Perhaps the most despised piece of equipment on the golf course; the aerator and the process involved with it, produces more golfer questions and frustrations than any other. I commonly hear the question “is it really necessary?” My answer is usually the same, “I wish it wasn’t.” Of course the aerating process is a very necessary part of maintaining healthy greens; however it is easy to understand why many golfers cringe at the very sight of the aerator. Usually right before aerating, greens are rolling great! The average golfer is left scratching her head, wondering why a Superintendent would choose to make thousands of holes in each green just to fill them back in. I often think to myself how underappreciated the aerator is; truth be told, it is a workhorse and one of the most useful machines in a Superintendents equipment arsenal. This is the story of the little aerator that could.
What do you think about when you hear the word aeration? Does the word air come to mind? That’s really what it’s all about, air! Aeration is the process of returning air to the soil, and improving conditions that allow the movement of air and water to flow in, out and through the soil. One can see how this is accomplished by aerating, with the simple observation of an uncountable number of holes in the greens, exposing the soil to air. Yet still, there are other forces at work… The two most limiting factors to turf grass health are compaction and drainage, both of which are relieved through the aerating process. Thatch (old roots and shoots) which is removed during aerating, can build up in the upper soil profile, slowing and in some cases halting the movement of air and water. Beyond cultural benefits, aeration results in increased green speed by firming the putting surface and increasing smoothness by leveling and filing voids. I could go on and on about other not so obvious benefits of aerating greens, all of which are accomplished by the little aerator that could.
The aeration process is a network of many components. Several individual tasks have to come together in a very specific order to fully complete a greens aeration. The first job is given to a very special piece of equipment… you guessed it, the aerator! Thousands of holes are made or plugs are pulled with this repudiated piece of equipment. Settings can vary, but usually somewhere around 3% of the green is either punched or plugged, not as much as you thought is it!? Following the aerator comes the sand to fill the holes, and behind that, a brush to sweep it in. To help remove excess sand from the surface a blower is used to wisp away any unneeded material. Finally the green is rolled to smooth the surface and the sprinkler heads are turned on to wash it all in. During the process, amendments may be dragged into holes or spread onto the surface of the green to correct soil imbalances and of course to get things growing, so those holes fill in! All of these individual tasks together make up the aeration process, but it all begins with the little aerator that could.
Aerators come in many different shapes and sizes. Some are small and specifically made for greens; some are large and are made to be mounted on the back of a tractor. Aerators pull plugs, and punch holes. They break up compacted soil and create seed beds. They remove thatch and increase water percolation. They aerate dry soil, wet soil. They hit rocks, bumps and roots. They run non-stop for 10 hours and are asked to do it all over again the very next day. Aerators are the work horse of the equipment fleet.
The next time you see the aerator I ask that you think about what is involved in the process and what it means for you. Remember how complex the system is and the components that need to come together to create success. Remember the time, the planning and the consideration that must have been taken before commencing such a proceeding. Most of all remember that once again in a couple weeks you will have great greens to putt and it is all thanks to the little aerator that did.