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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 methods.

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 tricky!

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 [email protected] and I’ll try to help.

The Plant Man is here to help. Send your questions about trees, shrubs and landscaping to [email protected] and for resources and additional information, including archived columns, visit www.landsteward.org