What Is Core Aeration and How Is It Done?

Agri-Fab plug aerator towed by a lawn tractor

Remember those soil pellets scattered all over your high school football field? They are the result of core aeration, meant to increase the soil’s nutrient and water intake. We’ll show you what core aeration is and how it’s done. 

Core aeration removes 2- to 3-inch plugs of soil from the lawn to feed the root system with higher levels of oxygen, water, and beneficial nutrients. It is an essential part of maintaining lawn health. Core aeration will also prevent water runoff and increase the effectiveness of fertilizers. The following section will dig deeper into core aeration, along with how and when it should be done.

What Is Core Aeration? 

Core aeration is basically the process of pulling up little soil plugs out of your lawn. It improves fertilizer uptake, reduces water runoff, strengthens roots, reduces compaction, enhances heat and drought tolerance, and improves resiliency.

Your lawn soil gets compacted over time. Water, air, and nutrients will struggle to make their way to your grass and plant roots when your soil is compacted. That’s where core aeration comes in and relieves this compaction. 

Most lawn care pros prefer core aeration over spike aeration, which is regarded as a short-term fix. Rather than pushing the soil further down to create holes (this is spike aeration), core aeration removes plugs to effectively loosen the soil and allow long-term access to water and nutrients.  

How Is Core Aeration Done?

Core aeration is done using a core aerator. It is a motorized or hand-held equipment that uses hollow tines to remove small-diameter soil plugs as you move it across the entire lawn. But before using an aerator, you must prep your lawn to endure stressful maintenance. 

First, Prepare Your Lawn

Beautiful young woman cutting grass with gasoline lawn mower, view from above
Photo Credit: Adobe Stock

Here’s how to prepare your lawn for the stressful process of core aeration: 

  • Mow the grass at least two days before aeration to make the process easier. Mow at the correct height based on your grass type.
  • Irrigate the lawn one or two days before aeration to help the aerator’s tines penetrate deeper into the soil. The soil should be moist, but not soaking wet. 
  • Mark underground utility lines or sprinkler systems. Call 811 to have a service provider mark underground utility lines for free. This helps to avoid any damage as you aerate.   

Use a Core Aerator

A professional using a core aerating machine
Photo Credit: Guipozjim / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

Your soil is now ready for aeration. Based on your budget, lawn size, and personal preference, you can choose one of the following types of core aerators:

  • Manual core aerator: You can use your foot to push a manual core aerator into the ground. The aerator’s hollow tines release 2 to 3 inch soil plugs once lifted off the ground. These are better for small lawns, as using manual aerators on large lawns can be very exhausting. 
  • Push-behind core aerator: A much better option for large lawns. Push-behind aerators operate similar to a push-behind lawn mower. There are both gas- and electric-powered versions. If you lack the budget or space to purchase one, many home-improvement stores rent out core aerators on a daily or weekly basis. 
  • Tow-behind core aerator: This type of aerator is attached to a lawn tractor. It is more expensive than manual and push-behind aerators, but requires less physical effort. 

Aerate the entire lawn, not just spots, in at least two different directions (perpendicularly) to ensure good coverage. When using a manual aerator, check that the holes you’re creating are at least 3 inches apart and 2 to 3 inches deep

Once complete, leave the soil plugs or cores on the turf’s surface. They will break down in 2 to 3 weeks and release beneficial nutrients back into the soil. Browse through a more detailed guide on how to aerate a lawn

Provide Post-Aeration Treatment

Person's hands in yellow gloves holding fertilizer
Photo Credit: Adobe Stock

There isn’t a better time to overseed, spread fertilizer, and lime your lawn than after aeration. With more oxygen, water, and nutrients penetrating the soil, new grass seeds will rapidly grow to help you establish a dense, green lawn. Here’s an in-depth guide on what to do after aerating your lawn.  

When Should You Core Aerate Your Lawn? 

It depends on the type of grass you have. For cool-season grasses, such as tall fescue and Kentucky Bluegrass, the best time of the year to aerate is in the fall.

For warm-season grasses, such as bermudagrass and centipedegrass, shoot for late spring or early summer. 

Realistically, your lawn should be aerated once per year, especially if your lawn has lots of foot traffic via kids, pets, or tailgating parties.

Benefits of Core Aeration

Core aeration plugs in hand
Photo Credit: Oregon State University / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

There are greater benefits to core aeration than simply reducing soil compaction. Here’s how core aeration affects the lawn’s health in the long term:

  • Enhances oxygen levels in the soil, stimulating root growth and increasing the amount of thatch-reducing organisms. 
  • Helps the grass produce new roots and shoots that fill up the holes left in the lawn and increase its overall density. 
  • Reduces water runoff and improves drainage. 
  • Increases your lawn’s drought tolerance due to enhanced root growth. 
  • Maximizes the amount of fertilizer that reaches your plant and grass roots

Cost of Professional Core Aeration vs DIY

If you’re confident with your lawn maintenance skills, you can make aerate the lawn yourself. You’ll save money on labor costs, especially for a large-sized lawn, but sacrifice your free time and energy. 

Manual aerators are generally the most affordable, though you can rent a push-behind aerator to reduce the physical effort. The cost of renting a core aerator is approximately $98 per day, with an additional deposit of up to $150

To dedicate your free time to more entertaining activities, you can hire a professional to do the aerating for you. Depending on your location, professional aeration can cost anywhere from $30 to $57 per 1,000 square feet. This average is based on pro aeration prices gathered from various US states, as shown in the table below: 

UtahCost per 1,000 square feet
Cedar City$30 – $53
Park City$26 – $53
Blanding$26 – $54
Colorado Springs$32 – $57
Aspen$33 – $67
Durango$27 – $55
Valentine$28 – $50
Lincoln$25 – $51
Grand Rapids$32 – $58
Bemidji$28 – $59
Los Angeles$37 – $64
Modesto$28 – $59
Bakersfield$27 – $56

FAQ About Core Aeration

Is core aeration better than spike aeration? 

In short, yes. Using spikes doesn’t really work because the process doesn’t pull the plugs out. It just makes holes in the soil, which doesn’t relieve pressure in your lawn.

How can you determine if your lawn needs aeration? 

If you’re unsure whether or not your soil needs aeration, you can check the height of your grass roots by removing a square foot section of your lawn that’s at least 6 inches deep. If the grass roots only extend for one or two inches, then it’s a clear sign that your soil is compacted and needs aeration. 

Is aeration enough once a year? 

In general, yes. Once a year should be enough to counter or prevent soil compaction. Only in severe cases, which are relatively rare, is aeration required twice a year. 

Save Your Energy and Hire a Pro

Core aeration may be necessary once a year, but this one-time maintenance task is extremely important to the well-being of your lawn. Your grass will receive plenty of water, oxygen, and nutrients needed for proper growth. Though DIY core aeration is possible, it can be a back-breaking task that takes away your family fun time. 

Hire a local lawn care professional to mow your lawn, aerate, and apply fertilizer for the greenest turf in the neighborhood. 

Main Photo Credit: Agri-Fab, Inc. / Wikimedia Commons / CC0

Jeffery Keusseyan

Jeffery Keusseyan

Jeffery Keusseyan brings his passion for nature into his love of writing to produce fun, informative content. With thorough research and hands-on experience, he provides readers with varoius lawn mowing tips and landscaping ideas.