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Turf Tips: Thatch? Aerate?

by Nellie Neal

Here’s how to tell if it’s time to do these major lawn renovations to remove choking thatch or add oxygen to the root zone. Both are best done in spring so the lawn can recover over the long growing season.

Too much thatch makes for wasted lawncare. The water and fertilizer you carefully apply and even sunlight cannot penetrate a thick mat of slowly decomposing grass clippings. Thatch builds up over a period of years and fine bladed grasses seem to suffer most – the lawn looks pale, may have yellowed lower leaves and can get thin in spots. When you walk across a dry lawn and it feels mushy beneath your shoes, get down and inspect the dead grass you loosen up between the green blades and the ground. You may be surprised how much thatch has accumulated.

Annual raking with a tool made specially for the purpose can do a lot to prevent the buildup, dethatching blades are available for many mowers and dethatching machines can be rented for big jobs demanding complete renovation. Be aware that removing thatch mechanically often makes for a nearly bare lawn – keep kids and pets off of it for at least a month to let the grass begin to regrow. Mow at the highest setting appropriate for your grass type and fertilize after the first cutting.  

If compacted soil presses down tightly in the rootzone below your lawn, the roots are deprived of vital oxygen and the lawn cannot grow. Kids playing ball, pets running in circles and the natural path that cuts the distance from driveway to front door – all these areas get trampled regularly and may need aeration to repair. When you look across a well-watered lawn and see flat-looking areas, examine them for signs of compaction: thin turf and hard soil.

The object of aeration is to open up the rootzone by removing cores of compacted soil. The half inch holes you’ll punch across the area will shortly refill with shifting soil loosening the entire area. Some gardeners walk across the areas wearing devices that look like dangerously spiked golf shoes. For bigger areas and denser compaction, use a step-on aerator. This metal device has a T shaped handle on a single shaft over a plate with hollow core removers underneath. You hold the T in both hands and step on the plate to push the tool into the ground. When you pull the tool out, the hollow pipes are full of soil cores ready to drop into the compost pile. For large compacted areas, rent a mechanical aerator.


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