GIMME SHELTER-Aeration therapy: Let your lawn breathe

Q: I'm always driving on my lawn, and the grass has started to look pretty lame. How can I reinvigorate the green?

A: If you drive on your lawn a lot, your best bet for getting the grass greener and improving its health might be aeration.

Annual aeration removes small soil plugs to fight soil compaction, which can be caused by cars or even just a lot of activity from people and pets. Yards with poor drainage are most likely to become compacted when the air-filled spaces in the soil are disrupted by pressure from use. Without these spaces, lawns can't absorb enough nutrients to stay healthy, and it's more difficult for grass to form deep roots.

To check if your lawn needs aeration, try cutting a square foot section (about six inches deep). If the roots of the grass extend only 1-2 inches into the soil, your lawn is definitely in need of aeration. And even if the grass isn't in dire straits, aeration can be used as a preventive measure. Be sure, though, not to aerate newly seeded or sodded lawns within the first year.

While many companies offer aeration services, gardeners can rent or buy aerators to do the job themselves. Aerators are normally disks or drums with spikes or hollow tines mounted around the outside to remove soil plugs from .50 to .75 inches in diameter. Instead of removing plugs, some aerators, both mechanical and manual, push holes into the soil. These holes will help irrigation after rainfall, improve rooting of grass, and even help the environment by counteracting the excessive run-off of pesticides and other chemicals into nearby waterways.

Before aeration, make sure your lawn is moist (but not wet). If it has just rained, give the grass and soil time to absorb the rainfall. If you're watering the lawn, allow three to four days of steady watering before aeration so the water does not drown the soil. Also, make sure any built-in sprinkler heads as well as septic lines and underground cables are marked during aeration.

Aeration is most effective in the late summer when local lawns are coming out of dormancy. In early August, lawns are most capable of benefiting from aeration. To aerate lawns with lots of Bermuda and zoysia grass, start in early June and July when these grasses are growing fastest.

One last thing to remember: leave the soil cores on the lawn. While some gardeners like to remove these chunks, the plugs often find their way back into the ground in two to four weeks and help regenerate a healthy lawn.

Frank Barb