Aeration has always been a challenge for superintendents because of the inherent conflict between taking the best possible care of their turf and providing the best possible playing conditions for their players. Aeration is critical because it allows oxygen and nutrients to enter the soil and helps with compaction of turf, but it’s also a labor-intensive process that can result in an uneven playing surface.

Courses usually aerate once or twice per year to control organic matter like decaying roots and grass stems, relieve soil compaction, stimulate root growth and improve drainage. When done at the right time, with the right equipment, superintendents can ensure the consistent, long-term health of their turf with minimal disruption to the playing surface.

Arm yourself with the right tools

Steve LePera

It might be a critical job, but no superintendent enjoys the aeration process. It’s laborious and by definition disrupts the smoothness of playing surfaces. The thought of punching holes in the turf might be enough to make most supers shudder, but industry suppliers have stepped up to the plate with new equipment and technologies that make the process less painful.

Schiller Grounds Care, based in Southampton, Pennsylvania, became a powerhouse in the aeration sector in 2009, when Schiller-Pfeiffer Inc. merged with Commercial Grounds Care Inc. Since that time, the company has worked to make the aeration process more consistent for superintendents, even under less-than-ideal ground conditions.

“Aerator technology has evolved from drum-type aerators to reciprocating aerators, which use knife-style tines or ‘bayonets,'” according to Steve LePera, director of marketing for three Schiller brands: Little Wonder, Mantis and Classen. “These tines work well to punch deep, clean holes even in tough, hardened soil. Some reciprocating units also use hydraulic tine pressure versus weight-dependent tine pressure. Hydraulic tine pressure provides consistent tine patterns for well-distributed root growth and drainage. It also eliminates the need to move weights.”

Kyle Nelson

Ryan Turf, another of Schiller’s brands, has focused on increasing efficiency and improving operator comfort. Its Easy Steer technology improves maneuverability around obstacles by incorporating independent tine wheels, which are able to rotate at different speeds while turning. “This allows for the aerator to turn easily, with the tines in the ground, without tearing the turf,” says Kyle Nelson, a Ryan product manager.

Z-Spray, the Lebanon, Indiana-based manufacturer of the Z-Plug aerator, has also emphasized efficiency to improve what tends to be a slow, monotonous task. Able to reach speeds up to 8 miles per hour, the zero-turn Z-Plug model can aerate up to 100,000 square feet per hour.

The Toro Co., headquartered in Bloomington, Minnesota, also offers a popular line of aerators, including its ProCore series, which is available in walk-behind, tractor-mounted and deep-tine models. Efficiency is a key selling point – the ProCore can aerate 18 greens in about seven hours – but technology shouldn’t take precedence over process and timing. “With the introduction of new cultivars and economic realities, advancements have been less focused on the technology of aeration equipment and more focused on exploring different approaches to traditional aeration,” says Jeremy Opsahl, global marketing manager for Toro’s ProCore, SandPro and debris products. “For example, one significant area we’ve seen a lot of interest is the increased frequency of solid tine aeration. Additionally, there’s been a renewed interest in water-injection aeration, which was popular years ago.”

Geography changes the variables

Craig Rohde

Having the right tools at your disposal is a big part of the solution, but superintendents must also know when to deploy them. Because weather conditions vary widely depending on a course’s location, best practices for aeration need to be adjusted based on geography.

“Speed of recovery from aerification is linked closely to weather conditions and to the stage of the annual growth cycle for different species of turf,”Opsahl says. Generally speaking, Northern courses with cool-season grass will be aerating in the spring and fall. “Warm- and cool-season cultivars have different growth cycles,” he explains. “It’s important to time the type of aeration to give the plant the best chance of a quick recovery while not imparting too much stress.”

In warmer Southern locales, superintendents should perform verticutting in the spring and fall to reduce thatch buildup and promote vertical growth, according to Craig Rohde, marketing manager for Ryan. “Aerate and verticut when the grass is actively growing, which allows the turf to more quickly repair itself,” he says.

Tom Rich, president of Z-Plug, agrees that the ability to recover quickly is a major success factor. Superintendents should aerate more frequently “in the sandy soils of Florida, Texas and California, and more often in areas like the Carolinas because of their transitional grasses,” he says. Because it’s such a stressful process for the turf to endure, the fall round of aeration shouldn’t begin before summer’s heat dissipates and the autumn rains begin.

Success begins with the big four

While the recommended type and frequency of aeration vary considerably based on factors like weather conditions and soil type, there are a few tried-and-true rules that superintendents everywhere should keep in mind:

1. Avoid the summer months at all costs. Just like “Fight Club,” the first and second rules of aeration are the same: Do not aerate when temperatures are high and water is scarce. Moisture is the key factor, according to LePera. “Not enough moisture and tines can bounce across the turf; too much moisture could result in tearing the turf versus ‘punching’ turf to remove the core,” he says.

Don’t overthink this one, Ryan’s Nelson warns – just stick to seasons when the turf can benefit the most. “Spring aeration promotes overall turf growth and helps the turf recover from the cold season, and fall aeration promotes root system growth during the winter season in Northern climates,” he says.

2. Don’t trade short-term benefits for long-term problems. Despite technological advances, there is simply no way to aerate turf without affecting its smoothness to some degree. Superintendents everywhere might grind their teeth at the thought of disrupting their perfectly manicured greens, but the pain will be much worse down the road if they don’t accept that the long-term benefits of aeration dramatically outweigh the short-term pain of a less-than-flawless putting surface. “The greens may not play their best immediately following some aeration treatments, but everyone is playing the same conditions and golfers still can enjoy the game and make plenty of putts,” Rich says.

3. Do your homework to ensure you purchase the right equipment. Superintendents have a lot of options, so they need to make a list of priorities and find the machinery that is ideally suited to accomplish their specific goals.

LePera believes it all starts with the tines. “Look for units with tines that can punch deep, clean holes and also feature a core depth stop that eliminates tine pressure fluctuations,” he says. “Aerators with high tine densities will also optimize the holes per square foot, resulting in a healthier lawn.” Fortunately, getting the best tine performance doesn’t require a sacrifice in efficiency or user convenience. Classen’s PRO PowerSteer unit, for example, offers nonstop aeration because it can turn without lifting the tines out of the ground and is the only aerator that offers a power steering option, the company says.

For superintendents who want to minimize the amount of time they spend on aeration, Rohde recommends stand-on aerators. “A stand-on aerator greatly improves efficiency, with productivity at least three times greater than some walk-behind aerators,” he says. Ryan’s Lawnaire ZTS unit is proof of this statement since it is capable of reaching speeds up to 7 miles per hour and aerating as many as 2.25 acres per hour.

Finally, although aerators are relatively inexpensive in comparison to big-ticket items like large riding mowers, Rich says supers have the option to get even more bang for their buck by choosing an aerator that can perform other tasks as well. Z-Spray markets the Z-Plug zero-turn model, which can accept attachments such as a slide seeder, snow plow, de-thatch rake, spiker, sprayer system and hydraulic drive spreader.

4. Fertilize before you aerate – and don’t mow immediately afterward. “Fertilization helps aeration holes heal quicker and more completely,” Opsahl says, “and not only can mowing topdressing sand be harmful to the mowing equipment, it defeats the purpose of the aeration process.”

No matter what the future brings in terms of technology, aeration will never be fun for superintendents. They will never, ever look fondly on any machine that is designed to dig holes in their turf.

However, by taking advantage of suppliers’ recent technological advancements and aerating at the proper times, superintendents can ensure the long-term health of their turf while causing minimal disruptions to players.