Core Aeration -- Everything you ever wanted to know

Last weekend on GardenLine, I talked more about lawn core aeration and compost top-dressing than I have in many years. In fact, I re-listened to the programs to see if I missed anything. 

And considering how many times the subject has come up in my consulting business during the past two months, I realize it’s time to fully cover core aeration for the do-it-yourselfer! (If you’re NOT a true DIYer, scroll down to the bottom of the page for two companies I endorse that will do it for you.) 

First, when was the last time your lawn had a core aeration and compost top-dressing?

  • If it’s never been done, try to do it twice a year for the next two or three years.
  • If you’re dealing with super-hard clay soil, you should also shoot for twice a year for the next two or three years.
  • If it’s only been done once in the past three to five years, try to get in two more over the next 18 months
  • If your lawn is healthy, once every two or three years is great for maintenance.
  • If you want to do once every year on a healthy lawn, that’s fine. Consistency is good theme.

And let’s clarify when aeration should be done. Spring is the optimum time, but an aeration and soil amendment are fine at any time of the year along the Gulf Coast.

A beautiful lawn is measured in terms of color, density and uniformity. Soil conditions, fertilization and watering are the prime factors that affect lawn quality. And, of those, the condition of your lawn's soil and your fertilization schedule have the greatest impact. If you’re a GardenLine regular, you already know how well my Lawn Fertilization Schedule and Organic Fertilization Schedule work.

But if you're following my fertilizing schedules and the lawn hasn't responded, you probably have really bad soil. Poor soil prevents the grass from taking up the nutrients provided by a spring fertilization. Is the soil beneath your grass hard and lumpy? Does water run off the lawn after being irrigated? Does the lawn always seem "thirsty", wilting by the next summer day? Is it not as green as it should be? If so, your lawn is a prime candidate for core aeration.

So, what is core aeration?  

It’s a process requiring a special machine that pulls out plugs of soil, opening things up and allowing air, water and fertilizer to penetrate deeply, down to the grass roots. Core aeration also makes the soil more friable (crumbly), and that allows roots to spread out rather than stay restricted to a compact area.  Friable soil also helps earthworms, nature's core aerators, to tunnel easier through the lawn, moving more nutrients and water. Plus the “castings” worms leave behind are excellent fertilizers.

I am also a big proponent of compost top-dressing after a core aeration.  Compost may seem costly to some people, and many view the task of spreading it as onerous and time-consuming.  That’s why I recommend just about any kind of soil amendment – including gypsum, expanded shale, humates, and dried molasses. And I urge the use of broadcast spreaders to make the work easier.

Whether you perform the core aeration yourself, or hire a company for the job, be sure the machine used has tines of the appropriate length and spacing. Soil scientists and turfgrass experts recommend tines at least four inches long, spaced 2-3 inches apart. If the tines are farther apart, multiple runs will be required. If you are going to do it yourself, be sure to mark your sprinkler heads so the machine doesn’t run over them, damaging the system and the tines.

Afterwards, be sure to water thoroughly so the amendments get down into the holes.

The cores can either be left to degrade naturally or be broken up with a mowing after a day or two.  Or, you can rake them up to throw away or toss into a compost pile.  

You may be wondering if you can aerate using a pitchfork, golf shoes, or those spike attachments you see advertised in Sky Mall magazines.  Well, Bermuda grass can be walked on with golf shoe type spikes, but that’s not as beneficial as a core aeration. Just sticking sharp objects into the soil doesn’t remove a core. So wearing spikes on your shoes while mowing or walking on the grass is not a good technique.  In fact, that only pushes soil aside to create a hole, actually compacting the soil even more. And if you have a lumpy yard, just rolling over it with a heavy roller also only compacts the soil.

I’ve always recommended that neighbors go in together on renting an aerator. First, it’s a big, unwieldy piece of equipment that takes two people to load and unload from a truck. Second, splitting the rental fee among several households is super cost-effective.  When I lived in Cypress, my neighbor, Steve, and I would go get the machine and split the cost with two other neighbors, so it cost us all about $20 each.  Aerating a lawn takes about a quarter of the time needed for a mowing.  So, theoretically, about eight lawns could be done in one eight-hour day.  

Lastly, the timing of a core aeration and top-dressing or soil amendment really has no effect on the fertilization schedule.  In a perfect world, I would prefer to wait a week or two to do a fertilization. But even doing the job right after fertilizing shouldn’t have any negative impact.

Now, if you’d prefer to have someone do an aeration and compost top-dressing for you, two companies I endorse for those services are Green Pro at 281-351-GREEN and Year Round Lawn Care at 713-775-7224.

Beware of any lawn care company that will only do an aeration if you pay for a year-long maintenance contract. That, unfortunately, is a business practice of many national lawn care companies.

GardenLine with Randy Lemmon

GardenLine with Randy Lemmon

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