Aeration History in the Pacific Northwest

The History of “Aeration” in the Northwest

Definition for Aeration

‘When we speak of aerification of soils we refer specifically to the cultivation of soil under permanent sod without disturbing the surface grass. “

Every spring in Vancouver the golf courses close for Aeration. Today private companies using modern highly efficient crews and equipment aerate and top dress typical course in 4-6 days. This article attempts to determine when did aeration in the Pacific Northwest become a common practice.


Examples of hand scarifiers used in the 1920’s before mechanical equipment came into use

Our research shows the first reference to aerating a green is found in Horace Hutchinson’s 1906 book “Golf Greens and Green-Keeping”. “To supply the aeration, when there is a tendency for the ground to become packed too hard, rest and dressing are recommended, and, above all, raising the ground with a fork in such a way to loosen the soil and to make holes in the surface without breaking the surface continuity of the turf.” The greens crews used a five tine pitch fork or a potato fork to accomplish this task. The crews commenced at one edge of the green in a straight-line shoulder to shoulder apart. Each worker turned the fork pressed the tines into the surface of the green to a depth of 4 – 6 inches. Then the worker pulled the fork handle back and forth towards himself. This technique broke the soil under the green turf. Once a row was completed the line of workers stepped backwards one foot and repeated the process. Once the entire green was forked the crew covered the surface with a “topdressing of sharp sea sand, which will work into the holes made by the forks.” As one can see this process proved labourious and slow; hence costly.

After WW1 alfalfa farmers complained their fields no longer produced the volumes compared to five years prior. They noticed if the fields were ploughed, harrowed, and reseeded the production returned. Golf courses noticed their greens and fairways did not produce the grass necessary for proper playing conditions after a period of time.  Charles V. Piper and Russell A. Oakley, both Agronomists for the US Department of Agriculture undertook to solve the issue. They published their results in “Turf for Golf Courses” 1917. The agronomists concluded; “To improve poor turf on a golf course the important methods are top-dressing, seeding, and gentle scarifying (aerating)”. Basically, through extensive testing, Piper and Oakley discovered the grass roots in the fields did not receive enough nourishment. By ploughing the fields every five years the farmers aerated the compacted soil.

Once Piper & Oakley published their findings, greenskeepers began thinking of innovative methods to puncture the greens and fairways. No mechanized equipment existed. They recommended a toothed roller be used to “scarify” the surface of the greens and fairways before applying in top dressing of barnyard manure. Over the history of greenskeeping, most of the equipment developments resulted from the ingenuity of the greenskeepers. For example, one of the first aerating tools was a one-inch board about 6 inches by 12 inches with 4-inch nails hammered through the surface. A strap attached this board to the soles of the greens crews’ shoes. The workers carefully pressed these boards into the surface of the greens. By walking in various directions across the green the workers punched holes into the surface. These holes allowed the water and nutrients to penetrate the surface to the roots. For the fairways another greens crew developed a roller with discs to cut into the fairways as the horse pulled the machine. To create deeper penetration a worker sat on the machine.

Unfortunately, the northwest newspapers rarely described greenskeeping practices occurring at their local golf courses. The first reference to “top dressing “on a golf course appeared in the 1914 Victoria Daily Colonist “the United Services club is top dressing their golf links.”  In 1924 the Province newspaper reported “the Marine Drive Golf Club has enough loam to mix with the barnyard manures to create a top dressing mixture for several years.”

William Tucker’s patented spike roller for greens and fairways.

In the April 1922 American Golfer magazine William Tucker published an article titled “A War on Worms”. He argued worms do not aerate greens so the worm problem must be eliminated on golf course greens. He stated “All soil must be aerated but a scientifically constructed green is so designed that aeration takes place all the time.” Because all greens are not constructed to this standard, he recommended a spiked roller be used before applying the fertilizer and top dressing to the golf course. In the northwest William Tucker, who constructed Fircrest under Vernon Macan’s supervision, advised the greens crew to use his patented spike roller in the spring and fall. One news clipping announced in April 1926 “Fircrest would be closed for two weeks for top dressing and spiking the greens and fairways.”

It is unclear if Vernon Macan knew the importance of water and air penetrating the surface of a green to provide the necessary nutrients to the roots. Macan believed the quality of any golf course lay in the standard of their greens. To create a perfect green, he stressed the need for proper drainage. “Long ago I (Macan) set out three principles for the construction of a putting green:1. Drainage 2. More Drainage and 3. Still more Drainage.” In his design for a typical green Mac used this simple formula for determining the minimum amount of drainage required for his greens to be free of any standing water above or below the surface. “For every 1000 square feet of green surface 100 feet of drain tile mist be installed.”

Vernon Macan’s typical herring bone design for the subdrainage system

Macan’s Four types of drainage

Surface drainage “Water falling on the putting surface either from irrigation or natural precipitation is prevented from lying on the green. Of course, no green should have closed pockets in its contour; i.e. pockets which do not provide a surface escape for water (2% – 3% fall, preferably from right to left, left to right, or front to back.) I avoid a fall from back to front except when the natural surroundings of the green calls for it. Even then, it is generally possible with contouring to guide surface drainage slightly to one or the other side of the front apron. Why? Because we do not wish to dampen the front apron more than necessary. If possible the apron should have the pace and texture as like that of the putting surface as reasonably possible.”


“Subdrainage is essential with all greens in the northwest unless the soil is so sandy and gravelly that water seeps through, penetrates, and is carried away in the natural drainage of the soil in the area. Mac designed the drain system using a herring bone pattern. He installed the herring bone pattern below the bottom point of the surrounding bunkers. The four – six-inch drain tile were covered with cinders and sand. Mac liked to lay his seedbed at least 12 inches above the subdrainage system. “His green seed bed consisted of 50% sharp builder’s sand, 40 % soil (no clay) and 10 % peat. These materials are composted together and the necessary fertilizers added to create a fertile drainable seed bed.”

Seepage Drainage

“Seepage drainage is the system of preventing water that falls outside the putting surface from seeping onto the green. This involves the creation of hollows, grass or otherwise, which in turn must be drained and such water diverted to the main drain system.

Carrying Drainage.

“The carrying drainage is the system where all the drains under the green and surrounding the green must be joined with a main drain for the course. These main drains emptied into lakes, streams, or to drains on the property boundaries.”

From October 1931 – March 1932 the “Oregon Golf” magazine published in Portland, OR described activities for the month at various golf courses throughout state. William Tucker contributed five articles in this magazine under the titles: “Avoid Grained Greens, Grass vs Turf, Production of a Permanent Turf, Why Turf Must Breathe, and Players Demand Better Golf Courses.” In his article “Why Turf Must Breathe” he basically argued the advantages of aerating the greens and fairways. He commenced with a very simple experiment to illustrate his argument. “We might also ask the question, why is it that plants are put in burnt clay terra cotta pots regardless of the size of the plant? Here is the reason: Terra cotta flower pots are made from burnt clay, and, being porous, will absorb moisture and admit air and oxygen. Why is there a hole in the bottom of the pot? The hole allows for drainage and aeration.

Here is an experiment anyone can try. Take a plant in a terra cotta pot and paint two coats of a metallic enamel or heavy paint over the surface of the pot and at the same time plug the hole in the bottom with cement. Then observe how long the plant will live. Nature is challenged by the lack of air through the pores in the terra cotta. Respiration is eliminated and lack of drainage prevents soil sanitation. The conclusion is the soil must breathe and allow water to percolate through the soil for a healthy turf.” Mac’s greens satisfied these necessary requirements. This could explain why some of his oldest original greens in the northwest are considered by greens superintendents as the best on their courses.

The Night Crawler drilled holes in the greens and fairways. This proved to be very slow plus workers needed to clean up the soil produced by the drills.

Thomas Mascaro – the inventor of the “Aerator”. his invention set the standard for future aeration equipment.

Mascaro’s “Aerator”   Distributed through his company West Point Equipment

In the late 1930’s and early 1940’s new types of machines to create holes in the surface of the greens and fairways began to appear. One featured a series of rotating drills that bore into the surface as it penetrated the turf depositing a small mound of soil around the hole. This operation did the necessary job but the soil needed to be removed from the green. The method proved too costly and time consuming. In 1949 Thomas Mascaro developed this first and most successful machine to aerate greens and fairways without damaging the surface. He formed the West Point Products Corp in West Point PA. His device became known as the “West Point Aerifier”.  The term aerification became the trade name for the operation. This machine used disk mounted, half round, open spoons that were inserted into the turf, extracting a section of soil as it was withdrawn. These cores needed to be broken up or removed from the surface. These holes allowed moisture and fertilizers to penetrate the surface. In the 1950’s aeration became common practice on eastern golf courses.



Mascaros’ Verti-Cut Machine

In 1955 Mascaro again invented a machine to vertically mow the greens and fairways. This machine aided in the removal of thatch. Thatch is a thick layer of turf that does not allow the percolation of water and minerals into the sublayers of the turf on the greens or fairways. Mascaro’s Verti-Cut machine consisted of a set of vertical oriented knives mounted on a rapidly rotating, horizontal shaft. Depending on the penetration depth of the knives, different objectives could be attained. When the knives were set to just slightly enter the turf surface decomposed leaves were reduced to grain on the putting surfaces. With deeper penetration the knives cut through the built-up thatch allowing water and fertilizers to the grass roots. By setting the knives to deeper levels the underlying soil will be broken up to solve the problem of surface compaction.

In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s advertisements began appearing in many local newspapers in the northwest describing the advantages of having your lawn “aerated”. These machines were described as those used on “golf greens”. In fact, Maynard Grunder, an agronomist working at the Western Washington Experiment Station, resigned his position to form the Tacoma Seed Company. Using Grunder’s patented aerator, the company offered aeration services throughout the state.

In 1955 Dr Roy Goss at Washington State University began research for the development of turf for Pacific northwest golf courses. For no charge, all golf courses in the NW could sentd soil samples taken from their course for testing at Goss’ laboratory. He then recommended the correct fertilizers, soil combinations, peat moss percentages and appropriate seed each golf course should use for developing strong growing turf for their fairways and greens. On all Macan’s renovations and new course developments in the 1950’s and 1960’s, he sent soils samples to Goss.

Research indicates Vernon Macan, the most prominent golf architect in the northwest, may have been the first to recommend aeration and vertical cutting on a golf course. In all his courses estimates and recommendations from 1960 – 1964, he urged each to purchase an aeration machine ($1000) and a verti-cut machine ($700). Because of the twice-yearly use of this equipment, most organizations could not justify these two expenses. Research implies only the Seattle GC owned their own equipment enabling them to aerate and verti-cut their greens twice annually commencing in the mid 1960’s.

Ryan Equipment produced “The Greensaire” aerator to compete with Mascaro’s “Aerator”

Ryan’s “Mataway” Verti-Cut machine competed with West Point’s Verti-Cut. Fallis sold the Ryan equipment in the Northwest.

In 1950 the Northwest Turf Grass Association (NTGA) formed. At the regular meetings, local equipment suppliers began demonstrating the various new types of green equipment. Fallis Power Equipment began operation in 1975. Research indicated Fallis supplied mainly the Ryan Equipment, the main competitor to West Point, in the northwest. Because of easy supply by Fallis, golf clubs began regular aeration of their greens in the probably in the mid 1970’s. A search of “The Turf Line News, the monthly newsletter produced by the NTGA, other companies began buying advertising to promote their aerating and verti-cut machines in the early 1980’s.  Fairway aeration soon followed. From conversations with local golf course superintendents, it appears contractors formed in the late 1980’s to aerate and verti-cut golf courses on a contract basis twice per year. This definitely improved turf growth and also reduced the cost of maintenance to individual golf courses.  Using the same principles as Mascaro’s original Aerator, today deep penetrating tines can produce even better results for better turf on our courses.

Toro, Jacobsen, Multi-core, Aer Way Holland all began selling aeration equipment to the golf industry in the 1980’s

The Golf Museum is on the search for early greens equipment such as bunker rakes, flags, mowers. We would definitely like to find 1970’s or 1980’s aerator.

We have the Turf Line News magazine from 1970 – 1990. We are on the search for other northwest greens magazines.


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