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Is dethatching or aerating better for my lawn?

When it comes to lawn maintenance, chances are you need a combination of both dethatching and aeration. Both techniques are often essential to ensuring your lawn is lush and healthy. However, there are different tools and processes involved with dethatching and aeration. Also, it’s usually better to dethatch the lawn before aerating it.

Dethatching the lawn

Dethatching is the process of removing thatch from the lawn. Thatch is a combination of organic and inorganic matter that builds up over the topmost layer of your grass. It generally consists of leaves, stems and roots. These materials form a barrier that prevents essential resources such as sunlight, water, nutrients and oxygen from reaching the grass roots.

Some thatch — no more than half an inch — is beneficial for the lawn because it can protect it from extreme heat and help keep the soil moist without blocking resources. It can also decay over time and act as a natural fertilizer for grass.

However, too much thatch can prevent the grass from growing. It can also cause dead spots in the yard. Left unchecked, it could even become a breeding ground for pests and plant disease or rot. If you have too much thatch on your lawn, you need a dethatcher.

There are a few main types of lawn dethatchers:

  • Tow-behind: These attach to the back of a lawn mower or tractor and can remove thatch as they go. They’re great for larger lawns.
  • Manual: These require you to push or pull them to break up thatch. One of the most common types is the thatch rake. This type is best for small yards.
  • Motorized or electric: These dethatchers usually have a motor and require a power source to operate. They’re ideal for larger areas.

Dethatchers have tines or claws and can loosen or break up thatch as they go. Some collect the thatch in a tray you can empty once you’ve finished the process. Others leave the thatch behind for you to rake up manually.

Dethatching pros

  • Provides grass more access to resources such as sunlight, water, fertilizer and nutrients, so it can grow lush and healthy.
  • Inspires growth of newer, smaller grass shoots.
  • Makes fertilizer more effective.
  • Decreases the number of weeds.
  • Lowers the risk of plant disease and pests.
  • Gets rid of standing water such as puddles.

Dethatching cons

  • Can cause stress in the yard if done at the wrong time, leading to stunted growth.
  • Higher-tier equipment can be expensive.
  • Manual dethatchers are time-consuming and laborious.
  • Removing all thatch could also get rid of necessary nutrients or fertilizer, which could hurt the lawn.

Best lawn dethatchers

Greenworks 10-Amp Corded 14-Inch Dethatcher Plus Tines

Greenworks 10-Amp Corded 14-inch Dethatcher Plus Tines

This ergonomic dethatcher comes with durable stainless steel tines that can easily break up clumps of thatch. It has a tine depth controller that lets you adjust how deep the tines go. It’s best for removing light to moderate thatch.

Sold by Amazon 

Brinly-Hardy 40-Inch Tow-Behind Dethatcher

Brinly-Hardy 40-inch Tow-Behind Dethatcher

This tow-behind dethatcher easily attaches to a lawnmower or tractor and can automatically break up and remove thatch. It comes with two rows of 10 steel tines and is 40 inches wide. It has a durable all-steel design and can support an additional 70 pounds for lawns with a lot of thatch or tough soil.

Sold by Home Depot

Brinly-Hardy 38-Inch Front-Mount Dethatcher

Brinly-Hardy 38-inch Front-Mount Dethatcher

Compatible with an electric riding mower, this front-end dethatcher makes lawn maintenance easier than ever. It’s easy to install and is 38 inches wide. It has two rows and a total of 20 tines.

Sold by Home Depot

Aerating the lawn

Over time, the soil becomes compacted. This can happen for several reasons, including foot traffic and heavy equipment placed in the yard. Compacted soil prevents oxygen, nutrients and water from reaching the grass roots. Without these necessary resources, the grass will start to turn brown, thin out and eventually die.

That’s where aeration comes in. Aeration is the process of loosening up compacted soil by creating small holes so nutrients and other resources can get to the grass roots. You should aerate the lawn once every year or if you notice the soil is starting to become compacted. If you’re not sure, here are some ways to tell if it’s time to aerate:

  • Push a screwdriver down into the ground. If it goes down easily, the yard probably doesn’t need aeration yet. If it doesn’t, you may need to aerate.
  • Dig a small hole in the yard. It should be deep enough for you to see the grass roots — usually, 5 to 6 inches is enough. If the roots are only about an inch long, you should aerate the lawn.
  • Check for standing water. If puddles are starting to form in places they didn’t before, it could be a sign that the soil is too compacted to absorb water.
  • Look for thinning grass or discoloration. Thin or brown patches of grass aren’t getting the resources they need. This could be a sign that it’s time to aerate.

There are several types of lawn aerators, including:

  • Tow-behind or attached: These attach to the back of riding equipment, such as a lawnmower. They’re ideal for larger areas.
  • Manual: With either a spike aerator or aerator shoes, you’ll use these manually to create small holes and loosen up compacted soil.
  • Motorized or electric: These run on electricity or gas and can aerate large sections of the lawn at once.
  • Core and spike: Core aerators remove plugs of soil so resources can reach the roots. Spike aerators push down the soil to create small holes between 2 and 4 inches deep.

Aerating pros

  • Can promote healthier grass easily.
  • Helps prevent potential yard erosion.
  • Can reduce the need for dethatching.
  • Prevents standing water.
  • Helps manage weeds.
  • Reduces how much fertilizer you need.

Aerating cons

  • Core aerators leave soil plugs throughout the yard that require manual removal.
  • Spike aerators can cause soil to become more compacted in certain areas.
  • Electric or tow-behind lawn aerators are often expensive.
  • Manual aeration is time-consuming and physically intensive.

Best lawn aerators

Agri-Fab 45-0299 48-Inch Tow Plug Aerator

Agri-Fab 45-0299 48-inch Tow Plug Aerator

With 32 blades that can create 3-inch deep cores, this tow-behind aerator can easily handle large yards. It has flat tires that keep it from tearing up the soil. It also comes with a universal hitch that can connect to nearly any tractor or lawnmower.

Sold by Amazon and Home Depot

Axansiho Upgraded Metal Lawn Aerator Shoes Spiked Shoes

Axansiho Upgraded Metal Lawn Aerator Shoes Spiked Shoes

These aerator shoes attach to nearly any shoe size and have a metal base plate that makes them resistant to corrosion. Each shoe has 13 spikes that are 2.2 inches long. They can aerate any soil type.

Sold by Amazon

Should you dethatch or aerate the lawn?

Ultimately, you should dethatch the lawn if there’s more than half an inch of organic matter blocking essential resources from the grass roots. You should also do this before aerating the lawn.

Dethatching on its own is sufficient if the grass is still lush and healthy and the soil is not heavily compacted. However, you should aerate the lawn once every year or two, or if the grass isn’t receiving the resources it needs.

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Angela Watson writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.

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