I love the look of lush, green grass—it has a timeless, picturesque quality to it. This is certainly reinforced to me and my kids as I read them picture books, which frequently show lush lawns in front of a house.
Thankfully, there’s a simple secret that helps any lawn stay healthy and green throughout the spring, summer, and fall. Those of us who live in Manassas, VA (or the DMV area) know that the summer heat causes most of the yards in the area to turn brown.
What’s the secret to green grass and a lush lawn? Compost. Five simple steps go a long way to improving a lawn and helping it stay green throughout the full growing season.
Creating a beautiful lawn all starts with healthy soil. For years, I struggled to get any grass to grow in my backyard—it was an eyesore and tracked a lot of mud into the house. I was embarrassed.
When I finally looked below the surface, I found my problem—really bad soil. I had neglected my soil, then over-fertilized and overwatered it, and finally compacted it too much. It needed help and so did I. If only I had known about topdressing with compost when I started…
Topdressing grass is easy, effective, and hard to mess up. For lawns that are topdressed each year with a thin layer of compost, I find that the grass is greener, thicker, and has more even growth.
I love getting the phone call 3-6 months after a customer applies a compost topdressing—their lawn has become a source of pride and a great addition to their home's overall appearance.
This blog post is meant to give more information about using a compost topdressing. If you already know this is good to do and are just looking for the compost application steps, scroll down or check out my earlier blog post (from last year). Importantly, we make a topdressing compost that is specifically designed to be used as a—wait for it…—topdressing!
What is topdressing a lawn?
Topdressing grass is just adding a thin layer of compost (or soil—more on that later) on top of the existing lawn.
I’ve now heard many terms over the years. Soil dressing, surface dressing, lawn dressing, and topsoil application are the most frequent ones, and they all mean the same thing.
Topdressing our lawns with compost each year adds important nutrients and organic matter (back) to the soil.
While topdressing is a practice that has been used for centuries, it seems to have gained a lot of popularity in recent years as people become more aware of the benefits it provides, especially with the no-dig and no-till gardening practices gaining momentum.
Why should I topdress my lawn?
The compost, or compost mixture, improves the health and appearance of grass by providing essential nutrients, improving soil structure and water retention, and promoting better root development. The material can also help level out low or uneven areas, as well as help repair damage from pets, foot traffic, or disease.
Looking more into each of these things…:
Appearance: Compost helps grass grow greener and denser. I think this is the single best reason to use a compost topdressing. By providing a thin layer of organic matter and essential nutrients to the soil surface, a compost topdressing helps improve the overall health and appearance of a lawn. My grass is greener, thicker, and has more even growth. I love the way my lawn looks and, after so many years of failing, I feel really good about it.
Resilience: By improving soil quality and reducing thatch buildup, a compost topdressing helps to create a stronger, more resilient turf. This is particularly important for lawns that are used frequently, the grass gets a lot of wear and tear. A strong root system can help the grass to recover more quickly from stress and damage. This is a key reason why public parks and golf courses—places where lawn care professionals do their work—use a soil top dressing.
Less watering: Using a compost topdressing helps grass develop deeper roots. This means that I can water my lawn less frequently and with less water when I do turn on the hose, saving me time and money! Deep grass roots are especially important in the summer—the top of the soil dries out with the heat and the deep roots are what allow the grass to get the water it needs.
If you’d like a little more of the dirty specifics as to why compost topdressing does incredible things, compost does the following for grass.
Improves soil quality: Poor soil typically leads to poor grass. Compost topdressing, like soil amendments, can improve the quality of the soil for your lawn by adding organic matter and essential nutrients. This helps grass roots grow deeper and stronger, leading to a healthier and more attractive lawn. It’s those deep roots that help grass find water in our Prince William County summer heat. Over time, soil can become compacted and lose its ability to retain water and nutrients—compost changes this.
Reduces thatch buildup: Thatch is a layer of dead grass and other organic material that accumulates on the surface of your lawn. While a small amount of thatch can be beneficial, too much of it can suffocate your grass’s roots, make it difficult for water and nutrients to penetrate the soil, and increase the risk of disease and pests. Topdressing can help to reduce thatch buildup by promoting the decomposition of organic material (and improving soil quality).
Levels the lawn: If your lawn has low or uneven areas, topdressing can help level it out and improve its overall appearance. This is a rare case where I think that using a compost and soil mixture could be important; otherwise, I think that using pure compost is the best. In this case of leveling your lawn and you need to raise the level more than an inch, try to use a mix of local soil and compost so that it mirrors the type of soil beneath the grass. (Shameless plug—our topsoil is a blend of our certified compost and local, loamy soil and would be great for this!).
Repairs damage: A compost topdressing can help repair damage from heavy foot traffic, pets, or disease by filling in bare spots and promoting new grass growth. The lawns that have poor soil quality, are prone to disease or pests, or are heavily used, typically see the fastest and most notable changes from a compost topdressing, However, I’ve seen great results even for well-maintained lawns. Indeed, applying a compost top dressing once or twice a year will help any grass grow.
Enhances grass health: Topdressing can improve the overall health of your lawn by providing essential nutrients and promoting better root development. This can lead to a greener, denser, and more attractive lawn.
Improves water and nutrient exchange between the soil and roots. By providing a layer of organic matter and essential nutrients to the soil surface, topdressing can help to improve the exchange of water, air, and nutrients between the soil and roots. This is essential for maintaining a healthy lawn, as the roots need these resources to grow and thrive.
When should I topdress my lawn?
I like topdressing my lawn in the fall with compost. I have healthy soil and so doing this once a year is sufficient for my grass to grow well. By putting the compost down in the fall, I give the compost time to work into the soil throughout the winter so that it is replenished with organic matter and nutrients for the next growing season.
If you missed doing it in the fall, topdressing a lawn in the spring is also good.
I recommend avoiding doing a compost topdressing in the summer and winter. In the summer, the grass is already stressed from our Northern Virginia heat, and it needs to focus solely on surviving. In the winter, most grasses around Manassas, VA (like Kentucky bluegrass) are dormant.
In the chance that you’re reading this from outside of the DMV region (welcome!) and/or have used a warm-season grass, like bermudagrass and zoysiagrass, for your lawn, I’d try putting down the compost topdressing in the late spring (maybe early summer). I’d still avoid the winter.
How do I topdress my lawn? 5 easy steps.
To topdress your lawn, follow these steps:
1. Mow your grass
I like mowing to a height of 1.5’’ to 2’’ (inches). This gives me a balance of two important things. First, it is short enough that this helps get an even distribution of the compost topdressing and reduces the risk of small clumps. If I’m overseeding, this height also helps the seeds to reach the soil. Second, the grass is still long enough that a ¼’’ or ½’’ of compost isn’t going to cover the blades of grass. This is particularly important so that the majority of the grass blade still has access to sunlight.
2. Rake your lawn
I want to remove any dead grass, leaves, or debris so that my grass seeds (if overseeding) and compost can have direct contact with the soil’s surface. I love grasscycling but, when putting down a thin compost topdressing, I prefer getting as much of the grass up as possible and then adding it to my composting pile.
3. Core Aerate – optional!
If you’re going to core aerate your lawn, this is the place to do it. If I’m working with bad soil, I think this step is particularly important because it will help get the compost incorporated into the soil more quickly. This gives faster visual results. With my grass, however, I only core aerate every few years, depending on what a soil test says. I’ve got good soil that I’ve built up over the years for my lawn, so often skip core aeration and go right to applying compost.
4. Spread a compost topdressing
A thin layer that is ¼’’ to ½’’ (inches) is perfect. If I have bagged compost, I shake the compost directly out of the bag as I walk. If I have bulk compost, I just dump a wheel barrel full of it and keep doing this across the lawn. For my first load of compost, I typically dump it out and then rake it across the lawn. This helps me see how frequently I need to put the piles of loose, bulk compost so that my spacing is right. I use a rake to gently spread the topdressing compost across the top of the grass, taking care not to damage the grass blades. Raking it will help spread it evenly and allow it to settle against the soil’s surface.
Pro tip!: For larger lawns, I love using an old piece of thin metal fencing (this type of fencing isn’t used as frequently now compared to when I was younger). If I have a fencing piece, I just drag it behind me as I walk across the lawn and let this do the spreading for me. Larger landscaping contractors use blower machines—these are great if you want to spend a lot of money renting one. There are some compost spreading machines that you push—I like those, but not as much as dragging a fencing piece behind me.
5. Water your lawn lightly
Watering your lawn helps settle the topdressing material into the grass. I don’t use a lot of water in this step. I’m using just enough to clean off the grass blades so that they are clean and get plenty of sunlight. I’m also trying to help the compost (and any grass seeds) settle against the soil’s surface so that they can start to grow/go to work.
That’s it! A compost topdressing is a simple yet effective way to give your lawn the care and attention it deserves. Whether you have good or bad soil, or are a new or experienced gardener, these four or five easy steps will go a long way to giving you a lush, green lawn that is the envy of your neighborhood.
I always get immediate satisfaction when I apply compost topdressing. Because the compost is typically a dark color, the green grass is contrasted against a dark brown or black compost. This is beautiful, and I always feel better after spending some time in my garden when I can see an immediate benefit. (The actual soil health will take longer!)
Because I get a lot of questions about compost topdressing, I’m including some questions and answers that I frequently get at the end of this blog post. If you need help determining how much compost to use or how to buy a quality compost, please check out those pages.
Do I overseed my lawn before or after topdressing?
Overseeding a lawn involves adding new grass seed to an existing lawn to improve its density, color, and health.
I’ve seen people do it both ways and succeed with either one. Ultimately, we’re looking to grow grass, clearly both work.
In this case, I haven’t done a lot of research in this area. Thus, I’m going to share what I’ve done and seen work, and some loose logic that may suggest why it works (yes, correlation is not causation).
I put down grass seed after my compost topdressing if I’m core aerating. This means that I apply and spread my compost first and then spread the grass seed.
I figure (unscientifically) that I end up raking a lot of the grass seed into the holes if I put the grass seed under the compost topdressing. If the grass seed is deep in the hole, it won’t have access to sunlight to grow. Thus, it’s “wasted.”
Additionally, I’m using core aerating if the soil is poor (but not always). If I put the grass seed down first, it’s going to grow into the poor soil to start. If I put it on top of the compost, I’m giving it a healthier growing medium.
If I’m not core aerating my lawn—this is most of the time—I put the grass seed down first. This way it’s the same level as the rest of my grass and, because I’m only applying a thin laying of compost topdressing, I’m not preventing the seed from getting sunlight.
By the time I spread the compost across the surface of the lawn (especially if I’m raking vs dragging a fence), I’m going to be mixing the seeds with the compost as I do this.
I find that I have fewer birds in my lawn if I put the grass seed down before my compost. I’m assuming that this is because there is less grass seed that is visible for them to eat.
Do I need to core aerate my lawn when topdressing it with compost?
Core aeration and compost topdressing can be complementary practices for maintaining a healthy lawn. Core aeration involves removing small plugs of soil from the lawn to allow for better water, air, and nutrient exchange between the soil and roots.
Compost topdressing provides a layer of organic matter and essential nutrients to the soil surface, which can help improve soil quality and promote better root development. By combining the two practices, you can achieve the benefits of both and further enhance the health of your lawn.
If the soil is poor quality or compacted, I think it’s especially important to core aerate a lawn. This will help get the compost into the soil quickly so that it can work its magic and will give faster results.
Core aeration, however, is not always necessary for a lawn when applying compost topdressing. If your lawn has good soil quality and is not prone to thatch buildup, I wouldn’t core aerate before compost topdressing.
Should I use pure compost, or mix the compost with other things when topdressing my lawn?
I like using pure compost. It’s easier, cheaper, and has great results.
Golf courses will frequently mix sand and compost for topdressing their grasses, especially if they have done core aeration. They have spent a lot of money making the golf course—taking out soil and bringing in specially made soil—so they need to add a mixture that matches what is already there.
I think that this is a good case where what the professionals do is not necessarily the best practice for the rest of us. Certainly, we should learn the practice of applying compost to our lawn but I wouldn’t mix it.
Some YouTube videos suggest mixing 50% compost and 50% sand. Their idea is good—balance drainage, nutrients, and moisture retention. If you’re right on the water or have very sandy soil, this could be good.
If you live in the DMV area though, I’d caution against this. We have a lot of clay soil and adding a small bit of sand to it can make things much worse. Clay plus only a little sand can a harder clay (think cement) and this makes it even harder for your grass (or plants) to grow!
I don’t remember the exact quantities, but when I looked into adding sand to my clay soil at home, I needed to buy a lot. Since pure compost works well, then I highly suggest just doing this.
Freestate Farms makes premium landscaping products—compost, topsoil, and mulch—by recycling food and yard waste in Manassas, VA. Our composts, topsoil, and mulches are specially designed to increase the health and productivity of local soils, and with our focus on sustainable practices, this lets the environment and your garden grow good, together. We sell bulk compost, bagged compost, bulk natural mulches, bulk dyed mulches, bagged dyed mulches, and bulk topsoil.