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When you have a large yard with compacted clay soil like I do, you need a way to aerate frequently without breaking your back or your pocketbook. Rental charges add up quickly and pushing a gas-powered core aerator around a large yard will turn your arms to jello. That’s what initially attracted me to pull behind aerators that attach to riding mowers. But you may be wondering if these are effective and really worth your money. I’ve studied up on these and learned quite a bit. I’ll share what I’ve uncovered but first, let’s deal with the most pressing question of all:
Do Pull Behind Aerators Work? When properly weighted and designed with spoons vs spikes, pull behind aerators can be very effective at removing cores of soil to decrease compaction and allow for backfilling with nutrient-rich matter such as compost. They are a great solution for large yards when attached behind a riding mower.
To fully appreciate the benefits of a pull behind aerator, as well as a few pitfalls, I’m going to outline the key features to look for and a couple of tricks to make sure you get the best results possible when using a pull behind aerator. But first, let’s get clear on why you should be aerating your lawn in the first place.
Benefits of Core Aeration
There can be many benefits to aerating your lawn but the key benefits really come down to these three things:
- Reduced soil compaction to improve deeper root growth
- Improved drainage and saturation of water into the soil
- Improved air movement to encourage beneficial microorganisms
When soil is compacted, it can restrict root growth (source). This impairs your lawn’s ability to thrive by limiting the depth of grass roots. Shallow roots make the grass more susceptible to disease, cold weather, and drought. The impact of this can vary depending on the type of grass you have. I have Centipede for example which is more drought tolerant than some grasses but still needs to be able to dig its roots in to really thrive (source). Remember this: the quality of your soil determines the health of your lawn.
By aerating, you are removing cores of compacted soil and giving the surrounding dirt room to expand. You can compound the effectiveness of aeration by backfilling the core holes with quality topsoil or compost. In fact, that is one of the key steps in my five-step approach to improving clay soil.
Here’s how aerating the soil can also help to improve drainage by improving that root growth. By allowing moisture to more easily soak deep into the soil, you improve the root health of your lawn by encouraging deeper growth. Shallow root growth is often the result of frequent, short waterings where the water does not effectively soak deeper into the soil. This is especially true of compacted soils like clay where water can be seen sitting on top of the soil after a rainfall. Core aeration can help with this by breaking up the compaction of the soil, allowing for better drainage through soil saturation. Aeration allows a way for the water to flow through the soil instead of just on top of it.
Another benefit to aeration is in the name itself. You see, heavily compacted soil does not allow for air that is necessary for worms and many beneficial bacteria that spend their days and nights working your soil and improving its nutrient quality. Aeration breaks up the compaction of the soil to allow air for these little helpers. Again, there is added benefit to backfilling those core holes with quality soil. In fact, by adding a quality soil or compost, you are introducing those helpful microbes into your lawn.
How Well Do Pull Behind Aerators Work?
Though often not as effective as a dedicated core aerator (more on that later), pull behind aerators can work very well to remove soil cores and reduce compaction. They are especially beneficial to homeowners with large yards or very rural areas where renting and using a gas-powered core aerator would be problematic.
This video from YouTube shows a pull behind aerator tool being used and the resulting plugs of soil on the lawn after use. The video is actually longer but I have it set to start near the end so that you can quickly see it in use and the results.
The key to how well a pull behind aerator really works comes down to two things:
- Weighting the aerator down
- Using spoons instead of spikes
Let’s explore each of these and why they are so critical for a pull behind aeration tool to work.
Why Is Weighing Down A Pull Behind Aerator Important?
Compacted soil can be very difficult to dig. In fact, it can be like digging in concrete if it is dry and has a heavy clay content. In order for any core aerator to work, it needs weight to press its spoons down into the soil. Otherwise, it would just roll over the top of the soil and tear up your grass.
Many pull behind lawn aerator tools like the Brinly PA-48BH (link to Amazon) are designed to allow you to place cinderblocks or sandbags on them to ensure proper soil penetration.
Spikes Vs. Plug Spoons For Lawn Aeration
There are basically two types of aeration methods that people use to reduce soil compaction: Spikes and Plug Spoons.
I’m sure you have seen those funny-looking shoe strap-ons that claim you can aerate your lawn by simply walking around it wearing these, right? Well, you can actually buy pull behind aerators that use spikes. But let me tell you why this is not the best option.
Spikes work based on the principle of poking holes into the soil to improve aeration. The problem with this approach is two-fold. First, by pressing into the ground to create a hole, you are actually causing an increase in compaction of the surrounding soil (source). And second, you are not actually removing any of the compacted soil from the ground. You are simply shifting the compacted soil and creating more problems.
Plug aerators, by comparison, have hollow metal shafts with a spoon-section at the bottom that allows the device to plunge into the ground and pull out “cores” or plugs of soil. This means that you are physically removing the substance from the ground, allowing for the actual expansion of the surrounding soil.
I cannot stress the importance of this enough. Spike aeration is not the approach that you need to take with lawn aeration. You can’t improve the compaction of soil by compacting it more. You have to remove some of the compacted soil and replace it with nutrient-rich dirt or compost that does not compact easily.
Pull Behind Vs. Rental Aerators
Dedicated core aerators are generally more effective than pull-behind models but they can be cost-inhibitive when you are having to pay a rental fee, arrange to pick up and return them and deal with any mechanical issues that come up while in your possession. Frankly, they can be a real pain. But they are a dedicated tool and if you have a smaller yard, they are not a bad choice as long as you live near a rental location.
But I hate having to rent equipment. Something always seems to go wrong. It won’t start or something breaks and it just brings my work time to a screeching halt. Waste one whole Saturday troubleshooting a rented core aerator and having it beat your arms to death as you walk it around your yard and you will find yourself with similar views.
But its not just about the hassles of renting equipment…
Whether you should rent a gas-powered aerator or buy a pull-behind model really depends on the size of your yard and the frequency that you will need to perform core aeration. If you have a small yard or really rich soil, you can probably get by with renting. But if your yard is big or you are dealing with heavily compacted soil like me then you may be better off just buying a pull behind that you can use as frequently as you want.
Which brings us to our next point.
How Often Should You Aerate A Lawn?
This depends a lot of the type of soil and grass that you have. Quality soil can often be maintained by aerating every couple of years while heavily compacted soil benefits from up to three times in a single year. The best way to determine how often to aerate is to evaluate the compaction and health of your soil. If it’s getting compacted or if you are seeing your grass beginning to brown from the roots being strangled and suffocated, then it’s probably time to aerate.
With a clay soil yard like mine, the lawn never really isn’t compacted. If that’s your situation, plan to aerate at least a couple of times a year. I’ve seen “experts” saying you should only aerate your lawn once every year or two but they clearly aren’t dealing with the same soil as I am. My point is this: your soil type will determine how often you need to aerate and your grass will show tell-tale signs when the compaction is restricting its growth.
What Is The Best Pull Behind Aerator?
There are several companies that manufacture pull behind plug aerators and “best” is a very subjective term. I will tell you that I usually recommend the Brinly PA-40BH for a smaller riding mower and the Brinly PA-48BH for larger mowers (these are links to Amazon). The first model has a 40-inch width and the second is 48 inches.
In both cases, Brinly uses 16 gauge steel for their plugging spoons that are designed to plunge up to 3 inches into the soil. Each has an enclosed weight tray to hold cinderblocks or sandbags and a lever to quickly lift the spoons when crossing driveways or sidewalks. They also include no-flat tires and I’m really partial to features like that. Nothing is more frustrating than getting up on a Saturday morning ready to get work done and realizing you have a flat.
There are other well-established brands that I would be comfortable purchasing including the Agri-Fab 45-0299 48-Inch model (Amazon link for current pricing). Agri-Fab is a solid brand and I’ve met anyone who’s had a negative experience using their products.
Craftsman also makes a pull behind aerator that’s available on Amazon but I’ve grown less fond of the Craftsman brand over the past few years. Their name used to be synonymous with solid, well-built, and dependable tools but they haven’t kept that reputation up as well in the recent past. I’m sure their aerator is fine but I’m not comfortable recommending it at this time. My advice is to go with Brinly or Agri-Fab. Those are both solid manufacturers.
Pull behind aerators do work and can provide significant benefits for homeowners with large yards. Just be sure to go with a spoon plug model and to weigh it down so that it can really dig into that compacted soil. I’ve also found benefit in using a soil conditioner to soften the soil prior to aerating. These products are often called liquid aeration but I think they work best when combined with core aeration, not as a replacement.
Aerating your lawn can greatly improve the condition of the soil and while renting a stand-alone gas-powered core aerator is a good approach for some, those with a large yard or who don’t live close to a rental center can benefit from a pull behind aerator.