DIY lawn mower rake. How to Dethatch and Aerate Your Lawn

Power Rake vs Dethatcher: Differences How They Work

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Before overseeding, you may want to loosen up the thatch a bit (the excess grass material that goes dormant or cut grass clippings that build up over time) to make sure the seed you put down germinates properly. Depending on the state of your lawn, you might want to use a power rake or a dethatcher. But what is the difference and how do they work?

A power rake and a dethatcher are both used to remove thatch in the lawn. A power rake is much more aggressive at getting rid of the buildup of dead grass debris compared to a dethatcher. Lawn dethatchers use spring tines while power rakes have rotating flails for. Both machines are mechanical and can be gas-powered or electrical.

Is a power rake and a Dethatcher the same thing?

A power rake is basically similar to a dethatcher, but the two remove thatch in and debris in different ways. Both power raking and dethatching fix the same problem in the lawn – thatch and debris.

  • Take a thatch sample and if there’s more than half an inch of spongy, dead organic matter at the top, go ahead and dethatch using a dethatcher.
  • If your lawn has a visible thick layer of dead grass or debris, use a power rake to remove it and allow fertilizer and other treatments to penetrate effectively.
  • Dethatchers are suitable for less than half an inch of thatch while power rakes are suitable for more than half an inch of thatch.
lawn, mower, rake, dethatch, aerate

Thatch buildup starts as dead grass, stolons, and grass clippings failing to decompose at a good rate. At an early stage, it will just be dead matter lying on top of the soil, which you can fix by power raking.

As time goes by and if decomposition takes place but at a slower rate, the dead matter forms thatch. This thatch can be a little too much and can form a barrier on the lawn’s surface.

When you have more than an inch of thatch buildup in your lawn, your grass will start to look unhealthy because of the poor supply of nutrients, water, and oxygen.

That is where you want to use a dethatcher to break down the thick layer of decomposing organic matter and overseed the lawn to make it thick and full.

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Both power raking and dethatching aim at removing excess thatch in the lawn. A power rake is good for getting rid of the thick layer of debris lying on top of the soil while a dethatcher is good for removing a thin layer of decomposing organic matter that forms the topmost part of the soil in the lawn.

Power raking is a more aggressive process of removing thatch and dead matter in the lawn while dethatching is a light process that removes just a thin layer of debris that makes fertilizer absorption poor.

A dethatcher is usually spring tines that rotate and dislodge the layer of thatch and dead matter on the lawn while a power rake is usually mechanical with a dethatching blade that has rotating flails. The flails aggressively dig up thick layers of thatch from the lawn.

A dethatcher is a small machine that looks almost like push lawnmowers. Some come as extensions that you can attach to a lawn mower. On the other hand, a power rake is a heavy-duty machine that removes large amounts of thatch from a lawn.

Dethatchers are suitable for less than half an inch of thatch while power rakes are suitable for more than half an inch of thatch. Power rakes can remove up to four times the amount of thatch a dethatcher can handle.

Pro tip: A power rake can be very unforgiving on your lawn. Try to do it early to allow your lawn to heal before going dormant.

What is power raking a lawn?

Power raking addresses a much more superficial problem in the lawn. Most homeowners power-rake in spring and also in the fall when they want to overseed their lawns.

The process of power raking removes a thick layer of dead grass matter or debris sitting right on top of the soil in your lawn. This layer prevents your lawn from breathing properly.

How does a power rake work

A power rake works by scouring the layer of debris on the lawn using flails that spin at a relatively high speed. The debris is loosened and picked up by the machine to leave the surface of the soil much more exposed than before.

Improper lawn mowing and poor watering techniques can make your lawn start to form a layer of dead grass slowly by slowly. Soon enough, you’ll notice your lawn starting to form a brown color underneath the grass leaves.

This brown layer of dead grass, clippings, and stolons becomes more prominent with time especially when you mow the lawn. This is when you need to power-rake the lawn because neglecting it for long will lead to an unhealthy layer of thatch in some cases.

How to use a power rake

A thin layer of debris is healthy especially if there are enough microorganisms breaking it down. However, if there’s too much of it, you might want to get rid of it.

Here’s how to use a power rake on your lawn:

  • Check the lawn to make sure there’s more than ¼-inch of dead grass covering the soil.
  • Set the deck on your power rake high and power it up.
  • Run a test pass on the lawn to see how much thatch you can remove.
  • Slowly lower the deck one notch at a time and power rake.
  • Run the power rake all over the lawn in a systematic manner.
  • Collect all the debris on the lawn using a lawn rake or a mower.
  • Perform a second pass going in a different direction.
  • Clean up the loosened-up debris.

If there are some spots that were not power-raked properly, use a thatch rake to clear up the the debris.

lawn, mower, rake, dethatch, aerate

Pro tip: Lowering the deck of your power rake one notch at a time is a great way to prevent scalping your lawn or even removing the live grass in the thin lawn you’re already trying to restore. You don’t want to rip up the lawn when power raking it. Follow up the process with a lawn restoration fertilizer or a starter 10-10-10 fertilizer for overseeding.

Here’s a great video on power raking done by Pest and Lawn Ginja on YouTube.

How to Dethatch and Aerate Your Lawn

As fall fades into winter, it’s time to combat two common lawn enemies: thatch and soil compaction. Thatch is the buildup of dead organic matter and, along with compacted soil, it can prevent your lawn‘s roots from getting enough water and air. Dethatching and aerating your lawn each fall helps your grass thrive come spring.

Thatch builds up when grass clippings are not chopped finely enough with a mulching mower or if excessive clippings are not removed after cutting. To prevent thatch from accumulating, rake your lawn after mowing, especially at the end of the growing season. If you’ve got thatch buildup, you might need to dethatch.

Step 1: Dethatch

Dethatch your lawn. Dethatching is an important component of lawn maintenance. You should dethatch if thatch is more than ½ thick. Use an iron rake or a thatch rake to cut through and rake off thatch. This will also scarify the surface. For large lawns, you may want to consider renting a walk-behind dethatching machine.

Contrary to common homeowner practice, you should never dethatch in mid- to late spring or during your lawn’s active growing season. Because it exposes the soil, dethatching can give weeds a chance to take over your yard. Instead, dethatch your lawn in the fall after growing season.

Step 2: Check for Soil Compaction

Check your lawn for soil compaction. Over time, soil can also become too compacted for water and air to penetrate. Soil compaction can be caused by heavy foot traffic, vehicle traffic, dry weather, slow drainage and water logging. Browning of your grass can be a sign of compaction. You can also test for compaction by watering your lawn, or wait for a good rain, and observe how quickly the water is absorbed. If it isn’t absorbed quickly, the soil is compacted. Or check for soil compaction using a wooden matchstick. You should be able to easily press the matchstick all the way into the ground with your thumb. If you can’t or it hurts your thumb to try, your soil is compacted.

Step 3: Aerate or Spike Your Lawn

Aerate your lawn. Lawn aeration is a perfect solution for soil compaction. For moderately compacted soil in a limited area, systematically prick holes in the soil with a spading or digging fork. Holes should be 2 to 3 apart and 1 to 2 deep. If you’re dealing with a larger area or you want to make the task easier, there are several types of push spike aerators you can rent or purchase. Some models look a little like a manual push mower with spikes or star-shaped wheels instead of blades. Others are designed as attachments that fit behind a power mower. For medium to large areas, you’ll want to rent a gas-powered spiking aerator.

Lawn aerating is generally easier to do when the soil is moist, but it won’t work as well if the ground is wet.

If you’re wondering when to aerate, it’s best to do it in the fall after dethatching or after a thorough raking.

Step 4: Create Larger Holes

If you have severely compacted soil, you need to open up deeper and larger holes. A spading or digging fork will do the trick if you have sandy soil or a small yard. Use the same systematic approach as you would for pricking, but drive the fork into the ground about 3 to 4 and wiggle it back and forth to open the holes.

You can also use a hollow-tine fork, another lawn aerating hand tool available for purchase or rent. A hollow-tine fork is stepped on to drive it into the soil, and when removed it pops out multiple cores or plugs of sod and soil. For medium to large areas, you may want to rent a gas-powered plugging aerator.

You can prick or spike the soil annually, but don’t cut plugs more than once every three years. You can leave the plugs on the lawn because they break down quickly. Or rake them up and add them to your compost pile.

Good job! Now that it’s been properly dethatched and aerated, your lawn should thrive in the spring.

Project Shopping List

Here’s what you’ll need to complete this project successfully.

  • Iron rake or thatch rake
  • Walk-behind dethatching machine (optional)
  • Garden hose
  • Wooden matchstick
  • Spading (digging) fork
  • Push spike or coring aerator (optional)
  • Hollow-tine fork
  • Gas-powered plugging aerator (optional, for larger areas)

Is your yard lumpy and bumpy? Learn how to even out your property—and potentially prevent water damage to your home’s foundation or basement in the process.

By Jennifer Noonan and Teresa Odle and Bob Vila | Updated May 3, 2022 10:23 AM

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A yard with lumps and bumps is not only unattractive but also a potential safety hazard with ample opportunity to cause trips, falls, and sprained ankles. Many events can cause an uneven yard—including drainage issues, leaks in pipes lying beneath the surface, and lawn pests like grubs or moles disturbing the root structure of the turf—but none need to derail your landscaping efforts altogether.

Improper grading also can lead to problems with a home’s foundation or basement. Before you start working to level your lawn’s surface, troubleshoot the underlying problem so it doesn’t reoccur in the future. Then tackle these steps for how to level a yard to turn your lawn into the smooth, lush, green landscape you’ve always wanted.

Aeration vs Dethatching // Which should YOU do??

The Benefits of Ground Leveling

It is hard to enjoy a yard that’s full of lumps and bumps, and a safety issue can arise for active kids who might trip on clumps of grass or turn their ankles in soil depressions. Sometimes a landscape becomes uneven as a result of plantings and projects like pool installs or adding a walkway. Leveling these areas will help the right amount of water reach all turf and plants and avoid muddy spots or water waste.

Leveling the ground leads to easier routine lawn maintenance. The mower doesn’t get stuck on lumps, and you can more easily rake leaves. Of course, an even, lush lawn looks pretty and is easy to maintain, and leveling your grass will greatly improve curb appeal for potential buyers.

If water runs from the yard toward the home, you can prevent damage to the foundation by grading the yard. Typically, a contractor will grade a yard when prepping the property for a new home to make sure that it slopes away from the structure. Often, you can spot and correct low spots near the foundation, but sometimes, grading the yard involves help from a professional.

Many of the issues that cause an uneven yard occur in turf, however, and are easy to fix yourself with our tips to bring back the benefits of a level landscape. These benefits include:

  • fun and better safety for family play
  • Easier maintenance
  • Improved curb appeal
  • Efficient use of water

When to Grade a Yard

Consider leveling a backyard or front yard when water runs into the street or puddles, when it looks unsightly, or when you have trouble stepping or moving over lumps and dips. Knowing when to level a yard depends partly on the underlying cause of the lumps and low spots. If, for example, the lawn has compacted in areas because of foot traffic such as from daily trips to the treehouse, consider leveling and even creating a hardscape path before peak “club season” for the kids.

In most cases, however, the steps outlined below work best if you complete them in spring. This is when warm-season grass is just coming out of dormancy. If, however, the soil is still soggy from snow melt or spring rains, wait until it dries out before taking the steps outlined below. Likewise, correct problems with the yard grade during dry weather, and then check your work during the next rain.

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STEP 1: Mow the lawn.

Start by mowing your lawn. Cut it short, but not so short that you scalp it. If you cut it so that grass blade stems become visible, the grass is vulnerable to drying out.

STEP 2: Examine the amount of thatch at the lawn’s roots, then dethatch as needed.

Take a closer look at your grass roots, and determine the amount of thatch on your lawn. Thatch is the layer of decayed grass and other organic material at the base of the turf. About ¼ to ½ inch of thatch is acceptable, but any more than that will prevent the grass from getting adequate air and water.

If you have more than ½ inch of thatch, remove (or at least significantly loosen) it by systematically running a thatch rake over the surface to pull it up. Or, if your lawn is larger, run a dethatching machine over it. You can rent a dethatching machine from a home improvement store, and it will make the process much quicker.

STEP 3: Mix sand, topsoil, and compost.

Make a top-dressing mix to fill in the area beneath the grass in sunken areas of your lawn from two parts sand, two parts topsoil, and one part compost. The sand helps maintain a level yard because it doesn’t compact easily, while the soil and compost contain nutrients that your grass needs to thrive.

STEP 4: Dig up the grass in sunken parts of the lawn and fill with the soil mixture.

If you have any low spots or divots deeper than 2 or 3 inches, you should remove the grass on top of them before filling the holes. Dig up the sod by putting the blade of a shovel into it at the outside of a low spot and sliding it down and under about 2 or 3 inches to get under the grass roots. Then pry the grass up with the shovel to expose the dirt beneath. Fill the hole with the top-dressing mix, and put the grass back into place on top of it.

If some low spots occur near your home, follow a similar process to gently slope the soil away from the foundation. Dig up and rearrange the soil so that it is higher close to the home, but not so high it covers the entire foundation. Then slope it down about 1 inch for every foot away from the house. If the entire yard’s grade slopes toward the house, you might need help properly grading.

STEP 5: Spread the rest of the soil mixture in a thin layer to even out the entire lawn.

Once the lowest patches are filled, use a shovel to disperse the top-dressing mix across your entire lawn to a depth of about ¼ to ½ inch. Even if you think your grass needs more than that depth to even out, err on the side of caution and keep to a thin layer—a heavier layer could choke your grass. If necessary, you can repeat this process (see Step 7) to add a second layer.

Then, spread the top-dressing mix evenly across the grass by pulling and pushing it around with the back of a bow rake. Work the mix into the gradual low spots and s when lawn leveling. If the grass blades are completely covered by the mix, the grass will suffocate from light deprivation, so follow up with a push broom to further work the mix into the soil at the base of the turf grass and reveal the blades.

STEP 6: Run the lawn sprinklers.

Water your lawn to help the top-dressing mix settle into the grass and fill any air s. Running your lawn sprinklers will also revitalize your lawn because it will jump-start the infusion of nutrients from the compost in the mix.

STEP 7: Reapply the soil mixture as needed.

After a few waterings, look for water runoff or standing water in puddles. You may need more than one application of top-dressing to completely smooth out your lawn. Apply the second layer following Steps 5 and 6 once you see the grass start to actively grow, or when you can no longer see the first top-dressing application you put down.

Final Thoughts

Once you know how to level a yard, it is a worthwhile and relatively simple project to tackle in spring. Ground leveling can bring fun and curb appeal back to your lawn and prevent water waste and water damage to the home.

First determine the cause, and then tackle lawn lumps and low spots with the steps outlined above. If you observe water running toward your home’s foundation, fix the slope. Once you level your yard, ongoing maintenance should be easier.

FAQs About How to Grade a Yard

Yard leveling doesn’t have to be tough, but knowing the steps involved—and tips that make the job easier—always help! We’ve expanded on some here with answers to frequently asked questions.

Q. How do you fix an uneven lawn?

Once you know how to level ground, it is a fairly straightforward process. First, mow the lawn and then identify dips. Fill them with a mix of compost, sand, and topsoil. Dig sod up in high spots and remove some of the soil before adding a thin layer of the same mix and replacing the sod. Top-dress the entire lawn with a ¼- to ½-inch layer of topsoil, and then water. You might have to top-dress again after the soil settles.

Q. How much does it cost to level a yard?

Fixing lumps and bumps caused by foot traffic, digging, plantings, or thatchy grass should cost no more than a few tools and materials. Most tools, such as a shovel and bow rake, probably reside in your shed already. If you don’t have a dethatcher, renting one can run up to 80 a day. Purchasing a manual thatch rake typically runs 40 to 50.

When leveling a yard, sometimes you can move soil from high spots to low areas, but in other circumstances you might need to purchase topsoil and sand to complete the project. A 40-pound bag of topsoil is usually under 10.

Q. When should I level my lawn?

In most cases, spring is the best time to level your lawn. Warm-season grass is coming out of dormancy, and any plugs of sod you dig up and replant after leveling stand a better chance of surviving in spring temps before the heat of summer. If snow melt or spring rains have been heavy, put off leveling until the ground dries out, or you can do more damage in muck and mud.

Q. How do I level my whole yard?

With lawns, mow the grass and fill in low spots while digging out lumps or high spots. Put the grass back in place once level, then top-dress the lawn with a ½-inch layer of compost and level the lawn with the back of a bow rake. Use leveling sand to fix uneven pavers or flagstone paths. If your entire yard has a grade problem, you might need to bring in a yard-leveling professional to slope the property correctly.

Q. What kind of dirt do you use for grading?

In general, removing or tilling the top few 6 to 8 inches of soil can loosen it. Then, mix some new topsoil in with the existing soil. Add enough to form a slope away from the house; generally about 2 percent grade will work. Allow the soil to settle a few days and then check the grade again. Before digging, check for utilities, and if your basement has flooded or the job is complex, consider hiring a professional to grade the yard.

Q. How far should dirt be from the foundation?

Dirt can be near the foundation, as long as it is not too high. Be sure that at least 4 inches of the foundation shows above the layer of dirt. Most important, continue to slope the dirt away from the house, lowering it about 1 inch for every foot of space away from the foundation. If the dirt close to the house is too high, remove enough to expose the foundation so it can dry out, but do not leave a low spot around the home. Instead, continue to remove or rake dirt away from the foundation to create about a 2 percent slope toward the yard. If the dirt level near the foundation is satisfactory, add topsoil near the foundation and gently rake it downward to create the slope.

DON’T DETHATCH Your LAWN Before Watching. Your Questions Answered

Tips on How to Dethatch a Lawn


Give your grass a boost this spring by tackling any problematic thatch buildup. Here’s a complete guide to dethatching for a lush and hearty lawn.

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You may be meticulous about mowing, weeding, seeding and watering your lawn, but still find it lackluster in color and health. “Don’t blame your efforts,” says Midwest Lawn Co. owner Eric Harbit. “Blame thatch.”

Many homeowners don’t know their lawn may be compromised by a hidden enemy. Thatch, a dense layer of organic material — including live and dead grass, roots, leaves, stems and weeds — covers the surface of the soil. It acts as an impenetrable barrier that blocks adequate amounts of air, water and nutrients from reaching the roots of your grass.

This lawncare oversight is rapidly changing, however. Online searches for dethatching-related information and tips have more than doubled since 2019. Increasing numbers of homeowners are realizing they need to add dethatching to their regular lawn care schedule.

“Dethatching is the mechanical removal of thatch, usually with a gasoline-powered machine but it can also be done with a leaf rake or thatching rake,” says agronomist and lawn care expert Bob Mann, director of state and local government relations for the National Association of Landscape Professionals.

If you are planning to remove excess thatch this spring, read on to learn how to properly dethatch your lawn and ensure lasting vigor and vibrancy.

When to Dethatch Your Lawn

The best time to dethatch your lawn is while the grass is still in the process of growing and the soil is most, but not soggy. That means for cool-season grasses, you’ll probably want to dethatch in the spring. For warm-season grasses, you’re probably looking at late spring or early in the summer.

Methods for Dethatching a Lawn

There are various methods to dethatch your lawn, depending upon how large an area you need to cover and how dense the thatch layer has become. Here are a few of the most common:

Dethatching rakes

A dethatching rake is a short-tined rake with thin, sharp blades designed to dig into your turf and pull up thatch. Dethatching rakes are effective for light thatch maintenance on small lawns or sections of lawn. A dethatching rake is suitable “for gardeners that want a vigorous upper body workout,” as Mann puts it. These are our picks for the best dethatching rakes.

If you have limited thatch, you can also use a standard bow rake. “The same leaf rake that you use in the fall can be used to remove a degree of thatch from the lawn,” Mann says. “It’s not easy, but it is doable.”

Dethatching machines

Dethatching machines resemble push lawn mowers and come in two basic types, Mann says.

“First is a series of thin metal blades mounted vertically on a spinning horizontal shaft turned by a gasoline engine,” he says. “The blades are set to cut deep enough to go through the thatch layer and just into the topsoil. A proportion of the thatch is brought to the surface (it looks just like grass clippings) where it can be gathered and removed.”

This type of dethatching machine, also known as a scarifier, is the most effective method for removing deep or dense thatch. It is also the most aggressive method and should be used with caution on lawns that are not in vigorous health. Dethatching machines with blades are typically found at equipment rental stores, although you can also purchase a gas- or electric-powered scarifier if your lawn requires annual dethatching.

The second type, Mann says, “is a series of spring-loaded tines on a bar that is moved over a lawn by a machine, typically a mower. The tines are set to dig into the thatch as the machine travels across the lawn tearing out a proportion of it and depositing it on the surface. This approach is less traumatic, but also less effective.”

Also known as power rakes, these work well for lawns with thinner thatch layers and healthy grass that can withstand intense raking. Power rakes are commonly used by landscapers to remove loose thatch, allowing air and light to penetrate to the grass roots. They can also be rented or purchased for DIY dethatching.

Dethatching tow-behinds

If you have a large area that needs dethatching and you own a tractor, rider or ATV, a tow-behind dethatcher is ideal. Fitted with sturdy tines, these dethatchers comb through the matted layer of thatch while being towed across your lawn.

Many tow-behinds include an adjustable weight tray for more or less penetration into the soil. Use light weights to skim the soil surface for annual thatch maintenance, or heavier weights to turn your tow-behind into a scarifier to remove dense thatch across a wide area.

Dethatching liquids

A relative newcomer to the dethatching scene, dethatching liquids combine bacteria and enzymes to boost the natural decomposition of the thatch layer. Instead of removing the thatch, you can simply mix a dethatching liquid with water and spray it on your lawn.

Some liquid dethatchers also incorporate lawn fertilizer to combine two jobs into one. There are also DIY liquid dethatchers you can mix at home with ingredients ranging from soap to beer, supposedly formulated to speed thatch decomposition.

It’s not clear how effective dethatching liquids are in reducing or preventing thatch build-up. Opt for a rake or mechanical dethatcher for more effective results.

Tools for Dethatching the Lawn

“Just as in cooking, have all of your tools and materials ready to go before starting,” Mann says. “The machine is going to bring up much more material than you might think. Have a nice big leaf rake to (rake the removed thatch into a row), a good-sized wheelbarrow to transport it and a suitable place to dump it on your property.”

And, Mann adds, “Don’t enter this thatch into the waste stream if at all possible. It doesn’t decompose quickly and we certainly want to be responsible with yard waste.”

Note: Run the dethatching machine over your yard at least three times, in different directions each time. The machine should churn up roughly the same volume of organic debris each time you pass.


Dethatching will probably leave your lawn looking a little worse for wear for a few weeks. Regardless which dethatching method you choose, bolster your lawn immediately with quality fertilizer and a deep watering. Your grass will need some TLC to bounce back as vibrant and resilient as before.

“This is major surgery for your lawn,” Mann says. “There will be a period of time necessary for recovery where you might want to go above and beyond.”

Rebecca Winke moved to Italy from Chicago in 1993 and shortly thereafter took a deep dive into country living by renovating a sprawling medieval stone farmhouse and running it as a BB for 20 years. Today, she spends her time writing about travel, culture, and food (it’s Italy, after all!) for publications like The Telegraph and Italy Magazine, as well as pondering the strange winds that blew an urban vegetarian to a farm in Umbria.

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