How to aerate a lawn without an aerator
One of the most important things to do to maintain a healthy lawn or garden is aeration, which means it’s time to break out the old spade and get digging.
Without proper aeration, soils tend to develop compaction (layers of soil that don’t allow air and water in, while allowing root growth). As a result, plants will suffer because they won’t be able to get the nutrients they need through their roots. Soil compaction can also lead to pest problems and diseases.
When lawns and gardens become compacted over time by foot traffic or irrigation, grass roots can’t grow deep enough for proper nourishment. Likewise, when grass doesn’t have what it needs on top of being stomped on all day long, it will eventually turn yellow and dry up.
Aerating lawns is necessary to break up these compacted root zones, but most gardeners are unaware of the simple tools it entails.
While some aeration devices are pulled behind a tiller or tractor, there are many handheld aerators you can buy or make yourself that are designed to fit into your back pocket so you can easily loosen the soil with every step – making this task quick yet thorough. These manual aerators also have spikes that pull up plugs of soil for your lawn’s roots to feed on. Of course, the downside is they won’t offer as clean an appearance as do larger models designed for large-scale operations.
Some good news: if you’re willing to put in a little sweat and elbow grease (and willing to suffer through some temporary grass damage), you can make your own aerator for next to nothing.
There are many designs, but the one we like most is the “stomp-pock” method: You simply step on top of a plastic bottle filled with water and attach it securely to a sturdy metal stake driven into the ground. The soil plug you loosen will fall back into place as you continue treading down your lawn or garden area.
The Bottle Method:
Simply cut off the bottom of an empty water or soda bottle, turn it upside down, and push it an inch or so into your dirt. Fill with 1/2 gallon of water and start walking – you can add another bottle if desired for faster results.
– This method is simple and can be done in larger areas, but it does leave more of a mess than some people prefer
One DIYer we came across used a short length of plastic pipe filled with sand and attached to a piece of rebar – he claims the steel bar gives you the leverage needed to make an effective aerator:
“This works right along with your other gardening chores,” writes “Barefoot Matt”. “Make sure you don’t step on your plants because this will compact the soil around them.”
– not sure it’s worth the effort, but we’ll try anything once; this is a good idea, and we like that he filled them with sand or dirt for weight – this method works well on the first half of your first round across your yard but not so much on subsequent passes because you compress all of those areas you’ve already gone over. And it doesn’t work as well in heavy clay soils because the roots can’t penetrate it very easily.
The Stamped Concrete Method:
Why buy an expensive piece of equipment if you’re only planning on doing a couple of hundred square feet? Simply set up rows of blocks or bricks about 12-18″ apart to create a walkway, then remove the blocks and replace them with stamping concrete after you’re done.
You can make your own or pick up one of these stamped concrete steppers for about seven bucks at any home improvement store – all you have to do is lay down some weed barrier paper before walking up and down each row.
– the only cool thing about this method is walking over stamping concrete – it’s loud, heavy, messy, and doesn’t stay compressed long enough for grass roots to penetrate through it. If you want stamped patterns on your lawn, then go ahead but don’t expect much aeration, if any at all.
The Tire Method:
There are many variations on this idea floating around online, so we took the basic design and modified it to meet our needs – namely, adding a handle to make things easier. Simply take an old tire (make sure the sidewalls aren’t cracked or splitting), cut out the center with a utility knife, stick in your garden hose nozzle into where you just cut, and secure it with duct tape wrapped around the middle. After that’s done, simply stick the hose end into your ground and walk back and forth until you’ve covered your desired area.
– this tool does work if you’re only doing small areas, but it’s not good for larger spaces because of the limited penetration depth; also, you have to do multiple passes in order to get better results because each pass doesn’t really accomplish much -this is why we built the staggered tire nailer, and it works so much better.
The Rope Method:
This method is similar to using a garden hose but what’s nice about using a rope as your aerating tool is that you can adjust its height as needed with just a quick tug. The drawback with this approach is that you need to manually drag it across the lawn yourself – unless, of course, if you attach an old broom handle and use it like a push lawn mower (we tried this, and it works surprisingly well).
– not very good for large areas because of the amount of work involved; if you do want to do more than 100 square feet or so, then I would recommend investing in either the p-handle, or staggered tire nailer.
The Rotary Lawn Aerator:
These units are becoming more and more popular with home gardeners because they pull a core sample from the ground as they work, thus making a perfect looking hole for grass roots to grow into. If you’re going to invest in one of these units, make sure it has adjustable tines so you can get different size holes – also, be aware that most models require that you install the actual aerator blades, which is a bit of a pain. However, if you do get one of these machines, then you’ll never need another aerator again – just swap out the blades when needed and adjust your lawn care routine accordingly.
– this method works great on large areas but requires some skill to use correctly; also, you have to keep in mind that these units are heavy, so getting them out of your trunk might be a challenge. Also, the actual aerator blades are pretty expensive, so this method can be costly if you have a lot of lawn to tend.
The Soil Dethatcher:
From what I’ve surmised over the years, soil dethatchers work by loosening up compacted soils with rotating metal teeth that reach into the ground -they look like mini versions of the metal drums used for grinding up wood chips at lumber mills. Most models attach to riding mowers, but there are smaller versions available for walk behind mowers. They’re not too expensive, and when one blade gets dull or badly nicked, you can usually buy replacements, so you don’t have to buy a whole new dethatcher.
– this method works well for larger areas, but if you have a smaller lawn, it’s probably not worth the effort; also, because the blades are exposed, there is always the danger of accidentally hitting objects buried in your lawn which can damage your equipment.
The Staggered Tire Nailer:
This device was built to deliver the benefits of using a rotary lawn aerator without the labor involved. Depending on your soil type, it consists of three staggered rows of large nails driven between 1/2″ to 3/4″ deep. This will effectively open up soil pores allowing air, water, and fertilizer to penetrate into the root zone – after that, simply retreat your lawn with one or two coats of seed starter, then roll or rake it in. The great thing about this approach is that you can use any type of seed mixture you want since your cores are already loosened up for you – also, assembly is quick and easy.
– works well for larger areas, but if you only have a small lawn, it’s probably not worth the effort; also, be prepared because you will break lots of nails unless you wear gloves
The best way to use this tool is to attach it to an ATV or Utility Terrain Vehicle (UTV) then drive up and down every row in your lawn four times before moving on to the next row – when done, rotate your device 180 degrees and go back over each row again. The beauty of using these machines is that they can aerate your entire yard in less than one hour, depending on size, so even if you only have a few thousand square feet of lawn space, it’s still pretty easy to get started.
– works well for large areas, plus it gets the job done quickly and with very little effort.
The manual lawn aerator:
The manual lawn aerator is a great alternative for those who don’t want to buy a machine. Most of them consist of a metal or wooden T-shaped handle with steel spoons attached to the end – you simply push one spoon into the ground, give it a twist, then pull up on the handle as hard as you can. This will usually dislodge enough topsoil so your grass roots can breathe but if not, just repeat this process until satisfied. I’ve found that working in grid patterns is what works best instead of going back and forth over each row.
– works well for small areas only, plus there’s a lot of work involved.
The power lawn aerator:
I’ve heard good things about power lawn aerators for those who don’t want to use any type of machine at all. These machines attach to the back of your riding mower and use a simple hydraulic system to push the blade directly into the ground so you can “dig for air”. Most claim they can penetrate up to 5 inches deep, depending on soil hardness. But I’m not sure how well they work or if it’s just hype since I haven’t tried one myself – plus they’re pretty expensive.
– this method works great for large areas but requires a lot of effort and skill; also, be prepared because you will break lots of blades unless you wear gloves
Now we have considered the options, my favorite way to aerate my lawn is to use one of those attachments you can buy for your riding mower – they attach behind the rear wheels and come in lots of different styles (see diagram). The main benefit of using this type of tool is that it’s fast, easy, and does a good job without costing an arm and a leg. Having said that, though, you need to make sure your mower has enough power for the size attachment you choose since some are more than capable of tearing up small tree roots and rocks. Another tip is to use a sharp blade; that way, you won’t have any problems with loose dirt or clumps of grass sticking to the bottom of your mower – if so, just stick a wooden stick between the backs of all four tires, and they will pop right off.
If we have missed out on a method you enjoy, let us know in the comments section.