Core Aerating vs Spike Aerating: How They Differ + Which Is Better

Core Aerating vs Spike Aerating

Aeration is a lawn care practice that breaks up soil compaction, restoring your lawn. It creates adequate porosity in the soil so that air, water, and nutrients can move freely down into the root zone, leading to healthier turf.

Core aeration and spike aeration are the two ways to achieve this. The debate over which of them is the better method is never-ending.

If you’re trying to decide if your lawn needs to be aerated and which way you should use, read on!

Main Differences Between Core Aeration And Spike Aeration

Core and spike aeration have the same goal in mind—to reduce soil compaction. Beyond that, though, they have very few similarities and very distinct differences.

Core Aeration

  • Uses hollow tines to pull plugs of soil from the lawn.
  • Mostly mechanical equipment.
  • Suitable for small, medium, and large yards.

Spike Aeration

  • Uses long pointed tines to create holes in the soil.
  • Mostly manual equipment.
  • Suitable for small yards.
Core Aeration Spike Aeration
Pros – Provides Long Term Decompaction
– Helps Reduce Thatch Layer
– Easier To Do Yourself
– Equipment Is Much Cheaper To Buy
Cons – Leaves Plugs On Yard
– Equipment is Unwieldy & Expensive
– Many People Often Hire The Job Out To A Professional
– Provides Only Short Term Air Flow Improvements
– Compaction Can Worsen Slightly Around Spike Holes

That being said, if you’re facing the decision to aerate, it’s essential to dive a little deeper into the two methods so you better understand them. This article explains the circumstances when the two types are most effective, what time of year you should aerate, how often each process should be done, and the different types of equipment available to complete the job.

Core Aeration: What You Need To Know

What is core aeration?

Core aeration, also known as plug aeration, involves creating holes with a machine that has cylindrical, metallic projections. The projections on a core aerator are hollow and about three inches long. As the machine moves across the lawn, the projections punch down into the turf, pulling out cores and releasing them on the lawn’s surface.

The removal of the cores creates holes in the soil, reducing compaction.

Is core aerating your lawn effective?

Without a doubt, core aerating is effective when it’s done correctly. It’s the method of choice for lawn professionals since it loosens compacted soil well, giving root systems better access to nutrients and water and improving long-term soil health.

Over time, the holes fill in with thick, healthy grass.

Is core aeration worthwhile?

In my opinion—as well as most homeowners and lawn care professionals—core aeration is well worth the time and money.

Under what conditions should you core aerate your lawn?

Core aeration is best suited for yards with highly compacted soil. The tines burrow into the ground well, removing cores to prepare it for better root growth and enhanced movement of water and nutrients into the soil.

Core aeration is also beneficial if your soil has a thick thatch layer. A soil’s thatch layer is the interwoven mass of organic matter consisting of dead leaves, stems, and actively growing surface roots. Like soil compaction, thatch slows water, nutrient, and oxygen movement into the soil.

How often should you core aerate?

  • On average, you should core aerate lawns that see regular use at least once per year.
  • Lawns that don’t see much foot traffic or are sandy can be done once every two or three years.
  • Lawns with highly compacted soil or high clay content benefit from aeration twice a year.

What time of year should you core aerate?

​​Theoretically, you can aerate your lawn any time of the year. However, the best time is when active root growth is highest, usually late spring or fall, depending on your climate and grass type.

See this video for more on this concept:

Main Types Of Core Aerators

  • Gas-Powered Plug Aerators: Like a rototiller but much larger, you walk behind gas-powered machines, maneuvering them across the lawn.
  • Tow-Behind Plug Aerators: These machines attach to the hitch of your lawn tractor and aerate as you drive across the grass.
  • Manual Hollow Tine Aerators: This type of aerator has a sturdy footbar on the bottom of a handle. Using your foot for leverage, you push two hollow-core tines into the soil, removing cores when you pull the aerator out of the ground.

Spike Aeration: What You Need To Know

What is spike aeration?

Spike aeration drives long plastic or metal spikes into the soil to create holes. These holes break up compacting, allowing the movement of water, air, and nutrients into the soil.

Is spike aerating your lawn effective?

While this may be debated, spike aeration is effective in certain circumstances.

  • It is effective when there is minimal soil compaction you are trying to break up.
  • It is also effective if you’re trying to improve access to the grass’ roots for fertilization or preparing the lawn for overseeding.

Compared to core aerating, it provides short-term results. When you insert the spikes into the ground, it pushes the soil down and to the sides instead of removing plugs. It can actually lead to increased soil compaction, and over time, the small holes you make in the ground close.

Is spike aeration worthwhile?

Spike aeration isn’t worthwhile if your soil is heavily compacted. It only provides a short-term fix and can make soil compaction worse. But it can be helpful for minor soil compaction or temporarily improving root access.

Under what conditions should you spike your lawn?

There are three basic times when you should spike your lawn: if the soil isn’t heavily compacted, if you want to improve fertilizer performance, or if you are overseeding. Spiking doesn’t pull cores out, resulting in a significant reduction of soil compaction, but it does improve lightly compacted soil. It allows fertilizers and grass seed to better make their way to the soil surface.

How often should you spike your lawn?

  • If you are only spiking, it is best to spike-aerate your lawn 2-3 times every season because the results do not last long.
  • If you used a plug aerator even once in the last two seasons, you might need to spike aerate just once during the growing season to remedy minor compaction problems.

What time of year should you spike aerate?

Like core aeration, you can spike aerate your lawn any time of the year. It is best to do it when the grass is actively growing. If you are only spiking it once during the season, do cool-season grasses in early spring or fall and warm-season grasses in late spring.

Types of Spike Aerators

  • Spike Shoes: Lawn aeration shoes have narrow, sharp spikes protruding from the sole. When on your feet, they aerate as you walk all over the lawn.
  • Manual Spike Aerators: You hold this type in your hand, placing them upright on the grass, and step down on the footbar to push the tines into the soil.
  • Rolling Spike Aerator: This type looks like a cylindrical lawn roller, except it has spikes on the roller surface. As you push them across the lawn, the points dig into the soil, creating holes.

Under What Circumstances Should You Aerate?

Obviously, you should aerate when the soil is compacted. A quick way to check this is to stick a flat-head screwdriver down into the soil when it’s moist. If it’s hard to get it into the ground, you have compaction problems.

But many people ask, what situations cause soil compaction or increase the need for aeration?

#1. Your Soil Sees Regular Use

If your lawn is like my mom’s—which has a playground with many kids choosing it as the perfect spot to spend their time—the soil will get more compacted.

#2. Your Home Is New Construction (And Your Lawn Is New)

Building a new home often means the presence of heavy-duty vehicles and machines driving across the lot and compacting the soil. The topsoil of new lawns often gets stripped, exposing the mid-soil, which is more compact.

#3. Your Soil Has A Thick Thatch Layer

Thatch is a buildup of organic matter on your lawn at the base of the grass plants. It’s usually made up of leaves, dead roots, grass clippings, etc., that accumulate over time, reducing the porosity of your soil. Aerating isn’t intended to dethatch your lawn, but it does help to open up the dense layer to make the soil more porous.

Quick Guide: How To Aerate Your Lawn

Aeration may be simple, but the last thing you want to do is mess up your lawn while tackling a project. These are basic, timeless steps for aerating your lawn.

  • Mow the grass short, setting the deck height to 1.5 or 2”.
  • Make sure the ground is fairly moist but not saturated. You can either aerate after rainfall or thoroughly water the lawn a day or two before aerating.
  • Flag any hidden objects in the lawn like irrigation heads or tree stumps.
  • Aerate the perimeter of the lawn first, and then begin making straight passes across the lawn until it is completely covered. When you reach the edge, lift or disengage core aerators to make the turn.
  • (Optional) If using a spike aerator, make a second pass across the lawn in the opposite direction.

Related FAQs

Q. Should I pick up plugs after aerating?
Picking up plugs or breaking them up is a matter of preference. If you decide to pick them up, wait a couple of days after aerating to let the soil microbes in the plugs break down the thatch.

Q. Does aerating your lawn make a difference?
Aerating makes a significant difference, reducing soil compaction and allowing water, oxygen, and nutrients to move into the soil better.

Q. Is spike or plug aeration better for overseeding?
Plug aeration is better for overseeding than spike. It does a more thorough job of reducing soil compaction and gets seeds right down to the soil surface.

Q. Is there a wrong time to aerate your lawn?
You never want to aerate your lawn when it is dormant. Always aerate when the grass is actively growing, filling the aeration holes.

Q. Is aerating and dethatching the same thing?
No, aerating and dethatching are two different processes. Aerating creates holes through the thatch layer and into the top of the soil to decrease soil compaction. Dethatching (or power raking) removes part of the thatch layer—the thick layer of organic material that builds up on top of the soil surface.

Q. How long should lawn aerator spikes be?
Spikes about 4” long are a good length. They are long enough to penetrate the soil well but are still easy to remove.

Q. What should I do after core aeration?
After core aerating, let the soil plugs disintegrate back into the lawn, apply seasonal fertilizer, and overseed if needed or apply a pre-emergent for weed control.

Q. Can I mow after aerating?
You can mow immediately after spike aerating, but you should wait 2 to 4 weeks after core aerating to give the new roots time to grow.

Q. Are manual aerators any good for your lawn?
Manual aerators are suitable for targeting small sections of compacted soil such as heavily used footpaths, around patios, or at the corners of your house. They take a lot of effort to aerate an entire lawn or heavily compacted soil effectively.

Conclusion: Which is Better, Core or Spike Aerating?

It’s fair to say neither of these aeration methods is inferior to the other. They do, however, serve different purposes, and each one is better under certain circumstances.

Core aeration remains the best method for aerating highly compacted soil.

However, spike aeration may do a great deal of justice to your lawn if it isn’t very hard or compacted.