Spike vs Plug Aerator

Spike vs Plug Aerator (differences & which is best for you)

You already know the amazing benefits of aerating your lawn. Maybe you’ve decided that now is the time to start this process on your property. But what kind of aeration will you do? After all, there are several options: you can aerate with a spike aerator, or with a plug aerator (often called a core aerator). In this article I’ll compare spike vs plug aerator options.

I’ll explain the characteristics, and pros and cons of each. I’ll also share my recommendations about which type of aerator will give you the best results depending upon your lawn’s current condition.

We will also discuss which type of aerator is more practical for homeowners looking to purchase an aerator (there’s a clear choice).

Trust and Accuracy Information

This article was last updated on by Lawn Chick Owner Sarah Jameson
Article content reviewed for accuracy by Certified Horticulturist Nicole Forsyth, M.S.

The Main Difference Between Spike and Plug Aerators

When comparing a spike vs plug aerator, the style of tines is the key difference:

  • A spike aerator has long, solid tines that punch holes into your lawn’s turf to allow water, oxygen, and nutrients to reach the lawn’s roots more easily.
  • A plug aerator (or core aerator) has hollow tines which remove round plugs of soil from your turf, opening larger holes for oxygen, water and nutrients to penetrate your lawn and reach the roots of your grass.
What is a Spike Aerator vs Plug Aerator
A rolling manual spike aerator
What is a Plug Aerator vs Spike Aerator
The underside of a plug aerator (or core aerator)

While both tools can be effective at fixing compact soil – they work in different ways.

A plug aerator makes large, deep holes in your turf, which is generally more beneficial and needs to be done with less frequency.

To understand which type of aerator you need (and why), I’ll dig a little deeper into these two types of lawn aeration tools in today’s article.

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What is a Spike Aerator?

A spike aerator has sharp tines that create holes in the soil. This helps loosen the soil without picking up soil from the ground surface.

What is a Spike Aerator?

When you use a spike aerator on your lawn, you put small holes in the ground with the sharp tines.

These holes help get rid of soil compaction. This is important, as soil compaction stops your grass roots from getting all the air, water, and nutrients they need.

Different spike aerators have tines of different lengths. Some have very long tines, up to nine inches.

If you use a spike aerator, you will need to aerate your lawn more frequently than you would with a core/plug aerator. If you go with spike aeration, you should plan to aerate two or three times annually. This is because the effects of spike aeration don’t last very long.

The good news is that spike aeration is typically very easy to do.

Different Kinds of Spike Aerator

Have you decided to try spike aeration? If so, there are a few kinds of spike aerators that you can try. These include:

  • spiked shoes,
  • manual aerators you step on like a shovel,
  • tow-behind aerators, and
  • push spike aerators.

Spiked Shoe Aerators

Using a spiked shoe aerator (like this one on Amazon) is something many homeowners find quick and easy. All you have to do is wear special shoes with spikes on the bottom, and walk all over your lawn.

Spike Lawn Aeration Shoes

The spikes you get on these shoes are usually a specific thinness, to cut back on how much resistance you will have to deal with when getting them into the ground.

Make sure you water your ground before trying to use this aeration process, or do it after a moderate rain. This will make the soil softer and it will be easier for the spikes to make their punctures.

Do you have an oscillating sprinkler? If so, leave this on and watering your space for an extended period.

While using spiked shoe aerators is fun and easy, it’s honestly not enough for a thorough lawn aeration. Many homeowners choose to use this equipment for a sort of touch-up aeration, several times a season.

I find it’s best to use these along the edges of walkways and at the base of stairs coming off of your deck – locations in your yard where people often walk and the soil gets compacted.

Hand and Foot Manual Aerators

A hand and foot manual aerator is a type of aerator that is simple to use and easy to handle.

To use a hand and foot manual aerator, you simply use your hands to keep it upright and then step on the other part of the device, the same way you would a shovel.

Manual Lawn Aerator

When you step, you drive the tines into the ground. This is what aerates your lawn.

Be ready for a workout if you use a hand and foot manual aerator. They’re simply impractical for a large lawn, unless you only want to aerate specific areas, as discussed above.

This is a good tool for quick, targeted aeration of high traffic areas. I own and recommend this one on Amazon.

Riding Mower Aerator (tow-behind)

If you have a riding mower (or even an ATV), you can purchase a towable lawn aerator to make quick work of aerating your lawn.

These tools can generally be purchased for a little bit more than the cost to rent a professional core aerator, allowing you to spike-aerate (or even core aerate) your lawn a few times every year without a trip to the equipment rental center.

Tow-Behind Aerator for a Lawn Tractor or SUV

If you have the space for it and are into lawn care, a tool like this will really benefit your soil and turf over time. And the convenience of just hooking up an aerator to your lawn tractor or ATV and driving around your yard (instead of muscling around a heavy machine) is something everyone can appreciate.

It’s a great way of aerating your lawn on a frequent basis without feeling like you’re doing an extra lawncare task. Here are links to a few popular options on Amazon:

Whether you choose a plug vs a spike aerator – with any of these tow-behind pieces of equipment you’ll want to have a few cinderblocks to stack on top of them to weigh them down, and you’ll need to make sure your lawn soil is nice and moist for best results (and to avoid damaging your equipment).

Push Spike Aerators

A push aerator is a bit easier to use than some other kinds of manual spike aerators.

As implied by the name, you have to push this kind of aerator, which rolls across your lawn with spikes that make small holes in your turf.

Push Spike Aerator or a Rolling Aerator for Your Lawn

You should water your ground first, to soften it.

If you don’t do this, you will find the soil a bit tough for pushing in the aerator tines and making the holes.

The drawback to this style of aerator is that it can be difficult to get deep holes in your turf. Without them, you’re not really doing much.

That’s why I recommend getting a model similar to this one from Agri-Fab – it has a spot to attach a cinderblock to the top, which really helps get the depth you’re looking for and sets it apart from similar rolling lawn aerators.

Pushing it with the cinderblock on top can be difficult, so turn around and pull it across your lawn. It’ll be a workout, but it’s effective.

What are the Pros and Cons of Spike Aeration?

There are advantages and disadvantages to using a spike aerator instead of a plug aerator.

Lawn Spike Aeration Drum

These include:

Spike Aeration Advantages

  • Spike aerators are easier to use and more convenient for many people.
  • Spike aerator tools tend to be smaller and easier to purchase or rent.
  • Compared to a plug aerator, you can use a spike aerator more often.

Disadvantages of Using a Spike vs Plug Aerator

  • Spike aeration only deals with soil compaction in the short term
  • If you use a manual spike aerator, it will really only be useful in small spaces
  • Some kinds of spike aerators are very labour-intensive to use
  • Many spike aerators aren’t practical for aerating a large lawn

What is a Plug Aerator?

A core aerator (also called a plug aerator) takes a plug or core of turf and soil from the ground.

Because a core aerator actually removes plugs of soil from the ground, it provides more thorough aeration than a spike aerator does.

What Is a Plug Aerator? (or Core Aerator)

Additionally, core aeration has much longer-term benefits than spike aeration. Generally you will only need to do this kind of lawn aeration once every two seasons.

When you use a plug aerator on your lawn, the plugs will typically be left on the ground to decompose.

This is a great way of not only aerating your lawn through taking out the plugs of soil, but also giving your lawn some extra nutrition (if you remove them you’re effectively stripping away some of the yard’s topsoil).

What are the Pros and Cons of Core/Plug Aeration?

Most plug aerators are mechanical. This is different than spike aerators, which are usually manual. Some plug aerators are large and you will probably want to rent rather than buy them, though there are some manual ones that you pull behind a lawn tractor too.

For large properties I like this one on Amazon (compare price and reviews at The Home Depot and Walmart).

Core Aeration Plugs

After all, you only need to core/plug aerate once every two seasons, so there’s often no reason to have one taking up space in your shed or storage space.

Advantages of Using a Plug Aerator vs Spike Aerator

There are many advantages to core/plug aeration. These include:

  • More thorough aeration. You’re creating larger holes in the ground, letting in more of the air, water, and sunlight your grass roots need.
  • You can find core/plug aerators in different sizes, meaning they create different sized holes in the ground.
  • A core/plug aerator’s tines are hollow, so they are able to take out plugs of dirt
  • You won’t have to aerate your lawn nearly as often with a core or plug aerator. In general, this only needs to be done once every two years.

Disadvantages of Core Aeration vs Spike Aeration

Let’s take a look at some of the drawbacks of using a plug aerator on your lawn. These include:

  • It creates a bit of a mess. After all, you’ll be left with plugs of soil sitting on your grass. They decompose, but many people don’t like the look of them while they’re still visible.
  • As you probably won’t want to buy a core or plug aerator, you’ll have to go through the hassle of renting one every time you want to aerate.
  • Plug or core aeration is a larger project than spike aeration, so you have to devote a large amount of time to it. It’s not something you can do small bits of when you feel like it.

When Should You Aerate Your Lawn?

Now that you know about the key differences between spike and plug aerators, and what each machine does, maybe you’re wondering when you should use them.

Most landscapers and lawn service pros agree that the growing season for your turf is the most effective time to do aeration. So the time of year that’s best for you will depend upon your growing zone.

Self Propelled Lawn Aerator - Rented

This is usually in the late spring or early summer (warm season lawns), or in the first part of spring or in early fall (cool season lawns).

These are the times of year when your grass is doing most of its growing. It’s also the best time of year to overseed, which is why I recommend overseeding when you aerate your lawn.

Aerating your yard during these times gives your lawn more water, nutrition, and air at a crucial time in its development and regeneration.

When you aerate your grass, you should make the holes quite close to each other. For example, you could make the holes two or three inches in distance from each other.

Make the holes as deep as you can with the equipment you have. As touched on earlier, one advantage of core aeration is how deep it can make the holes (as well as how it actually removes soil from the ground).

I like to take a pass around the perimeter of the lawn, and then run the aerator over the lawn in two directions.

I travel North to South on the first pass, then East to West after I’ve been over the whole yard, to ensure even coverage and thorough aeration of the turf.

Both Spike and Plug Aerators Can Be Effective

Now that you know the difference between a spike and plug aerator (and how and when to use each tool for best results), it’s time to get out there and aerate!

Plug vs Spike Aerator - Benefits of Aerating Your Lawn

While it can be hard work, many homeowners actually do find aeration quite enjoyable. They think of all the extra water, oxygen, and nutrition their grass will get as a result, and understand it’s one of the best weekend projects you can tackle to improve the health of your lawn.

Improving the soil structure and giving your grass easy access to everything it needs is the key to a healthy and beautiful lawn that will be the envy of the neighborhood.

When you’re ready to rent your aerator – here’s my guide on lawn equipment rental.

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Sarah Jameson’s blog, Lawn Chick, is read by over 2 million homeowners each year and she is regularly cited as an expert source of lawn care knowledge by major publications. Her goal is to meet you where you are, and help you achieve a yard you’ll be proud of. Ready to take the next step toward improving your lawn? Grab her free lawn care cheat-sheet: What to Do When - Take the Guesswork Out of Lawn Care, or upgrade your garage by browsing her favorite DIY lawn care products.

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