Lawn Top Dressing – How To Keep The Lawn Unharmed

Lawn Top Dressing
Lawn top dressing with compost produces a thick, green lawn

Lawn top dressing is when you apply a thin layer of material onto the lawn. Lawn dressing is often done with sand and that’s where the problem is.

Sand is used because people think it will improve air space and water infiltration and drainage. These are important organic gardening goals, but top dressing lawn with sand does not help achieve them.

No matter what your soil is composed of, putting sand on top can cause drainage problems and dry pockets in the soil. And there’s more.

If you’re lawn top dressing with sand onto your clay soil, it can form a soil that is like concrete. And since sand doesn’t have any nutritional benefit or any ability to hold onto nutrients, you are decreasing the fertility of your organic soil.

It is not as bad to use sand on golf course greens because they are already made of sand, but even then, it is not very helpful. Regardless, in a residential lawn, it is harmful.

But in thinking about how to topdress a lawn, there is something else commonly used in organic gardening that you should absolutely use for lawn top dressing and that is 1/4 inch to 1/2 inch of good quality, well-screened compost! Well-made compost brings many benefits to the lawn and organic garden, including:

  • a broad range of nutrients
  • a huge number and diversity of beneficial microorganisms
  • reduced thatch due to specific microorganisms
  • reduced disease
  • improved water-holding capacity
  • improved soil structure and reduced compaction

This method of lawn dressing is what should be done after aerating a lawn. One of my favorite organic gardening tips for if you want to do a really good job, after aerating and before adding the compost, you can add other soil-enhancing products such as mycorrhizal fungi, liquid kelp and any minerals that you need based on a soil test, such as calcitic lime and soft rock phosphate.

Doing all of these things is organic gardening heaven for your lawn.

It is best to do all of this after aerating because the amendments and compost get down into the root zone where they belong. While you shouldn’t need to aerate every year once your lawn is healthy, topdressing with compost is always a good idea. You can do it spring or fall or both.

You can rent a top dressing lawn machine to do this, but I have never had much luck with it using compost. I just do it with a shovel and rake.

Conclusion

As I discussed in Lawn Dethatching And Lawn Rolling, dethatching is a last resort to use only when the thatch is simply too much. The thatch will keep coming back until you address the root cause, which is inadequate soil microbial life. Continual dethatching will only exacerbate the problem.

Lawn rolling can be helpful during installation, but it is generally detrimental on an annual basis because it just compacts the soil, which is the opposite of what your organic gardening goals are.

As I discussed in Aerating A Lawn With A Lawn Core Aerator, lawn aeration can provide benefits if done during the fall or early spring by a machine with sharp tines that removes the soil cores. It must be followed by top dressing lawn with good compost and optional other amendments.

Lawn dressing with sand is detrimental, but a good 1/4 inch to 1/2 inch of compost annually provides many benefits.

So if you’ve been aerating your lawn, I hope you’ll now top dress it after, and if you’ve been top dressing with sand, I hope you’ll use compost instead. Let me know your thoughts below.

45 Comments

  1. bern on June 8, 2012 at 12:04 am

    anything important to know about the compost?  How do I know ‘good’ compost?

    • Phil on June 9, 2012 at 11:26 am

      Hi Bern, it should smell good, look finished (so that you can’t tell what it’s made from), and you should confirm that it was made without toxic materials.If you’re doing a lot of this, like on a commercial scale, you should get a chemical and biological analysis to make sure it has a good nutrient and microbial balance.

  2. Shannon on June 18, 2012 at 8:39 pm

    The soil in my yard is mostly sand and clay causing the centipede grass to grow very thin.  It doesn’t hold water very well, etc.  I had used compost that I made from grass clippings, shredded paper and used coffee grounds to plant new sod where I couldn’t get it to grow. It became the thickest, greenest, healthiest section of grass in my yard.  I can’t do that for my entire yard but I can I use the same compost to “topdress” the rest of my lawn and potentially get the same results?

    • Phil on June 23, 2012 at 1:53 pm

      Hi Shannon, topdressing with good compost is definitely an excellent idea. Whether or not you get the same results is hard to say, but if you can do it every year for a few years, the grass should get healthier and fuller over time.

      • James Steele on September 24, 2017 at 2:28 pm

        Be real, I live in Staten Island,NY There is only one landscape compost/soil bulk delivery I viewed it and it’s outdoors with rocks,branches and God knows what else . If you asked the clerk about a printout of some kind of analysis he or she would respond ‘Forget about it! Dirt is dirt it’s all the same. So since I don’t have a truck myself & am 62 years old it would be a bit for me to rent a truck then drive to a more reputable garden center in NJ then shovel 3 cubic yards into my rented pickup truck. Instead of lawn renovation I would be calling,if capable an ambulance. All kidding aside any ideas?

  3. Guy on July 11, 2012 at 10:09 am

    HelloI have a medium sized lawn (80ft x 30ft) and have a very clay soil. After any heavy prolonged downpours the lawn appears to have poor drainage and the water sits on the surface. I am thinking about aerating the lawn to improve the drainage, but just wanted you thoughts on a hired petrol aerator Vs purchased manual aerator? I appreciate the manual aerator will be a time consuming method and probably a pain to use, but do the petrol machines remove the soil plugs properly without getting clogged-up?kind regards

    • Phil on July 15, 2012 at 3:02 pm

      Hi Guy, the petrol aerators work pretty well for pulling cores. The ones you step on work okay, too.But aeration will not help with a drainage problem. You may get a little help if you backfill the holes with a good quality, screened compost, and balance your soil nutrients and soil food web (way too complicated for me to explain nutrient balancing here). Ultimately, standing water is often fixed only by installing drainage, and definitely not with aeration alone. Hope that helps, Phil

      • AssistantGolfSuper on September 18, 2012 at 1:05 am

        You can use solid tines, that will help with drainage since you will be creating macro pores.

        • Phil on September 22, 2012 at 6:07 pm

          But drainage isn’t usually just a surface issue that can be resolved with some 4 inch holes in the ground. It could definitely help for mild drainage issues when the soil surface is an impenetrable layer, but I’ve found most issues to require actually installing drainage or otherwise vastly improving the soil’s ability to infiltrate and absorb water.

  4. Tom Lunsford on August 29, 2012 at 10:36 pm

    I cut down 65 large sweet gum trees on my property and ground about 40 of the stumps.  I put one 50 lb bag of 40-0-0 (urea) on the wood chips/soil to accelerate the decomp of the chips.  Now I have 6-10 inch depressions where the stumps were.  If not sand, what should I used to level the ground where the stumps have decayed?

    • Phil on August 30, 2012 at 6:51 pm

      That’s one case where you do need to bring in soil. It’s best if the soil has a similar texture to your existing soil. So if you have sandy soil, bringing in sand or topsoil would be okay. If you have clay, bring in topsoil instead of sand. Be sure to mix it well with that existing organic matter if you can, rather than just dropping it on top.

  5. Mary on April 10, 2013 at 9:51 pm

    I want to raise the level in uneven areas in my yard using sand, is this the best product to use?

    • Phil on April 13, 2013 at 4:15 pm

      If your soil is sandy, sure, you can use a course sand (not sharp sand), but if your soil is more of a loam or clay, perhaps a topsoil would be a better match.

  6. Jean on April 15, 2013 at 6:27 am

    My lawn is 6 weeks old. Unfortunately uneven areas are starting to show. I’m assuming top dressing is the solution to even out these areas. However, is it imperative to aerate the lawn before applying compost, the lawn being newly laid?

    • Phil on April 17, 2013 at 11:25 am

      Definitely not. To me, it’s important to use compost and fertilizers after aeration, but you don’t have to aerate in order to use compost. You may need to use some topsoil to level out some areas, because compost does break down.

  7. Fred on May 1, 2013 at 2:33 am

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge. Do you have any experience with lime pellets? I do understand they help raise the PH levels in the soil.

  8. scott woodcock on May 16, 2013 at 3:06 pm

    i just put down centipede sod and then put organic top dressing all over the top of it. it is very black and hope that i didn’t smother the new grass. is that normal. there is grass poking through the top dressing but i hope i just didn’t kill the new sod

    • Phil on May 17, 2013 at 12:16 pm

      You won’t have killed it if you did it fairly recently, but if it is so thick that the grass just barely pokes through, you might consider raking some of it into your gardens or just into a pile somewhere.

  9. Soonerskins on May 17, 2013 at 2:20 am

    I have about 1.35 acres of Bermuda grass. We have a 2.6 acre lot, of which the other area is driveway, and trees and pond. We started with just weeds, and seven years later, solid Bermuda except some shade grass. I have unlevel areas. Some of which is my fault because I rented a sod cutter, and transplanted grass. Some low spots was from erosion when e ouse was built before grass grew. How should I level my low spots to keep from scalping my lawn with my walker mower? I can’t wait to mow every 3 days.

    • Phil on May 17, 2013 at 12:24 pm

      You want to use a medium that is similar to your existing soil. If your soil is sandy, use sand. If it’s clay, use more of a topsoil. Depending on how big the discrepancies are, you may have to do it in stages so as not to smother out the grass, but as long as you can still see the tops of the grass after raking it in, you’re good.

  10. Gary on May 21, 2013 at 2:17 pm

    Hi, Is there a rough ratio of compost per sq ft? Thanks

    • Phil on May 24, 2013 at 11:34 am

      For annual maintenance, I often just put down a layer that is 1/8th inch thick, which means 1 yard covers 2600 sq ft. The first time I do it on a lawn that needs help, I might use 1/2 inch, which means 1 yard covers 650 square feet.

  11. vincemantuano on May 31, 2013 at 7:23 pm

    Hi Phil,What would be your suggestion for top dressing a football field (actually 4)?! I help run a youth football organization and we just had our county deliver a boatload of sand. We have some ruts, potholes, and a bunch of unevenness and our soil is Georgia Clay!I definitely don’t want to damage our grass, but we have to fix our holes.Thanks!

    • Phil on June 3, 2013 at 9:51 am

      Personally, I would topdress with more of a clay-based soil. It’s not that clay is good for a football field – it’s just that a layer of sand over a layer of clay can really stop the water from moving down into the clay layer.

  12. Joel on June 17, 2013 at 5:42 am

    I live in Denver, CO. It is semi arid here and I have very sandy soil. I rented an aerator in early spring and it did an ok job but I don’t think the tines were very sharp. Therefore the plugs were not very big. Maybe an 1″ or so. Anyhow, some of the lawn areas are struggling and I’d like to try and recover it. Can I aerate again in June or will it harm the grass too much? I think the drainage in those areas is not great so I’d like to aerate and then top dress with compost now if possible. Would it be better to wait until the fall to do this?

    • Phil on June 20, 2013 at 9:53 pm

      Yes, wait until fall when the roots are actively growing. Aeration doesn’t do anything to improve drainage anyway. Really, aeration only offers short term benefits, other than the fact that it allows you to get that compost and other fertilizers/inoculants down into the root zone.

  13. Jesse on July 2, 2013 at 12:35 am

    Just added a layer of sand to a thinning area of st.augustine. Thinking I’m getting too much shade. Also added fertilizer spikes at dripline of bradford pear tree.

  14. Colleen on March 29, 2014 at 3:12 am

    Hi Phil,My lawn was recently aerated. I applied mycorrhizal fungi and calcitic lime on the same day. I would like to add EM and then top dress with compost. My question is – how long after aerating can I still apply the amendments to get their benefits? Can it wait as long as a week?Thank you:)

    • Phil on March 29, 2014 at 6:03 pm

      Absolutely. It’s just nice to do it while there are still holes for the compost/EM/etc. to fall into, in order to get the most benefit.

  15. walkingstar on June 10, 2015 at 3:09 am

    After lawn dressing, do we have to water it ?

    • Phil on June 12, 2015 at 2:57 pm

      Yes if you’ve overseeded, no if you’ve only topdressed (unless the lawn needs water of course, in which case you should water it).

  16. maynardGkeynes on July 20, 2015 at 9:22 pm

    What you say about dressing with sand is ill-informed. In particular, sand does not form a concrete-like surface with clay.

  17. Dottie on March 24, 2017 at 11:28 pm

    Thank you for all the great information. I have been searching for a turf care company to dethatch my hybrid zoysia lawn. Unable to find one, but found your site. Now I know why no one dethatches and how to take care of my 25 year old lawn. Events beyond my control had caused me to neglect it for a long while and I didn’t know how to begin restoration. Thank you so much for such a clear, comprehensive article.

  18. Douglas on April 2, 2017 at 11:23 pm

    I have zenith zoysia, it was put down as sod in Nov 2015 on top of very sandy soul with a very thin coat of topsoil. In hindsight I should have put much more topsoil down. I’m entering the second growing season in north Florida, the lawn is greening up but I have to water more then I expected otherwise it gets dry and crispy in just a few days. Im considering topdressing it to add nutrients and smooth it out a bit, should I airrate it as well? Also, I have high PH, close to the beach. What’s the best way to lower the level a bit. Thanks.

    • Phil on April 3, 2017 at 9:59 am

      You could definitely topdress with good compost – that will improve the water-holding capacity of the soil, among other things. The only reason to aerate would be to get that compost further down into the root zone. If you did that, you might want to add a mycorrhizal fungi inoculant, too ( https://www.smilinggardener.com/sale/mycorrhizae-for-sale/ ). And make sure you leave your grass clippings right on the lawn – they will gradually increase the organic matter content as well. As for pH, you don’t necessarily want to lower it. But if you do decide to send a soil sample to a good, organic soil lab and follow their recommendations, the pH will gradually moderate.

  19. Sam on May 3, 2017 at 12:56 pm

    Does adding compost to your lawn on a regular basis raise the grade of the soil? I’ve already raised all of the sprinkler heads in my yard once and I don’t want to have to do it again. Your thoughts on this would be appreciated.

    • Phil on May 7, 2017 at 10:39 am

      Good question. Yes, it will very slowly raise is, but I’m not sure what the rate is because the compost does get broken down over time as well.

  20. Rose on June 22, 2017 at 3:12 pm

    We have a Zeon zoysiagrass installed a year ago and half of it is greening up but half is still brown. We had it evaluated and were told that it has fungus because of probably irrigation preoblem as the clay soil is compacted. We had the brown patching treated with fungicide and had it core aerated and will topdress it with a compost. Should we topdress the green and good parts too or just the thin and still brown turf? Do we need to aerate and compost topdress every year? Thanks! Your reply will be greatly appreciated.

    • Phil on June 25, 2017 at 1:22 pm

      If you have the time/money to do the whole lawn, it’s always a good idea. Whether you have to do it every year depends on the health of the soil – healthy soil never needs it. It may be that do you do it once or twice and that does the job.

  21. Christine Bennett on June 23, 2017 at 6:40 pm

    What’s the best method for getting rid of clover, dandelion, and other weeds? We have bermuda that was laid probably 10 years ago and is well established over most of the lawn, but there are areas in the back that seem to be taken over by weeds.

    • Phil on June 25, 2017 at 1:35 pm

      It won’t get fixed overnight, but here are my top tips:
      -Soil fertility. If you send a soil sample off to a good soil lab, they will help you figure out which nutrients your soil needs – imbalanced soil fertility leads to weeds.
      -Soil biology. Applying good compost and/or compost tea and/or effective microorganisms will help strengthen the good grasses so they can outcompete the weeds.
      -Mow high. If you keep your grass tall, at 3 or even 4 inches, and only mow when really necessary, you’ll block many of the weeds. And don’t mow in the summer when it’s really hot and the grass is hardly growing.
      -Water. It’s okay to let a lawn go dormant in the summer, as that’s what grass has evolved to do, but just note that it leaves space for weeds to take over. If you want the lawn to stay healthy, water deeply and infrequently when needed throughout the hot months.
      -Bag the seeds. Normally we want to leave the grass clippings on the lawn as fertilizer, but when a weed is producing seeds, it’s worthwhile to bag the clippings and either hot compost them or get rid of them.
      -Corn gluten meal. It can sometimes work to control weeds in a lawn IF it’s applied correctly (before the weeds have germinated in the spring, the right weather conditions, etc.) every spring for 3 years. It gets quite expensive for a big lawn, but worth a try on a small lawn.
      -Cinnamon and baking soda. As a short term measure, you can try mixing 1/2 cup of baking soda with 1 teaspoon of cinnamon per gallon of water and spraying that on the weeds.

  22. Jake on July 2, 2017 at 2:08 pm

    My new lawn (turf) has become patchy after the spring this yeah. It was riddled with earth worms and I thought great they are binding it all together but they have just left dead patches every where. Thanks

  23. John Davison on July 7, 2017 at 6:03 pm

    I have read all the reviews on the site, I must say they have been very interesting. I was told this week to put lawn sand on my lawn, however, I am in a predicament, my lawn is old ?? not shaw how old as we have lived here for 10 years. I clarified the lawn a few times but told I am overdoing it. I have now perched some sand but the comments seem to be in conflict with each other. If you have an answer I would be most grateful. I have read in the articles to use compost/ home made compost??. thank you.

    • Phil on July 25, 2017 at 12:20 pm

      If your soil is already very sandy then top-dressing with sand can be helpful if you need to fill in holes. Other than that, there’s rarely a reason to do so. Adding sand on top of a clayier soil isn’t a good idea, and besides, sand doesn’t bring much benefit overall. Good compost, however, does.

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