You’ve got a thatch problem. Not a little thatch, which is fine and healthy, but the thatch buildup is strangling your lawn. What do you tackle it with: a power rake or dethatcher?
While both a power rake and a dethatcher removes thatch, a dethatcher is less aggressive using spring tines, while a power rake is a more aggressive option using blades for extreme thatch problems that can damage your lawn.
A power rake is a heavy-duty machine that has a dethatching blade with rotating flails that dig up thick layers of thatch. Seems ideal, getting out all the thatch, right? The downside is that a power rake is so aggressive that it’ll tear out healthy grass along with it.
Power rakes cost around $100 to rent for an afternoon. Because this machine is heavy-duty, it takes a lot of physical strength to run it. It may be best to hire a landscaping company to take a second look to see if power raking is necessary and to run the equipment for you.
Is Power Raking Bad for Your Lawn?
Yes, in most cases, power raking is bad for your lawn. A power rake rips out healthy grass along with the thatch. The only time power raking is warranted is when your lawn has a thick, matted layer of thatch over 1-inch deep. Many lawns never need to be power raked or even dethatched at all.
Do you even need to dethatch? Thatch is not a problem in and of itself. A thin layer under ½-inch deep:
- Shields the soil from the sun so that the soil keeps moisture longer,
- Softens the impacts on rain on bare soil, preventing compaction,
- Helps your lawn tolerate use, whether from kids playing or dogs running, and
- Returns nutrients (especially nitrogen) to the soil as the thatch biodegrades.
Instead, use a dethatcher or a core aerator, which will free up your grass without destroying the existing grass or removing beneficial thatch.
Pros and Cons of Power Raking
- Power raking can remove heavy duty amounts of thatch. If your lawn is suffocating under a thick, matted layer of thatch, then power raking may be the best solution, as it removes 4x the amount of thatch than a dethatcher.
- Power raking tears out healthy grass along with thatch.
- As healthy grass is torn, it opens up grass to fungal diseases.
- Power raking stresses out the lawn, requiring weeks of growth to get it back to its starting point.
- Power raking is expensive (you can buy a dethatcher for less than it costs to rent a power rake) and time-consuming.
- A little bit of thatch helps retain moisture and return nutrients to the soil. You only need to remove enough thatch so the excess doesn’t suffocate the lawn.
A dethatcher is usually a rake (bamboo rakes are best) or a small machine with spring tines that rotate to dislodge the thatch layer. Dethatchers are a perfect option for:
- Any thatch above ½-inch thick, but is still relatively easy to remove (it hasn’t matted).
- Before overseeding. (You can also use a core aerator instead, an especially good choice when your lawn has compaction issues.)
When figuring out what dethatcher is best for you, consider:
- How big your property is. A hand rake works well on a postage stamp lawn, but not on an acre.
- How deep or severe the thatch. If you’re here because you’ve heard that you should really do this power raking thing every year but never really had a problem with thatch, then you can use a hand rake. But if your lawn has continual lawn problems, you probably want to invest in something.
- The width of the dethatcher path. A small garden requires a smaller dethatcher, and while you can get away with using a smaller dethatcher on a big lawn, it’ll take a long time.
- How adjustable the dethatcher is. Outside of a rake, a great dethatcher will give you several ways to adjust it, especially the depth that the tines descend.
- The weight. A heavy-duty dethatcher may do a better job on paper, but if you can’t maneuver it, you might as well not have a dethatcher at all.
- Most dethatchers aren’t very expensive, costing less than renting a power rake for the afternoon. But if the manufacturer offers a good warranty on it, that means that they’re confident their product will last.
There are three types of dethatchers:
- Dethatching rake (the manual option) – for small yards and light amounts of thatch
- Electric dethatchers (push) – for medium to large yards or heavier amounts of thatch
- Tow-Behind Dethatchers (pull with riding mower or tractor) – for large yards or fields
- Front-mount dethatcher (push with riding mower or tractor) – for large yards or fields
Are Tow Behind Dethatchers Any Good?
Yes, tow-behind dethatchers are an effective option for dethatching a large area, if you already have a riding mower or tractor. You can also use a front-mount dethatcher. The advantage of a front-mount is that you can easily see where it’s dethatching, although it’s more expensive and can interfere with other front-mount hardware.
Tow-behinds come with a lot more options and work on a universal mount. You just can’t easily see where you’ve already dethatched. With either option, if your lawn is in rough shape to begin with, you may end up with a lot of bald spots as tines may pull up weak grass.
And if your dethatcher bounces up and down as you go, weigh it down with cinder blocks to hold down the tines.
Agri-Fab 40-Inch Tine Tow Dethatcher (Click for Latest Price)
Are Electric Dethatchers Any Good?
Electric or powered dethatchers look just like lawnmowers and are lightweight enough that most homeowners can maneuver it themselves. They can be mistaken for power rakes (especially when they’re called powered dethatchers), but you can distinguish them as electric dethatchers use spring tines while power rakes use blades.
Electric dethatchers are great middle-of-the-road options for a yard that’s too big and has too thick of thatch for a rake, but too small to need a riding mower.
Sun Joe Electric Lawn Dethatcher (Click for Latest Price)
Are Thatching Rakes Any Good?
A thatching rake has tines like curved blades which dig into your lawn and pull up thatch. A purpose-built thatching rake is stronger than a leaf rake and is a great option for your tool shed if you have thatch problems each year.
If you’re only looking to remove a small amount of thatch, you can even use a leaf rake or a hard rake. Organic lawn care specialist Paul Tukey recommends using a bamboo rake, as the bamboo grips the thatch better.
When in doubt about whether to go with a power rake or a dethatcher, side with caution and go with a dethatcher. You can also consult with a landscaper or lawn care company about whether your lawn actually needs power raking.
And if you’d prefer to never have to dethatch again, I suggest switching to organic lawn care. Synthetic nitrogen is the major cause of excessive thatch, so if you can swap it for compost, you’ll reduce your thatch problems.