Top Dressing Lawn

Top Dressing Lawn Guide for Homeowners

Nothing is more beautiful than a lush green lawn where your pets and kids can run free. Regardless of your best efforts, sometimes your lawn will still show signs of weakness. You might have the perfect lawn in spring, but your lush green grass goes to junk as soon as summer sets in. That’s where top dressing lawn areas comes in. Top dressing your lawn encourages the slow release of long-lasting nutrients that your turf needs and is a great, natural way to ensure your lawn grows optimally all year long.

In this article, we’ll go over what top dressing is, why you should do it, and how to go about it.

Let’s get started!

What is Lawn Top Dressing?

At first glance, spreading compost or sand over your grass seems counterintuitive. Won’t you smother your lawn?

Not if you do it correctly (which is what I’ll cover today.

To top dress your lawn you’ll be spreading a thin layer of material – usually compost, loam, or sand – over your lawn. The layer spread is generally about ¼ of an inch in depth, and is used to amend and improve your lawn’s soil and improve moisture retention without interfering with the growth of existing grass.

It is important to note that top dressing involves you spreading a thin layer of whatever material you are using. You do not want to make the layer too thick, which may suffocate your existing grass.

How to Top Dress a Lawn

The idea is to improve your lawn’s current condition while providing a healthy environment to facilitate the germination of new seeds.

Topdressing has been in practice since golf was invented in Scotland.

It is quickly becoming an option for homeowners who favor an organic or green lifestyle.

Top dressing is my preferred method of improving my lawn, and I generally do it once every other year after aerating my turf and overseeding my lawn.

Those three projects, when completed in tandem, are the best way to transform your yard in a weekend.

Why Top Dress your Lawn?

There are so many benefits to top dressing your lawn, and I’ll go over them here.

It is used to revive failing turf and supply your lawn with all the nutrients that your lawn needs.

Here are a few reasons why you should top dress your lawn:

  • It improves aeration of soil
  • Helps distribute nutrients naturally
  • Breaks down thatch without the hassle of dethatching
  • Can aid in gradually leveling your lawn
  • Improves the soil quality of your yard

And I’ll discuss each of these a bit more below.

Aeration of Soil

After spreading compost over your lawn grass, the compost aerates the compacted ground as it makes its way down into the soil.

Soil organisms break down the compost and cause the soil’s tiny pore spaces to open up.

This allows the roots of your grass to enjoy more oxygen (which helps grass thrive). It also allows rainwater to penetrate your turf, which encourages roots to grow deeper (making your lawn more resilient to drought).

Healthy Grass Close Up

Lawn aeration can be a game changer for homeowners new to lawn care, and top-dressing with screened compost is an easy way to do it without renting heavy machinery.

Helps to Distribute Nutrients

The nutrients contained in compost are released slowly, over a long period. This is different than how synthetic fertilizers work … this slow-release of nutrients prevents groundwater and waterway pollution because it reduces nutrient leaching and nutrient runoff.

Basically what you invest in compost won’t be money running down the storm drain.

You probably know that leaving your grass clippings on your lawn as a natural compost after mowing will add nutrients back into your lawn.

But combining your grass clippings with a thin top dressing adds even more nutrients and ensures your lawn gets almost all the necessary nutrients for a season of growth (without buying a lot of fertilizer and following an annual application schedule)

Also, if you grow clover on your lawn, you won’t need to apply extra synthetic fertilizers. Clover naturally adds nitrogen into your soil and replenishes it throughout the season.

Breaks Down Thatch

Thatch can form a thick layer of dead and dying grass material that, restricts water and air movement into and out of the soil.

It’s harmful to the grass because grass needs water and nutrients to reach its roots to thrive.

At times, thatch forms densely enough to absorb rainwater, making your lawn very uncomfortable to walk on each time it rains.

Not all lawns need dethatching, and if your lawn isn’t plagued by heavy thatch, compost contains microbes that digest the thatch you do have, meaning you’ll probably never have choose the best dethatcher and mechanically dethatch your yard.

After top dressing your lawn, these microbes break down the thatch, freeing the trapped water and air (and saving you a weekend of work).

Leveling the Lawn

Portions of your lawn can become uneven due to drainage issues, settling, and many other natural or unnatural causes.

Top dressing is a great way to even out bumpy areas on your lawn.

Level Lawn (close up photo)

This method is useful for widespread unevenness that is on the surface level.

More extreme cases may need reapplications of topdressing or even filling deep depressions with soil and reseeding on the areas you have filled as part of a lawn leveling project.

Improves the Quality of Soil

Top dressing is a great way to add organic matter and nutrients to the topsoil. I prefer it to using bags of lawn fertilizer … even organic lawn fertilizer.

A high quality screened compost helps to boost poor soil through the improvement of its productive properties.

It also improves the structure of the soil by improving its cation exchange capacity (CEC), or the soil’s ability to hold nutrients and water.

Applying top dressing to your lawn builds up beneficial soil microbes that are essential for your turf to flourish.

What Tools Can You Use for Top Dressing a Lawn?

There are a few tools you will need to top dress your lawn.

You want to make the process as quick and effective as possible, so you must have everything you need.

To top dress your lawn you’ll need:

  • Compost
  • Wheel Barrow
  • Shovel or Garden Fork
  • Rolling Peat Moss Spreader (optional)
  • Broadcast or Drop Spreader (optional, needed if overseeding while top-dressing your lawn)

Let’s take a closer look at these and I’ll share my specific recommendations and what I like to use for each type of tool.

Compost

Although other materials can be used for top dressing, compost takes the number one spot, and it’s what I always use on my lawn.

  • Screened compost is a fantastic choice because it slowly releases a perfect balance of micro and macronutrients over time.
  • High-grade finished compost has a neutral or close to neutral pH and is teeming with the microbes that your grass requires for proper growth.
Compost for Top Dressing Lawn

Compost can also be screened finely, meaning you do not have to deal with large chunks of organic matter as you spread it over your lawn. It is also very easy to distribute over your turf.

Depending on how you source it, compost is a relatively inexpensive option.

Some homeowners have compost tumblers or bins and make their own compost in their backyard from leaves, grass clippings, and other organic matter.

I do that, but I also am fortunate to have a brush dump facility in my town which produces beautiful screened compost which I can get loads of whenever I need it (for free … if you don’t count taxes). Non residents can enjoy this for $10 a yard as well … so even if your town doesn’t offer this service, a nearby town might.

Even when purchased in bulk, such as from a landscape supply yard, local nursery, or in bags, it’s fairly inexpensive when compared with bag fertilizer, and it’s a great investment.

You can also substitute other materials for compost such as topsoil or a 50/50 blend of compost and loam (which is an amazing mix – it’s what I use in my raised beds).

Wheelbarrow

A wheelbarrow transports whatever material you decide to top dress your lawn with.

Wheelbarrow Full of Compost

It lets you easily transport anything you need and it’s pretty easy to get from point A to point B in your yard without the damage that can come from driving heavy machinery across your grass.

You can load it with:

  • Compost
  • Topsoil
  • Sand

One tip I have if you don’t have a wheelbarrow yet is that you should try to buy one with a solid wheel.

An air-filled tire is a bit easier to roll, but that tire will always be flat when you pull your wheelbarrow out of the garage and need to use it. It’s a hassle you don’t need.

I have this True Temper one available on Amazon, which I bought locally at Home Depot, and I like it.

Shovel/Garden Fork

When top dressing your lawn by hand, you will need a shovel or garden fork to scoop the compost out of your wheelbarrow.

Compost on a Shovel Used to Top Dress Lawn

Use pretty much anything that’s comfortable for you to lift and allows you to move a lot of compost.

I use a snow shovel with a wooden handle (this one) which is lightweight, sturdy, and allows me to take nice big scoops to flick across my lawn by hand.

Rolling Peat Moss Spreader (optional)

A peat moss spreader like this one on Amazon is an easy way to get the compost around your lawn and to make sure it is spread evenly and lightly.

This type of spreader has a barrel-like structure that rotates with metal mesh openings.

This is a tool that’s not necessary to top dress lawn areas, but if you can afford it and plan to top-dress regularly it’s a good investment that will save your back.

To use a peat moss spreader for top dressing, fill the rolling parcel with compost or your preferred material. Then push the barrel while walking up and down your lawn. The compost will drop out of the mesh openings evenly onto your lawn.

This tool is best suited for dry and screened compost.

Broadcast or Drop Spreader (optional)

A drop spreader has adjustable holes at the bottom and a mechanism fitted on the handle, allowing you to set the preferred opening sizes.

Broadcast or Drop Spreader

Just like the peat moss spreader, it works best with dry and screened compost. Clumpy or wet compost will clog the spreader holes, and unless you have a tow-behind drop spreader it still may not work well for you.

I include this tool here because it’s helpful for spreading grass seed if you’re spreading seed on your lawn as you top dress. But I do prefer to use a broadcast spreader if you have to use one or the other.

A broadcast spreader has a spinning wheel attached beneath a single hole from which the compost drops. When the wheel spins, it tosses seed or fertilizer across the lawn instead of dropping it beneath the spreader directly.

Some people use these spreaders for fine, dry compost but I don’t recommend that – it’s not the best way to do the job.

What Other Materials Can You Use to Top Dress your Lawn?

When top dressing, the first and most crucial step is choosing what type of material you should use.

For the top dressing to be advantageous, you have to ensure that your choice has a similar texture to the underlying soil.

Applying varying textures can form layers in your turf that restricts water and air movement. This can reduce the quality of turfgrass overall and is the opposite of what you want to do when top dressing your yard.

The most popular options are:

  • Topsoil with a similar consistency to the soil in your lawn
  • Sand (most useful for heavy clay lawns that need leveling)
  • High-grade screened compost (by now you know that’s my recommendation)
  • A mix of these materials

Pros and Cons to Compost Alternatives

Topsoil that mimics the existing soil structure smooths out the ground and is good to use, as well.

However, it does not contain a lot of organic material, and many topsoils or farm field loams you buy in bulk will contain weed seeds.

Sand is used mostly on golf courses and particularly on man-made grass and artificial turf. When it’s combined with dense clay soils, it facilitates drainage.

I don’t recommend that you use fine sand over coarse-textured soil unless you’re trying to do some light leveling in your yard.

Homeowners often use a mix of the materials discussed above to create a cost-effective blend similar to existing soil. And you don’t have to use the same material every time you top dress your yard.

Most times, a mixture of topsoil, sand, and compost works well.

You can purchase materials from your local garden centers, nurseries, and landscape companies if you need topsoil or sand delivered in bulk.

Arrange delivery of these products onto your driveway so that your lawn grass isn’t smothered and tire tracks aren’t left in your yard.

I typically lay out a tarp on my driveway for the bulk materials to be dumped, which makes clean-up a snap.

Final Thoughts on Top Dressing Lawn and Yards

Lawn care never ends. A picture-perfect lawn needs continual care to ensure it gets the nutrients it requires.

Lawn Top Dressing

After topdressing your lawn successfully, the next thing you need is patience.

You might need to reapply the top dressing, and the results might take a while, but pretty soon you can get on a schedule of top-dressing and over-seeding once every few years and your lawn will stay looking great with minimal effort.

Top dressing your lawn, if done correctly, will improve water and nutrient retention, drainage, and so much more, and it’s a time-tested method to achieve great results in your yard.

by

Sarah’s blog, Lawn Chick, is read by over 2 million homeowners each year and she is regularly cited as an expert source of lawn care knowledge by major publications. Her goal is to meet you where you are, and help you achieve a yard you’ll be proud of. Ready to take the next step toward improving your lawn? Grab her free lawn care cheat-sheet: What to Do When - Take the Guesswork Out of Lawn Care, or upgrade your garage by browsing her favorite DIY lawn care products.

4 thoughts on “Top Dressing Lawn Guide for Homeowners

  1. Donald Walth

    We just moved, bought a house to be with our grandchildren and family. Spent a good piece of change on sod. It looks beautiful and I’d like to keep it that way. We live in South, East Idaho. Lots of snow and it seems the wind dries out the lawn fast. Some areas seemed to dry out, so I water with a hose and it brings it back. A woman had bare spots and said she had grubs and insects that were killing her grass. We have an automatic watering system. Not sure what our grass is but I think it is Kentucky Blue grass and other. We don’t get a lot of rain as it is considered a High Desert area. Local farmers irrigate all the time and they get about 3 crops a summer on alfalfa. The soil here seems to have a lot of clay in it. Your articles are really good. Thanks.

    • Hey, Donald!

      Thanks so much for the comment and congrats on the new house (and lawn!).

      Sounds like you’re off to a great start. Please check back and let me know if you have any questions or have issues pop up.

  2. Sandra Santilli

    Hi, can you recommend a micro clover for my lawn. I want to over seen my current grass and fill in are spots with clover. I live in the Boston area, zone 6b. Also, is pipolina and inoculated clover recommended? Thank you. Sandy

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