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Tough Turf? Aeration May be the Answer

Question. We started with a new natural lawn care provider this Spring and the results have been great. But now they're trying to convince us that aeration is a necessary part of growing grass without chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Is this just a sales pitch?
    ---Bill in Swarthmore, Pa
Would it be okay to aerate my lawn next Spring to try and improve the drainage? It's very compacted - I have golden retrievers who play on it all day - and water sits on top for days after rain.
    ---Karen in South Jersey
Answer. I'm a huge fan of aerating lawns—as is virtually every lawn care expert I've ever interviewed. Far from a sales pitch, occasional aeration is an absolutely essential element of any lawn care plan: chemical, organic, or anything in between.

Unfortunately for Karen, aeration may not be enough to remedy her wading pool masquerading as a lawn. She IS right that aeration IS the remedy for compacted soils, but dogs aren't a typical cause of compaction, and her retrievers almost certainly aren't responsible for those watery woes. That kind of serious compaction generally comes from use of heavy equipment (like big lawn mowers) and/or lots of people running on top frequently—like the famous Kennedy family football games of the 1960s.

And Spring is not the time to aerate most lawns in the North. The most common Northern lawns—composed of cool season grasses like bluegrass, rye or fescue—should be aerated in late summer/early fall, when the grass is growing strong after the worst of summer's heat has passed. The warm-season lawns most common in the South, like Bermuda, centipede and zoysia, should be aerated in the Spring, when they're actively growing again after winter.

Your lawn's location doesn't matter; only the type of grass. If you're growing zoysia in the North, you still aerate in the Spring. If you're growing bluegrass or fescue in the South, you still aerate in the fall. As Iowa State University turf grass expert Dr. Nick Christians (the researcher who pioneered the use of corn gluten meal as an all-natural Springtime Weed and Feed) is always pounding into my pointy little head, you feed and care for your lawn according to type of turf it is; NOT where you live. (See Nick? I am listening!)

Karen with the water garden lawn should certainly try aerating now. If the lawn drains better next Spring, repeat the aeration next fall, and maybe the year after that as well. Then take a break and get on an every two to four year schedule. (A normal home lawn shouldn't need to be aerated every year.)

BUT (you knew a big 'but' was coming down the pike, didn't you?), if aeration this fall doesn't significantly improve the drainage next Spring, she should plan to tear it all up and replant a new lawn in late August or September of next year. Tilling up the soil, adding lots of organic matter in the form of compost, and spreading new seed should be enough to cure most drainage issues. If a severe problem is uncovered during the tilling, have drain tiles installed before seeding.

Or look into having a 'rain garden' built; their nifty design may be able to divert enough excess water for a couple of aerations to finish the job. (Here's a previous Question of the Week about rain gardens.)