Topdressing a Lawn: How To Do It and Its Benefits

Top dressing strip next to a strip of patchy grass

If your lawn is plagued by weeds and disease or just looking a little lackluster, topdressing might be the solution. This simple lawn care technique can turn your struggling landscape into a showstopper.

What is topdressing?

Topdressing is the process of spreading a thin layer (¼-inch thick) of organic material on top of your lawn to amend your soil. You can topdress your entire yard or focus on bare spots and combine it with overseeding to fill them in. 

Topdressing is the best way to rejuvenate your lawn without pulling up all your grass (which is a pain) and starting over. As your grass grows through the layer of topdressing, the organic material is incorporated into the soil beneath it, adding nutrients and improving soil quality.

What materials can you use for topdressing?

There are three options for topdressing materials:

  1. Sand is commonly used on golf courses because it improves bounce and resiliency. It can improve drainage in heavy clay soils. 
  1. Topsoil helps smooth out the ground but doesn’t contain a lot of organic matter. It’s an inexpensive way to make your topdressing material go farther.
  1. Compost is recommended for all soil types. Use a compost that’s mature and screened with a fine particle size and a pH between 6.5 and 8.0. Look for these qualities on the label.

Most people use a mixture of the three to save money. A mixture works as long as you include compost and know what kind of topdressing material is best for your current soil type. 

Choosing the best material for your soil type

You’ll want to use a topdressing material that’s comparable to your current soil. If you use something drastically different, like a sand-heavy topdressing mix on top of clay-rich soil, it creates a distinct layer that inhibits air and water movement. Instead, you want to use a mix that encourages incremental changes. 

To determine what kind of soil you have, grab a handful of damp soil from your yard and rub it around in your hands.

How the soil feelsSoil typeTopdressing material
StickyHigh clay contentCompost
GrittyHigh sand contentSand, topsoil, and compost
Fine, soft, slightly dampLoamTopsoil and compost

How much material do you need for topdressing?

To amend a home lawn, ¼-inch is the recommended layer of topdressing. That means you need 0.77 cubic yards of material to topdress 1,000 square feet. 

To find the amount of material needed for your yard, multiply the square footage of your yard by 0.77, then divide by 1,000. 

Example: If your yard is 800 square feet, the calculations would be as follows: 

  • 800 x 0.77 = 616
  • 616 ÷ 1,000 = 0.62 cubic yards of topdressing material needed

How to topdress your lawn

DIY or call a pro to topdress your lawn

Topdressing isn’t necessarily complex, but it is labor and time intensive. If you don’t have a power rake or an aerator to break up the thatch layer, it’s easier to hire a professional to topdress your lawn. Alternatively, you can rent a power rake from a local hardware store (like Home Depot) for about $40 to $70 per day. 

Tools you’ll need for DIY topdressing

  • Power rake or aerator
  • Lawn mower
  • Regular rake, shovel, or garden fork
  • Wheelbarrow
  • Grass seed (if overseeding)

8 steps to topdressing your lawn

Step 1: Use a power rake or core aerator to break up the thatch layer so the topdressing material can penetrate the surface. Thatch is the interwoven layer of living and dead materials between the grass blades and the soil. It can block topdressing materials (along with water and other nutrients) from ever reaching the soil. 

Step 2: Remove grass clippings, loosened thatch, or plugs of soil (from lawn aeration) from the area you’re going to topdress.

Step 3: Mow the grass as short as possible within its recommended range.

Step 4: Spread grass seed if you’re overseeding. This is a great chance to grow new grass because the topdressing will help speed up seed germination. 

Step 5: Shovel a small amount of your chosen topdressing material over a few square feet at a time. Fling the materials with a motion like hitting a hockey puck to spread the material over the lawn in a ¼-inch layer. Alternatively, you can use a peat moss spreader for compost as long as the compost material is dry and screened. Screened compost has gone through a filtering process to separate out the large particles. 

Step 6: Gently rake in the organic material after spreading, then water your lawn well to move the material down to the soil surface. 

Step 7: Avoid heavy foot traffic on your lawn for the next week and wait 7-10 days before mowing again. 

Step 8: Watch and wait. It may take a few seasons to see the full benefits of topdressing, but you should see improvements in drainage and water retention within a few weeks.

When to topdress your lawn

Topdress your lawn while it’s actively growing. If you have a cool-season grass type, topdress in late fall. If you have a warm-season grass type, topdress in late spring. 

While topdressing benefits any lawn, homeowners should especially consider it if they notice any of these signs in their grass:

  • Consistent disease 
  • Yellowing of grass leaves
  • Grass that stays wet and squishy hours after you water it
  • Persistent weeds
  • Bald patches

It’s best to topdress the lawn no more than once every few years because the process raises the grade of your lawn. Raising the grade too much can lead to drainage issues and erosion. If you’re only focusing on bare patches, feel free to topdress whenever necessary.

6 benefits of topdressing

Topdressing helps with a lot of aspects of lawn care. When done properly, it cuts down on your lawn’s fertilizer and general maintenance needs. 

1. Improves soil aeration

Soil organisms break down the compost and cause little air pockets to open up. This aerates the soil so grass roots get more oxygen and water can penetrate the ground.

2. Improves soil quality

Topdressing adds a lot of nutrients to the soil, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. It also improves the soil’s cation exchange capacity — its ability to hold nutrients and water. This gives you greener grass.

3. Adds beneficial soil microbes

Compost carries beneficial soil microbes. Soil microbes break down organic material through the chemicals in their body. Part of that process fixes nitrogen, an essential step before plants can absorb the nutrient. They also help control diseases and regulate carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorous levels. 

4. Helps seed germination

All of the benefits of topdressing make it a valuable player for seed germination, which is why it goes hand in hand with overseeding.

5. Levels lawn

Poor lawn grading can cause drainage issues that may lead to fungal disease and erosion. Topdressing smooths out uneven areas in the lawn.

6. Breaks down thatch

Thatch is an interwoven layer of dead and dying grass leaves, shoots, and roots that can (if too thick) inhibit air and water movement. The microbes in compost break down the thatch, allowing water to flow freely and bring nutrients to roots. 

FAQ about topdressing your lawn

1. What’s the difference between basal dressing and topdressing?

Basal dressing is an application of chemical fertilizer added in a topdressing fashion.

2. Is topsoil the same as topdressing?

No. Topsoil alone can help you even out your lawn, but it does not contain the beneficial nutrients, texture, and microbes of a compost mixture.

3. How much do the materials for topdressing cost?

You can get the materials at your local garden center. Topsoil costs $12 to $50 per cubic yard. Sand costs between $15 and $40 per cubic yard. Compost varies widely, but it’s always less expensive to buy in bulk. You can purchase 1 cubic yard of screened compost for $30 to $80, and garden centers often deliver. 

4. Should I fertilize before or after topdressing?

If your yard is due for fertilization, apply it a few weeks before topdressing. 

Don’t know where to start? 

If you don’t have the time or the tools to take on topdressing yourself, call a local lawn care pro. A landscaping company in your area can topdress your lawn and maintain it once it starts growing strong and healthy.  

Main Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Rachel Abrams

Born and raised in Gainesville, Florida, Rachel Abrams studied creative writing at the University of Virginia. She enjoys volunteering at her neighborhood community garden and growing herbs in her New York City apartment.