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With two acres of red clay soil, I’ve been willing to try just about anything to improve it. Liquid soil conditioner is commonly marketed as a viable solution but I approach every test with a healthy dose of skepticism. With two years of testing behind me, however, I have come to realize that soil conditioners have their place in a comprehensive soil improvement strategy.
Does liquid soil conditioner work? The effectiveness of liquid soil conditioners, also known as liquid aeration, is limited on its own, but when combined with core aeration and other soil improvement strategies, liquid soil conditioners serve a valuable purpose as a wetting agent in conditioning soil.
What Is Liquid Soil Conditioner?
The majority of liquid soil conditioners on the market use Ammonium Laureth Sulfate as their active ingredient. You’ll find this same ingredient in most shampoos. This is where the controversy over liquid soil conditioners usually occurs. Seen by many as nothing more than expensive shampoo, this is a product line that is often dismissed as nothing more than a marketing gimmick. If I’m being completely honest, I started out on that side of the fence.
The truth is, there is a tangible benefit in using liquid soil conditioners. The University of Colorado at Boulder found that Ammonium Laureth Sulfate serves as a viable surfactant when used on clay soil for the purpose of preventing water absorption resistance (source).
What you don’t want to do is simply spray liquid soil conditioner on your lawn and call it good. There may be some benefit to this, but where this stuff really shines is when it is used to soften the soil so that additional, more aggressive measures of soil improvement can be implemented. We are talking about core aeration for example and a personal favorite of mine, deep soil integration.
Does Liquid Soil Conditioner Really Improve Aeration?
I’ve found this almost impossible to measure with any objective accuracy. I ran a side by side test in a small strip in my back yard where I used liquid soil conditioner on one strip. After two years, I can say with absolute certainty that the treated strip is generally softer and easier to work. But has it improved aeration of the soil? I don’t know. It’s feasible to conclude that because the soil is softer and easier to dig in that it is, in fact, more aerated but I think this is a distinction without a difference.
What really matters and the one benefit to take away here is that the liquid soil conditioner does seem to soften the soil. This allows for easier soil amendment efforts. Core aeration will be more effective in softer soil that hardpan clay.
This YouTube video explains the concept behind liquid aeration and the results that the author has seen from using it.
The Science (And Pseudoscience) Behind Liquid Aeration
Companies sometimes make outrageous claims about their products. This market is no exception.
I’ve seen advertisements claiming that liquid aeration is an effective replacement for physical core aeration. This is not an accurate way to look at liquid soil conditioners and in my opinion, it does the product a disservice by overstating its abilities. Think of this as more of a compliment than a replacement for lawn core aeration.
It can provide benefit by loosening the soil and making it softer but you should not underestimate the value in aerating your lawn with a stand-alone or tow-behind aerator. In fact, according to the Colorado State University Extension website, there is no substitute for the physical aggregation and amendment of soil by chemical means alone (source). Physically pulling plugs of compacted soil from the ground has a tremendous benefit over liquid aeration by itself. Combine them, however, and you stand to compound the benefit by softening the soil to allow the aerator spoons to dig deeper and pull out even more compacted soil.
I’m a firm believer in the benefit of liquid soil conditioners but manage your expectations and include them in a comprehensive soil improvement strategy, not as a one-shot solution.
What Is the Best Liquid Aeration Product?
The market is saturated with companies claiming their product is best but it takes a little digging into the details to really separate hype from fact.
In the past, I used Simple Lawn Solutions Liquid Soil Loosener (link to Amazon) and was pretty happy with the product overall. For what it’s intended to do, it is a good product and I wouldn’t hesitate to use it again.
What I like about this product, frankly, is the price and that it’s available from Amazon. It’s relatively inexpensive for a soil conditioner and I have found it to be very beneficial in softening the soil prior to aerating. I still use it from time to time, mainly because I can quickly reorder from the Amazon app on my phone.
I’ve recently become fascinated with Compaction Cure Combo (link to Yard Mastery website). This is a two-punch approach to soil and lawn improvement that combines a wetting agent product, Air-8 (pronounced “Aerate”) with a root growth stimulant liquid, RGS.
The synergistic approach that these products take for an existing lawn makes a lot of sense. While you are treating the soil with a softening agent you are simultaneously stimulating the root growth of your lawn, encouraging it to reach deeper into the soil. Deeper root growth helps lawns to resist drought and generally results in a healthier, more durable turf. To understand this better, read our article How Deep Do Grass Roots Grow?
Air-8 takes a different approach to liquid aeration than most soil conditioners using soluble Potash instead of the more common Ammonium Laureth Sulfate as its active ingredient. Potash is basically water-soluble potassium.
Note that this is not an inexpensive product but depending on your budget and the aggressiveness of your plans to tackle your soil compaction problems, this combo pack is a solid option.
Below is a video outlining the reported benefits of Air-8.
When Should I apply Liquid Soil Conditioner?
You’ll want to use liquid soil conditioner prior to core aeration which is generally in the spring or fall and if you have hard clay as I do, mid-summer as well. Remember that your goal is to soften the soil in preparation for aeration, not simply spray this stuff and leave it. I have seen a benefit from using a liquid conditioner on its own but you will drastically improve your results by incorporating it into a comprehensive soil improvement strategy.
I’ve found it best to spray in the morning then wait a couple of hours before aerating. This allows the soil to soak in the surfactant and really take advantage of the softening effect. When you come back over it with a core aerator, the plugs stay together better and the spoons are able to dig deeper with less difficulty.
Softening your soil will allow grass or plant roots to grow deeper, resulting in healthier growth and more drought tolerance. There is no one-shot solution to solving soil problems but a liquid aeration solution can help to soften the soil. While it does provide benefit on it’s own, you’ll see the best results by using it to complement additional soil improvement strategies such as core aeration. Establish a seasonal routine of soil improvement by incorporating multiple techniques. Click here to read my five-step process for improving clay soil.
The more you aggregate and condition your soil and the more organic matter that you add to it, the better it will be in the long run.
Troubled with compacted soil? Click here for Thriving Yard’s recommended soil compaction products