Who doesn’t dream of a lush, green lawn?
Despite what you may believe this is easy to achieve without resorting to synthetic chemical or even artificial grass solutions. Top dressing your lawn helps to enrich the soil with nutrients, creating thick, healthy grass that not only looks great but is also beneficial for your garden’s ecosystem.
In this article I will explain everything you need to know about top dressing your lawn including when to do it and the best way to apply your top dressing.
This can help to keep your grass green and healthy.
Why Feed Your Lawn?
When it comes to caring for your lawn people tend to fall into one of three different groups. Either you:
- Adopt a no-mow approach, allowing the grass to grow tall and wild, encouraging wild flowers, insects and pollinators,
- Regularly tend your lawn, fertilizing and mowing regularly,
- Ignore your lawn apart from when it needs mowing.
Whichever group you fall into, top dressing your lawn is a practice that you really should adopt.
Regularly amending your lawn with organic material helps to keep it healthy and lush. A healthy lawn is more resistant to pests and disease.
Top dressing also reduces the need to use synthetic or chemical fertilizers. This is not only good for your garden but the wider environment. Additionally, regularly amending your lawn helps to deter weed growth.
This is a great way to keep your grass healthy without using chemical fertilizers.
Top dressing works by encouraging a deeper root system to develop. This means that your lawn is better able to withstand droughts. It also helps to nurture the beneficial microbes that live in the soil. The more numerous the microbes in the soil, the healthier the lawn.
Now that you know how beneficial it can be, what exactly is top dressing?
What is Top Dressing?
To put it simply, tp dressing is the practice of spreading a thin layer of beneficial material, such as compost, over the soil or lawn surface. Over time this layer of material breaks down, enriching the soil and helping to boost healthy growth.
Easy to implement, you don’t even need lots of material to enrich your lawn. Just a thin layer is more than enough to ensure a good balance of nutrients and beneficial microbes. Depending on how often you choose to amend your lawn the layer of top dressing that you apply need not be any more than ¼ to ½ an inch thick.
Once you have applied your organic amendments no further work is necessary. Just let nature take its course.
This is an easy, low effort way to boost healthy grass growth.
How Beneficial is Top Dressing?
This process has many benefits. Firstly, as the organic material works its way down through your soil it loosens and aerates compact soils. This happens because as the organisms in the soil digest the compost they open up tiny pores or gaps in the soil.
Regularly amending and enriching your lawn helps to keep the soil aerated. This means that you do not need to physically aerate the lawn.
A compost layer introduces microbes to the soil. These work to break down thatch or dead grass. If thatch becomes too thick rainwater can struggle to permeate down into the soil, instead puddling on your lawn.
Compost is a balanced, nutritious choice.
Even a thin layer of organic matter is enough to break down and transform all your lawn clippings into growth fuelling nutrients such as nitrogen. This, in turn, is enough to stimulate growth for the year.
A further boost is provided if your lawn has clover growing in it. Clover leaves are rich in nitrogen, meaning that the plant can help to fix nitrogen in your soil.
Consequently, top dressing eliminates the need to apply chemical fertilizer. Just a thin layer is enough to get your lawn looking lush and healthy.
Amending your lawn in the way also helps to create a smooth lawn, evening out minor dips and undulations. This is not a solution for repairing large divots. These can be remedies by removing the turf and adding or removing material before re-laying the sod.
Finally, organic materials such as compost do not break down quickly. Instead they release their nutrients slowly, over an extended period of time. This means that the soil is not flooded with a mass of nutrients that it can struggle to absorb.
Chemical fertilizers can be too heavy in nutrients for your soil to absorb in one go. This can cause a runoff which may pollute nearby water sources.
A slow release of nutrients means that the soil is able to absorb all the nutrients, meaning there is no leeching or runoff.
Clover leaves add nutrients to the soil.
What Materials Should I Use?
When it comes to amending your lawn, compost is the best choice. There are a number of reasons for this.
Firstly, compost can be finely screened or broken down into tiny pieces. This means that there are no big chunks of compost left on your lawn after spreading.
Compost is also easy to handle and spread over your lawn.
A good compost contains a good balance of macro and micro nutrients, these are slowly released over time, enriching your soil. Good quality compost is either pH neutral or pretty close to it.
Healthy compost is rich in beneficial microbes that feed your grass. The microbes survive by digesting organic matter in the compost and releasing fresh nutrients into the soil.
In addition to digesting organic matter, microbes digest grass clippings, returning them to your soil as nitrogen. A healthy level of nitrogen in the soil helps to stimulate healthy growth.
Microbes also help to break down the layers of dead grass stems, known as thatch, that build up in the base of the lawn.
Finally, compost is pleasingly easy and affordable to source. Many local municipalities give out bags of leaf compost, made from local leaf collections, for free. It is also easy to make your own.
While compost is suitable for most lawns, certain soil types may benefit from top dressing with a different material.
Sandy soils can benefit from an application of a loam mix. This helps to improve moisture retention.
Heavy clay soils can be dressed with a sandy loam mix, this lightens the soil improving drainage.
A more balanced soil can be dressed with either compost or a sandy loam mix. This provides the best of both worlds.
The pH of your soil can also affect what material you use. Before amending, test your soil to discover its pH level. A good soil test can also tell you what nutrients your soil is both rich and deficient in.
Ryegrasses and meadowgrasses like a neutral pH, somewhere around 6.5. In contrast, many ornamental grasses prefer an acidic soil.
Ornamental grasses do best in acidic soils.
Popular materials for top dressing include:
- Sand is a good material for loosening soil density. It can also be used to level bumpy ground and improve drainage. Sand does not improve soil fertility,
- Topsoil is similar to the soil beneath your grass, it won’t provide nutrients to encourage dense growth,
- Compost is rich in organic matter, it is the best choice it supports lush growth,
- Dress mixes are a cost effective option. Commonly sold in garden stores, you can make a mix yourself by combining equal parts compost and sand or topsoil. Ensure that it is well mixed before applying to your lawn.
If you are purchasing a mix make sure that it is free of weed seeds or labeled as sterile. This is particularly important if you are cultivating an ornamental lawn.
When is the Best Time to Treat Your Lawn?
This process is best carried out in spring, before your lawn starts to grow or green up. You can also apply your layer of organic material in mid or late fall, just before the leaves fall from the trees.
Some people trop dress their lawn twice a year, applying a ¼ inch layer each time. If you are only top dressing once a year, the layer can be between ¼ and ½ an inch thick.
Best done in either the spring or fall, top dressing works most effectively when it is applied during a time of year when there is a good chance of your garden experiencing regular rainfall. Rain helps the compost to move from the surface down into the soil, reaching the roots of your grass. If it doesn’t rain you must water the lawn on a daily basis.
Amend your lawn in fall or spring.
How to Apply
Before applying your chosen material you need to prepare the lawn. Begin by aerating the soil or loosening thatch with a rake.
Mow the lawn lightly, removing new growth. This helps your top dressing to easily penetrate the surface, reaching the soil and lawn roots. Once this is done it is time to move onto the next step, top dressing your lawn.
Cut the grass before amending.
When it comes to top dressing there are 4 different methods that you can adopt. Each has its own benefits and drawbacks. Read through the different options below and choose the one that is best suited to your garden.
While you can use other materials for top dressing, for the guides below I will assume that you are using compost, the most versatile of them all. Other materials can be applied in the same way.
1 Top Dressing by Hand
As the name suggests, this requires spreading compost by hand over your lawn.
You will need:
- A wheelbarrow,
- Shovel or garden fork,
- Leaf rake,
- Compost or other material.
Begin by placing your compost in the wheelbarrow. This enables you to easily move it around the garden.
Use the shovel or garden fork to scatter the compost over the lawn.
Don’t worry about creating an even layer, just try to cover as much of your lawn as possible.
Once your lawn is covered you can use the leaf rake to even out the coverage, creating a thin flat layer of compost.
A physically intensive option, this is best suited to gardeners wishing to dress small lawns. It is also the most affordable of our 4 options, requiring garden tools that you probably already own.
2 Roll Out the Top Dressing
This method works best with dry, screened compost.
You will need:
- Compost or other material,
- Rolling peat moss spreader
Traditionally used to spread peat moss, a rolling spreader such as the Faittd Spreader also spreads compost.
Fill the rolling barrel with compost. Then, simply walk the roller over the lawn. As you push or pull the roller the compost falls through the mesh openings and spreads onto the lawn. Aim to cover your lawn as evenly as possible.
You may need to use a rake after spreading your top dressing to ensure even coverage.
Not as physically intensive as the first option, rolling out your top dressing provides a quick and easy way to cover small and medium sized lawns.
3 Drop Spreader
This method uses a traditional drop-style spreader. It works best with dry, finely screened compost. Wet or clumpy compost is prone to becoming stuck in the spreader holes as it falls from the hopper.
You will need:
- A Scotts Elite Drop Spreader,
- Compost or other material.
Most drop spreaders have adjustable holes in the bottom as well as a mechanism, usually on the handle, that allows you to adjust the size of the holes. Ensure that your drop spreader is set on the largest opening before you begin.
Close the holes before filling the hopper with compost.
Start at the edge of the lawn and, with the holes open, walk up and down your lawn in straight lines. This helps to ensure an even spread. Continue to walk in straight lines until you have covered all the lawn. Again, any clumps or thick patches can be raked out to create a thin layer.
This is another low tech, relatively inexpensive method of top dressing your lawn. However, it does require a little physical effort on your part. While drop spreaders with larger holes can be more difficult to maneuver, remember the bigger the hopper the less often you need to refill.
You may also be able to spread your compost top dressing with a broadcast spreader. However unless the compost is fine and dry broadcast spreaders are prone to clogging up.
4 Top Dressing with a Tractor Attachment
Our final method is best if you have a large lawn and already own a tractor.
Many tractor attachments can also be used behind an ATV. For gardeners with large lawns, investing in a tractor attachment with large hoppers and adjustable hole sizes can make top dressing an easy task. You can also use the spreader to salt drives and paths during the winter months.
To use, simply fill the spreading attachment with compost and drive your tractor in straight lines over your lawn.
Tractor mounted manure spreaders are more expensive but less prone to clogging if the compost is wet or in large clumps.
If it doesn’t rain you need to water the lawn.
After top dressing, try to avoid using your lawn too heavily for around a week. This gives your top dressing time to settle and start working down into the soil. If it doesn’t rain, use a garden hose to soak your lawn. Do this every day for a week.
Top dressing is an easy, chemical-free way to naturally enrich your soil and create a lush, green lawn. Easy to implement, why not incorporate it into your lawn care schedule?
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.