A Complete Guide To Top Dressing A Lawn: Benefits & How To Do It Correctly!

Topdressing, especially with overseeding and core aeration, is the best way to renovate a lawn.

When you first think about it, it might seem counterintuitive or odd to spread a layer of topsoil, compost or sand on grass. After all, dirt or mud should be under the grass, not above it! However, that is what topdressing is, and doing it periodically for your lawn is a great thing. Top dressing has many benefits but is most well-known for producing a lush lawn.

The practice of top dressing the lawn was first reported on golf courses when the sport was invented in Scotland. Today, top dressing is becoming increasingly popular among homeowners worldwide looking for organic lawn care solutions. If you are not top dressing your lawn, you are missing a lot!

A Complete Guide To Top Dressing A Lawn: Benefits & How To Do It Correctly!

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Though, do not run towards your local gardening store just yet! There are a few things that you should know before you top dress lawn. For instance, top dressing materials do not come with the harmful effects of synthetic and chemical lawn care products. However, top dressing your lawn at the wrong time or incorrect manner can still kill your grass.

Top dressing should only be performed when the lawn surface is dry. Top dressing material should be adequately worked into the sward. Application of top dressing should not be so much that it suffocates your grass. Also, when done, there shouldn’t be any visible clumps of top dressing material on the lawn.

That said, there is much more to lawn top dressing than proper application and timing. Keep reading this article to find out!

What is Turf & Lawn Top Dressing?

What is Turf & Lawn Top Dressing?

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Top dressing does not mean covering your grass so much that it suffocates and dies.

When it comes to lawn care, keeping them lush and plush usually means treating your grass with as many pesticides, insecticides and fertilizers as possible. However, you can achieve just as good results if you top dress your lawn periodically. Top dressing is applying a thin layer of compost, sand, topsoil or a blend of these materials onto a lawn.

Top dressing your lawn is a great way to encourage the slow release of essential nutrients into the soil. This slow-release keeps the grass growing optimally and is a great natural and eco-friendly way to keep your lawn healthy. It is important to note that top dressing does not mean covering your grass so much that it suffocates.

The layer is only about a quarter-inch thick, and it is intended to improve the soil conditions of your existing lawn while also letting the existing grass grow through the top dressing material. In addition, it provides a healthy, nutrient-rich environment for new seeds to germinate.

Experts usually suggest top dressing your lawn once every year or two, along with overseeding and aerating your lawn. When completed in tandem, these three things can transform your lawn in just a few days.

Benefits Of Top Dressing

Benefits Of Top Dressing

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Top dressing a lawn reduces thatch buildup and promotes root growth.

Simply put, top dressing a lawn is the best natural way to improve the quality of your lawn soil. It provides the grass with everything that it needs to thrive. For instance, it significantly increases the water retention capabilities of the soil, reduces thatch formation, stimulates bacterial activity, improves overall soil structure and neutralizes the pH of lawn soil.

It is a great way to restore a pale-looking lawn to its former glory. Let’s discuss the benefits of top dressing your lawn and turf in a bit more detail.

Reduces Thatch Buildup

Reduces Thatch Buildup

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Thatch can prevent fresh air, water and nutrients from reaching the grassroots.

Thatch forms naturally on actively growing grass, and there’s no stopping it! However, if the layer of thatch becomes too thick, it can restrict nutrients, water and air from penetrating the ground, which could seriously impact grass growth.

Routine top dressing can help you resolve this issue. Top dressing materials contain beneficial microbes that break down organic matter and help nutrients return to the soil. Thus, nutrients locked up in the dead grass become free to use again.

Levels The Lawn

Levels The Lawn

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Top dressing is a great way to fix holes and depressions in your lawn.

Over time, certain areas of your lawn can become uneven due to the settling soil, water drainage issues and many other natural and unnatural causes. An uneven lawn is not only unsightly, but it can also become a safety hazard. Uneven lawns can cause problems while mowing and worsen the water drainage situation.

Top dressing is a great way to fix the leveling issues of your lawn. It can also be used to fill holes and depressions in your yard. You can also grade your lawn for better drainage with overtime top dressings.

RELATED: How To Level A Large Yard? A Beginners Guide With 7 Easy Steps

Improves Soil Quality

Improves Soil Quality

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Top addressing adds nutrients to the soil, thus increasing its fertility.

While using tons of fertilizers is the norm to increase the fertility of the soil, you can pretty much obtain similar results by regularly top dressing your lawn. It is an excellent way of introducing some extra organic material to your lawn. Top dressing also increases the texture of the lawn soil and increases its moisture-holding capacity.

Top dressing your lawn can also resolve the compaction issues in your yard if you use compost as your top dressing material. It is also a great way of fixing lawn pH issues which, if not resolved, can severely impact grass growth on your lawn.

Aerates The Soil

Aerates The Soil

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Compaction can prevent healthy root growth.

Sometimes, your lawn health is deteriorating not due to the lack of nutrients but soil compaction. Compacted soil makes it difficult for the roots to penetrate deep into the lawn soil, which introduces many problems. For instance, compacted soils weaken the grass as shallow roots cannot absorb as many nutrients.

Top dressing the lawn with compost helps relieve the lawn compaction issues. Compost contains beneficial soil microbes. These microbes break down organic matter in the soil, which results in the formation of tiny pores. This allows the air, nutrients and water to penetrate deeper into the ground, improving grass health.

Improves Seed Germination

Improves Seed Germination

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Top dressing provides a nutrient-rich environment for the seeds to grow.

Germinating seeds and sprouting grass need all the nutrients and moisture they can get to reach their full potential. In addition, proper seed-to-soil contact is also very vital for germination and healthy root development. So, if you are overseeding your lawn, top dressing it with compost or topsoil can do wonders.

It will increase the soil’s water retaining capacity, which will keep the germinating seeds moist. Moreover, spreading a thin layer of top dressing on seeds increases seed-to-soil contact, promoting healthy seed and root growth.

RELATED: Will Grass Seed Grow If Not Covered With Soil? Sowing Seeds For A Perfect Lawn

Reduces Fertilizer Requirements

Reduces Fertilizer Requirements

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Heat and cold stress can cause the grass to go dormant, resulting in a pale-looking lawn.

Another reason top dressing your lawn is a great thing to do is that it can significantly reduce heat and cold stress on the grass. Grass enters dormancy when the temperature becomes too high or too low. During this time, grass stops growing actively, and the lawn appears pale and dead.

However, applying a thin layer of top dressing over your grass can make your lawn somewhat immune to cold and heat stress. A top dressing material provides insulation between the grass and the environment and thus, reduces heat/cold stress on the turf.

Reduces Lawn Stress

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Heat and cold stress can cause the grass to go dormant, resulting in a pale-looking lawn.

Another reason top dressing your lawn is a great thing to do is that it can significantly reduce heat and cold stress on the grass. Grass enters dormancy when the temperature becomes too high or too low. During this time, grass stops growing actively, and the lawn appears pale and dead.

However, applying a thin layer of top dressing over your grass can make your lawn somewhat immune to cold and heat stress. A top dressing material provides insulation between the grass and the environment and thus, reduces heat/cold stress on the turf.

What Is The Best Top Dressing For Lawns?

By far, the most preferred material for lawn top dressing is compost. It contains a rich supply of nutrients and improves the quality of the lawn soil. Thus, it reduces lawn fertilization needs and increases the soil’s water retaining capacity, creating ideal conditions for seed and grass growth. 

However, there are a number of other top dressing materials as well and depending on the condition of your lawn, some might be better than the others. So, let’s go ahead and discuss these materials one by one.

Compost

Compost

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Compost is inexpensive and highly nutritious when compared to other top dressing materials.

Compost is the most widely used and preferred material for top dressing a lawn. It moves down the ground relatively quickly compared to other top dressing materials. Also, you do not have to buy compost if you know how to make it and making compost is easy.

Excellent compost can be made at home using dead leaves, grass clippings and food scraps. These materials are high in nitrogen which helps the grass grow and stay green. Compost is light and easy to distribute.

Unlike other top dressing materials, compost contains a healthy mix of micro- and macro-nutrients. In addition, it is packed with beneficial lawn microbes, which break down organic matter and release nutrients into the soil.

All in all, compost is a great top dressing material. It does not damage the lawn, and it is inexpensive. However, ensure that the compost you use in your yard is free of lawn weeds and pest insects.

Sand

Sand

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San makes excellent lawn top dressing,  especially when there are drainage issues. 

Sand is an extensively used lawn top dressing material, especially in sports fields and golf courses. Due to its texture, sand can improve the smoothness of your lawn and help dilute the thatch. In addition, sand top dressing reduces the sponginess of the lawn and reduces the presence of algae on the grass.

Sand is especially useful as a top dressing material when drainage issues occur in your yard. Sand resists compaction and drains well compared to other top dressing materials. The use of sand in yards can also improve soil aeration problems.

Overall, sand is an excellent material for top dressing; however, there are a few drawbacks to using sand in lawns. For instance, sand is unsuitable for top dressing clay soils and does not retain nutrients very well.

RELATED: Is Sand Good For Lawns? (and What Type of Sand for Lawns Is Best)

Topsoil

Topsoil

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Use topsoil as a top dressing, especially when your yard has leveling or grading issues.

Topsoil is the uppermost few inches of soil that can also be used as a topdressing material. Topsoil is rich in microorganisms and organic matter that benefit plants, including grass. Just like compost, topsoil is easy to handle and distribute.

Topsoil is especially useful as a top dressing material when you have leveling or grading issues in your yard. You can use topsoil to fill up any holes or depressions on your lawn or cover the lawn entirely with it to fix leveling and grading problems.

However, there are some drawbacks to using top soil as a top dressing. Most of the time, top soil is obtained from agricultural fields. Thus it might contain fertilizer chemicals and weeds that can damage your turf. 

Nonetheless, topsoil is excellent for top dressing. You can also use it with compost to improve the fertility issues in your yard, and it also offers good drainage like sand.

Blended Mix

You can also mix the three materials above to prepare a top dressing blended mix for your lawn. Such blended mixes are available in gardening stores and online marketplaces. They combine the properties of all three top dressing materials, i.e., sans, topsoil and compost. 

Compost will improve the fertility of your soil, sand will improve the drainage issues, and topsoil will improve the overall soil structure of your lawn. That is why many experts suggest that a blended mix is better than any individual top dressing material.

When Should I Top Dress My Lawn?

When Should I Top Dress My Lawn?

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It is usually best to top dress the lawn when the grass is growing actively.

There is no precise time when you must top dress your lawn. Experts usually suggest top dressing the lawns when the grass needs a boost of nutrients, when the grass is actively growing, when there are draining problems or when you overseed your lawn.

Top dressing the lawn is especially beneficial to the grass during the active growth season. The earlier you top dress your lawn in the growing season, the better it is. If needed, you can also apply a top dressing to your lawn after mowing

There are also certain times when you should not top dress your lawn. For instance, you should not top dress your grass when it is dormant. It can put immense stress on the grass, sometimes so much so to even kill it. 

Also, avoid top dressing your lawn when there is a rain prediction. Increased moisture can make top dressing material challenging to work with and introduce leveling issues to your lawn.

How Do You Apply Top Dressing?

How Do You Apply Top Dressing?

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Top dressing should be applied when the grass is dry and worked well into the sward.

You can’t just throw a top dressing material on your lawn and expect to harvest all of its advantages. You need to be careful about certain things; doing it wrong can even kill your grass. Here is how to use top dressing correctly:

Test The Soil

If you are thinking about top dressing your lawn, chances are there is an issue with your lawn. So, it will be a great time to get your lawn soil tested and fix any nutrient deficiencies or soil pH problems. 

Remove Lawn Weeds

Before applying a top dressing to your lawn, it is also highly recommended that you remove all the weeds from your lawn a couple of days before. If there are just a few weeds, you can remove them manually or use herbicides if your lawn is full of them.

Dig Out Bad Portions

It’s highly recommended that you manually dig away any areas of poa, bentgrass, or any other clump-forming nuisance grass in your yard with the edge of a shovel before applying a top dressing to your lawn. These are often difficult to control with herbicides.

Buy Quality Materials

If you are applying compost, sand or topsoil as a top dressing on your lawn, ensure they are free of any weeds and pest insects. You can make quality compost at home with dead tree leaves, grass clippings and food scrap.

If you are using sand to resolve drainage issues, make sure it is coarse. And if you are using topsoil, ensure it does not contain harmful chemicals.

Arrange The Material In Small Piles

Take a wheelbarrow and fill it with your top dressing material. Next, dump small piles of it over your lawn. This will make it easier for you to rake the top dressing later on and ensure that you do not accidentally create a thick layer of top dressing on your grass.

Rake The Piles

You can use the back of a shovel or a proper rake to spread the piles you created before on your lawn. Make sure that you fill out all the holes and fix any bumps on the surface of your lawn during this step.

Apply Starter Fertilizer & Seed

When combined with overseeding, top dressing can create a lush lawn very quickly. So, if you like, you can overseed your lawn at this stage. Also, make sure to treat the new seeds with a starter fertilizer to give them a head start.

Water The Lawn

Once done, water your lawn to settle the topsoil.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What time of year should I top dress my lawn?

There is no fixed time to top dress your lawn. However, it is usually very beneficial to top dress your lawn during the active growth season.

Should I mow before top dressing?

Mowing will cut the grass short and help the top dressing material reach the soil surface, which otherwise might just stay on top of the grass blades.

Do you overseed before top dressing?

If you want to overseed your lawn, it is better to do it after applying a top dressing to your lawn. It will prevent you from accidentally burying the seeds too deep.

How much should I water my lawn after top dressing?

After top dressing your lawn, you should keep watering your lawn at about ¼” to ½” for at least three to four weeks. It will help the top dressing material settle onto the ground.

Is top dressing the same as topsoil?

Top dressing is the process of applying a thin layer of compost, sand or topsoil over the grass to boost its growth. So, topsoil is just a type of top dressing material.

Sources for Further Reading

Topdressing A Home Lawn – Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service

What does topdress mean, and why is it done? – Mississippi State University Extension Service

Turfgrass Maintenance Topdressing – University of Tennessee Extension Service

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Morgan Daniels

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