step 4.
For lightly compacted soil, go over your lawn once with your chosen aerator tool and then go back over it in a perpendicular motion. For deeply compacted soil or if you’ve never aerated before, repeat this process twice.

Congratulations, as the hardest part is now behind you. What follows are just a few final tips and tricks we want to share to help your lawn thrive in the immediate months following aeration.

What to do after aeration

Once you’ve finished aerating your lawn, water it well and apply fertilizer to add plenty of nutrients back into the soil. If you’ve used a plug aerator, leave the soil plugs on the lawn to decompose and work their way back into the holes left by the aerator. Finally, consider reseeding your lawn in any areas where the grass is thin and if the weather stays dry, water your newly aerated lawn twice a week for the first fortnight.

Now that you know how to aerate your lawn, it's time to think about other gardening jobs for spring through to summer. To help you with those, we've produced guides to the best lawn edgers for different size gardens, as well as the best tillers if you need to break up hardened soil ready for planting. 

Kathryn Rosenberg

Kathryn is a freelance health and wellness writer who is passionate about the mind-body connection, the role of food as medicine, and exploring how we can live in more sustainable and humane ways. A lover of the natural world, she’s at her happiest when walking the beach, staring out at the ocean, or when sat amongst lakes and mountains. For Top Ten Reviews, Kathryn covers more of our in-depth health content, ranging from diabetes news to vision care. And it isn’t just human wellness Kathryn is interested in - she also writes about the health of our furry friends over at our sister site PetsRadar.