Loosen up the lawn

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Lawn aeration improves grass, pasture quality

Gregory A. Summers
The secret of a beautiful lawn isn’t always found in a barrel of chemicals or a bag of expensive grass seed.
Sometimes, it’s found in a barrel-shaped roller with spikes on it that penetrate the ground or hollow cylinders that extract cores or plugs of soil.
Insects, disease, nematodes, improper watering and a lack of fertilizer are often blamed for lawn decline when the real cause is compaction said Trent Hale, a turfgrass specialist for Clemson University Extension Service in “Aerating Lawns” on CU’s Home & Garden Information Center.
Once the soil becomes compacted, the solution is simple: aerify the lawn.
Lawn aeration is the real secret weapon in making a healthy lawn. It allows oxygen to get to the roots and soil by allowing it to breathe.
The coring process also allows organic fertilizers and nutrients access to those roots, enables water to better soak into the ground, breaks up thatch and helps the root system to grow and flourish.
Hale said the problem is a gradual one that starts when the top 4 inches of soil become compressed, which impedes the movement of air, water and plant nutrients. This in turn, stresses grass plants and makes them less able to compete with weeds and slow to heal from injury. This is especially true in heavy clay soils.
Test the ground
Hale said one way to determine if aeration is needed is to scout the lawn.
Probe the soil with a screwdriver. If the screwdriver penetrates the soil with little resistance, then you probably don’t need to aerify. If it is difficult to penetrate the soil with a screwdriver, then you may need to aerify.
The type of grass determines whether to aerify in the spring or fall.
According to the Clemson University Extension Service, lawns with cool-season grasses such as Kentucky bluegrass and tall fescue are best aerified in the fall when there is less heat stress and  invasion by weedy annuals.
Warm-season grasses such as zoysia, centipede, carpet and bermuda are best aerified in late spring when they are actively growing. The key, Hale said, is to choose a day when temperatures are mild and the soil is mildly moist, which makes it  easier to penetrate.
It is a mistake to aerify wet soil. Not only is it a messy undertaking, it can further compact the soil which makes matters worse instead of better.
If a core sample sticks to your shoes or to the probe, you should wait until it dries out before starting the job.
Hale recommends allowing four weeks of good growing weather to help the plants recover.
Not expensive
Soil aerification isn’t expensive. If you have a small lawn, the simplest and cheapest way to do it is with a spading fork. Push the tines in the ground for at least four inches and rock it back and forth to enlarge the holes.
Another option is a manual aerator you use while standing up. A manual aerator has two or four hollow cylinders you plunge into the soil with your foot to create the holes. Another type of manual aerator has spikes that create holes.
Many tool rental stores have power aerators that can be used in larger lawns. However, they require a bit of muscle to operate .
For farmers who need to improve pastures and hay fields without disturbing the soil, there is another option.
The Lancaster County Soil and Water District has an aerator that can be rented to break up soils that have become compacted by livestock and equipment.
The aerator is a barrel with spikes on it that penetrates the soil. Filled with water, once in the field, the weight pushes the spikes into the ground without ripping up the soil.
The aerator not only improves grass growth and hay yields, but reduces non-point source pollution form land, said Amanda Roberts, soil and water district manager.
“Aeration of the soil in lawns and pastures and haylands can correct both of these concerns,” she said.