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Top Dressing Your Lawn: Everything You Need to Know

Closeup of young fresh green grass in the soil
Mazur Travel / Shutterstock

In the last several years, top dressing lawns has become a popular practice to improve lawn condition. What is top dressing and how is it beneficial to your lawn? What are some best practices for top dressing lawns? What products can make doing so easier and result in a more beautiful lawn? Let’s find out.

What does top dressing a lawn do?

Top dressing a lawn involves applying natural, organic mulch (compost) to a lawn to help it produce healthier, greener grass. The mulch controls thatch, prevents weed growth, adds nutrients to the soil in a natural, time-released way, and levels the surface. This reduces the need for lawn fertilizers and herbicides, though when these are applied, the effects are optimized, producing a more lush, beautiful lawn.

When should I top dress my lawn?

The best time to top dress your lawn depends on the type of grass you have. Warm-season grasses should be top dressed in the spring while cool-season grasses should be done in the fall.

Examples of warm-season grasses include:

  • Bermuda
  • St. Augustine
  • Carpetgrass
  • Centipede grass
  • Zoysia grass

Examples of cool-season grasses include:

  • Kentucky Bluegrass
  • Bentgrass
  • Ryegrass
  • Fescue grass

3 steps to top dressing your lawn

Top dressing a lawn is a natural way to ensure the best grass growth. And while it doesn’t have to be complicated, top dressing is still a time-consuming process. This is the reason many landscapers do not promote this service; the time-to-cost tradeoff makes profits thin.

Unless you are eager to spend a lot with your landscaper, the best thing to do is learn how to top dress your lawn yourself. Here are three steps to top dressing lawn areas on your property:

Step 1: Assess your soil

There are two factors in assessing your soil: type and pH.

  1. Determining what type of soil you have is as easy as giving it a close look and feel. (Or if you prefer a more thorough test, try the jar test from Farmer’s Almanac.)  Tip: If your yard has sandy, coarse, or textured soil: Do not use a sandy loam composting material. The fine sand will fill air pockets in the soil and ruin the structure.
  2. Test the pH level. Plants grow best with a soil pH between 6.0 and 7.0. If the soil pH is lower, choose a compost that raises the pH. Test again every few days after application until the pH is balanced. A simple pH test tool is a must.

Step 2: Determine the best top dressing materials for your grass

Choosing the right top dressing material is key to a healthy lawn. Choose a type that matches the topsoil already present. If the soil is already quite sandy, use a compost that contains more sand. If the dressing material does not match what is present, use a compost mixer to evenly blend the materials.

If the soil is mostly clay, then it will be important to break up the clay and add a well-blended top soil that matches the rest of the yard. To create an even surface, you may need to dig out the clay and replace it with the soil blend.

Step 3: Select the right tool for top dressing your lawn

Apply top dressing materials sparingly. No more than 1/4 inch should be applied at a time, otherwise the top dressing can be detrimental to healthy grass growth.

Ensure you add the right amount by using a good spreader. These can be purchased at any lawn center or on Amazon.

Step 4: Getting it dressed

After you have determined the right pH and nutrients in the soil, you will add your chosen compost material and top dressing to the compost tumbler. Blend the two well, then add them to the spreader. Alternatively, if you use a pre-blended lawn dressing, there is no need to blend the compost.

Set the spreader to about 1/4 inch and apply it evenly across the lawn. If you find any clumps of lawn dressing on the grass after doing this, break it up by hand and spread it. You should see a very light coating of lawn dressing because most of it should fall between the blades of grass.

Products and tools you’ll need for top dressing lawns

You will need both hand tools and simple mechanical tools. At one time, the only way to spread the composting material was with a shovel, swinging it in a broad, sweeping motion. This was very time-consuming and often produced uneven results.

Today, there are several products available to make the job easier, though it still remains rather tedious. Some of the products recommended for top dressing a lawn include:

  • Compost Tumbler. Because soil can differ even between neighboring lawns, you will need a compost tumbler to blend your top dressing materials. A tumbler is an especially good option for composting beginners.
  • Garden Tutor Soil pH Test Strips Kit. You will need a pH testing kit, and test strips are the most cost-effective, accurate tools available.
  • Agri-Fab 100 lb. Tow Spreader. A good spreader is necessary. If you have a large lawn, this one will attach to your riding mower so that you can both cut the grass and spread your top dressing at the same time.
  • Scotts Turf Builder Classic Drop Spreader. For smaller yards, use this handy push spreader. The simple design is easy to use and provides an even application.
  • Yard Butler Twist Tiller Aeration Hand Tool. Sometimes difficult, packed soil like clay will need to be broken up to permit the top dressing to work. This hand tool also allows you to apply foot pressure in the center to make the task easier.
  • 63-Inch Adjustable Garden Leaf Rake. After spreading, there are two ways to get the top dressing down closer to the roots: Watering or raking. If you prefer to rake the area, this is the ideal tool. Also, since most watering is best done in late afternoon or evening and you want the top dressing worked into the grass as soon as possible, the timing of your job may require raking the surface instead.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the purpose of top dressing a lawn?

Top dressing lawn areas helps smooth the surface, reduce thatch buildup, prevent weed growth, protect against dehydration, encourage core aeration of the soil, and modify the soil profile or composition to encourage healthy growth. In other words, the purpose is to produce a beautiful, lush lawn.

Will grass grow through top dressing?

Yes. Provided you do not spread too heavy a layer of top dressing, the grass will grow just fine. Just be sure that no more than 1/4 inch is added and that it is spread evenly across the lawn.

What is the best top dressing for lawns?

The best top dressing for lawns largely depends on the health of soil. Test the pH of the soil to determine the best lawn dressing product. Options include sand, prepared soil mix, compost, or a mix of these.


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