The Plant Man column
for publication week of 10/31/04 - 11/06/04
The Plant Man
by Steve Jones
Help your lawn breathe: organic or mechanical treatment?
Investing a little “sweat equity” right now will pay dividends next
spring in the form of a greener, healthier lawn!
In my previous column, I explained how to “dethatch” your lawn and how
to put all those pesky fallen leaves to good use. If you missed that
column, you can find it online. Go to www.landsteward.org and click on
“The Plant Man.” Today, we’ll continue with the same theme with a
look at how you can give your lawn a “breather,” using both mechanical
and organic methods.
A major problem suffered by many lawns is what landscapers call
“compaction.” As you might guess from the name, this refers to soil
that has become tightly packed down, depriving it of aeration.
Compacted soil cannot allow the flow of oxygen that the roots of your
lawn need if they are to flourish and produce healthy green leaves of
grass next spring. Additionally, compaction results in water runoff
which means that rainfall (and garden hose watering) cannot soak in to
the soil. The water simply skates across the surface, just as it does
on your driveway.
What causes compaction? Certainly, some soils are more prone to
compaction, but generally the causes are manmade when it comes to
domestic lawns. Heavy traffic over a lawn will cause compaction. This
can be something that seems quite harmless such as a summer of the
kids playing on it, or something more obvious, such as frequently
parking a car or truck on the grass. We can’t really blame Mother
Nature for that one!
Earthworms are good for more than baiting a fishing hook. They are
Nature’s mini-excavators and create a network of tiny tunnels that aid
the aeration of your lawn. However, even they need help when it comes
to soil under a seriously compacted lawn. Fortunately, there are
mechanical and organic ways to solve the problem. Let’s look at both
A core aerator is a machine that is about the size of a rotor tiller
or lawnmower. Different manufacturers’ products vary in operation, but
in most cases, you push the machine across the lawn and metal tines
penetrate the ground and pull out small plugs of soil. This creates
thousands of tiny “mine shafts” about 2 to 3 inches deep that allow
essential air and water to penetrate to the grass roots.
Unless you have a very large lawn area, you are better off renting a
core aerator, rather than buying one. Call a local lawn and garden
center to see if they will rent one to you. Be sure to request a
demonstration if you are unfamiliar with its operation as they can be
There are alternatives to renting a core aerator. A fun option is a
pair of lawn aerator sandals that you can strap on over your regular
shoes or boots.
The soles consist of about two dozen metal spikes, each about 1 to 2
inches long. You simply walk up and down your lawn, using your own
body weight to drive holes into the soil. This is a less effective
method than a mechanical core aerator that actually removes soil
plugs, but it’s far more entertaining for your kids and neighbors who
get to watch you.
You can also use highly effective organic methods to increase lawn
health and soil aeration. I’ve started using an organic soil
conditioner on my lawn with very good results. It’s similar to one
used in large quantities by farmers but has been adapted for use on
home lawns. I’ve found that it increases aeration and water absorption
as well as stimulating root growth.
I use the soil conditioner in conjunction with another organic product
called Turf Tea, a soil innoculant that helps build more permeable
soil for faster and stronger seed emergence. I use both products in
the fall and by the following spring I have a lush lawn growing in
healthy, aerated soil...
and without having to push a heavy piece of machinery or dance around
in spike shoes! If you have any questions about organic treatments or
other methods of lawn aeration, please send an e-mail to
firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll try to help.
The Plant Man is here to help. Send your questions about trees, shrubs
and landscaping to email@example.com and for resources and
additional information, including archived columns, visit