Taking care of the soil in your lawn is a lot like greasing a trusty cast iron skillet. You depend on a good skillet to cook food evenly and to not rust or flake into the food you prepare.
In your lawns, grass roots depend on healthy soil to obtain all the necessary nutrients for growth.
One factor affecting your soil that can be a silent killer of lawns is compaction. Soil compaction can severely restrict turfgrass growth and can arise in lawns from a variety of events.
Traffic over a lawn or specific areas of a lawn is probably the leading factor in soil compaction. This traffic includes human activity, pet runs or vehicular movement.
Soils can also become compacted during residential or commercial construction process due to movement of heavy equipment of the lawn.
Insects, diseases, nematodes, improper watering, lack of fertilizer and poor turfgrass management are often blamed for a lawn’s decline when the real culprit is soil compaction.
If a soil is compacted, the solution is straightforward: aerify. The practice of physically removing cores of soil and leaving holes or cavities in the lawn is defined as core aeration, or aerification.
Aerification benefits lawns in a number of ways. Here are just a few:
• Loosens compacted soil and increases the availability of water and nutrients.
• Enhances oxygen levels in the soil, which stimulates root growth and enhances the activity of thatch-decomposing organisms.
• Reduces water runoff, increases water infiltration and percolation and improves drainage.
• Increases the lawn’s drought tolerance due to enhanced root growth and improves its overall health.
While removing cores of soil, the spoons or tines also sever roots, rhizomes and stolons. Grass plants are stimulated to produce new shoots and roots that "fill up" the holes in the lawn and increase the density of the turf.
Aerification of home lawns will help correct soil compaction problems and the problems associated with compacted soils and should be considered a routine practice.
The question usually asked is, "How often does a lawn need to be aerified?" The best answer to this question is, "as often as needed."
One way to determine if aeration is needed is by scouting the lawn. Take a screwdriver and probe the soil. 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 the screwdriver, then you may need to aerify.
Inspect the overall appearance of the lawn and especially where the turf is thinning. Walk over the area and "feel" the soil with your feet.
If it feels like you are walking on concrete, then compaction could be a problem.
For us on the coast, the best time to aerify is when the lawn is actively growing. This usually equates to sometime around late spring/early summer.
If your area is small enough, you could achieve this by using a spading fork, pushing in the tines at least 4 inches and rocking back and forth to enlarge the holes.
With a bit of capital, you should invest in or rent a power driven core aerator or aerifier.
If you go this route, I recommend using the hollow tines that leave the plugs, these plugs can then be raked back into the lawn if the appearance bothers you.
Whichever machine you use, go over the lawn twice – once in one direction, and then in a perpendicular direction for the best results.
To summarize, soil compaction is the hidden enemy to any lawn. Commercial turfgrass managers, as well as homeowners, need to be aware of the possible problems associated with soil compaction.
Once soil compaction becomes a problem, remediation can be a long process.
The best approach to dealing with soil compaction is to prevent it from the beginning. Anticipate compaction occurrences and implement the proper turf cultivation practices to reduce the chance of turf failure.
So just like you take care of your skillet surface, take care of your lawn surface by aerating when needed.
For more information on caring for your lawn (or other lawn and garden concerns) call or come by the Bryan County Extension Service. We are located behind City Hall in Pembroke. Call us at 912-653-2231 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.