When I first started out in the business of turf maintenance in the steamy transition zone of the mid-Atlantic region, aeration was a can’t-miss, must-do cultural practice that happened twice a year – once in spring and once in fall. Pull plugs, push the cores off to the side, pick them up with backbreaking grain shovels, and then sand, seed, fertilize, drag, water, repeat. The poor aerator operator walked, aerated, walked, aerated, all the livelong day.

Unfortunately, golfers wouldn’t see this as an exercise in maintaining healthy turf. Oh no. “How long are the greens going to be all torn up?” was a very common question.

At my first superintendent post – a family-owned public course with a die-hard, high-rolling local clientele – I found myself needing to aerate and topdress heavily my first week there because of several years of neglect. I asked for a closing of at least nine holes, or some kind of right-of-way to perform this necessary task. I was given a cursory couple of hours head start.

On the appointed aeration day the golfers were lined up on the first tee like the start of the Daytona 500, waiting for the green light to be able to tee it up. Of course, it wasn’t long before the complaints came pouring in, as they insisted on hitting in to us – and actually putting out – while we worked.

“I never had to putt in the Sahara Desert before!” one guy shouted out as he drove away from a newly topdressed green. It was comical watching people try to putt out and expect “normal” roll on a green that was aerated just a couple hours before. The looks of disgust that were thrown my way were priceless.

Root growth is just one benefit of aeration that you can tell golfers.PHOTO BY JOHN FECH

Interestingly enough, I don’t recall hearing the same number of compliments in late July/August when the greens were still hanging in there and rolling sweet because of our spring aeration efforts. “Hey Jim, Thanks for aerating this past spring! Even with the heat and humidity the greens are still looking good!” Nope, I just made that up.

So, how do you communicate the importance of this cultural practice that is paramount to the health of our turf and, ultimately, our bottom lines? It’s not only the golfers. We are also up against some club owners who tend to shy away from aeration because of the perceived loss of golf revenue during the aeration/recovery time frame, losing sight of the bigger season-long turf health picture.

Not everyone who enjoys golf or who is in the golf business understands (or even wants to know) the agricultural aspect of turf maintenance. Golfers want to play golf and hope today is the day they shoot their best round ever. You are dashing their hopes if you’re aerating today, and they probably don’t want to hear the science of compaction relief.

The club owner wants to hear the cash register ring, instead of hearing how important it is to remove organic matter at the surface and replace it with fresh sand so you have greater air and water infiltration into the root zone.

Aeration practices have evolved over the years, and superintendents have become more creative in regards to aerating without actually pulling cores and “making a mess aerating.” Deep tines, needle tines, venting and spike rolling are all forms of aeration that provide some of the same beneficial results without the surface disruption and dirty looks. And they can be done throughout the year, when they can be most beneficial to the turf. But like hand-watering versus automatic irrigation, nothing can really take the place of core aeration and subsequent follow-up practices.

Communication to management and the golfing public needs to be as technical as the situation will allow. Speak to them on their level. Let the golfer know this minor disruption today will provide truer, healthier greens for the rest of the season. Let management know that you need to make sure you can offer pristine playing conditions throughout the season for the long-term financial health of the facility. That means aerating during the optimal growing season so disruption is minimal and healing is quick.

I recall going out with needle tines on a couple of pocketed greens before a holiday weekend. We had experienced some heavy rain events and these greens needed help before getting trampled by heavy play. A nearby homeowner called the pro shop: “Why is he aerating the green before a holiday weekend?” I rode out and explained to him about venting, minimal surface disruption, etc., and he was happy. And, yes, we still core aerated in the fall.

So this is the crossroad where we find ourselves on an annual or biannual basis. We know we need to aerate in order for the turf to be healthy, but it’s our job to communicate to others about this necessary evil.

I like to use this anecdote when I explain why it’s necessary to aerate:

It seems that things of certain importance come in groups of three. First there were the big three automakers: Ford, General Motors and Chrysler. Then you have the three competing television networks (before cable): ABC, NBC and CBS. In the turf industry, the big three equipment manufacturers are Toro, Jacobsen and John Deere. It’s no different when it comes to plant health. The big three most important factors we learned in turf school are: drainage, drainage and drainage.

Deep tining is just one form of aeration that provide some of the same beneficial results as core aeration.PHOTO COURTESY OF REDEXIM NORTH AMERICA

Water needs to drain down (percolate) out of the soil profile, as well as drain up (evaporate) from the soil profile in order for turf plants and roots to be healthy. Too much organic matter at the surface inhibits this vital water movement, and inhibits nutrients from getting to the root zone. Greens become puffy, scalping occurs, and turf disease becomes more prevalent.

The most effective way to alleviate these problems is through aeration. Sometimes it’s core aeration and heavy topdressing, other times it’s verticutting with a light sand cover, and still other times it’s venting with needle tines. Either way, I will do my best to impact your game as little as possible.

Of course, there is no magic bullet that applies to every golf course. Even the best explanation from the most seasoned superintendent might not be enough for a disgruntled golfer.

Thanks to the magic that is the World Wide Web, there are plenty of articles and videos posted by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA), the United States Golf Association (USGA) and others that explain the benefits of aerating putting greens. I would go so far as to have a video loop playing on an iPad or similar device in the pro shop during aeration time. This might help you avoid having to answer the same question over and over.

Fortunately, there seems to be greater awareness on the part of golfers today as to the importance of various maintenance practices, including aeration. More often now I see golfers pick up and move past the aerating crew as opposed to hitting in to them and complaining. Let’s hope this trend continues.

Try these talking points: 

  • Communication to management and the golfing public needs to be as technical as the situation will allow. Speak to golfers on their level.
  • Let golfers know this minor disruption today will provide truer, healthier greens for the rest of the season.
  • Let management know you need to make sure you can offer pristine playing conditions throughout the season for the long-term financial health of the facility. That means aerating during the optimal growing season so disruption is minimal and healing is quick.