Aeration provides five essential benefits to a yard. It allows oxygen to reach the roots and for soil to breathe, fertilizer / nutrients can reach the roots, water can soak the soil and the roots, helps break up thatch, breaks up soil to enhance root growth. Aerating can be done manually or by power.
All the benefits that jenn listed are the reasons why you would want to aerate. The reason that it is necessary is because of soil compaction. Soil is made up of many tiny particles that over time will settle and compact upon each other until the ground is very solid. This occurs naturally, due to weight being applied (human and animal traffic), snow, rain and flood water, etc… As the soil compacts it becomes increasingly difficult for roots to grow and anchor in the soil, does not allow as much water to soak into soil, and resists nutrient infiltration.
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