A nice, thick lawn requires healthy soil as its base, but it’s difficult to make changes to the soil once grass has been established. Most gardening recommendations include “working” organic matter into the soil through digging or tilling prior to planting, but this can’t be done once the grass has grown. So what’s a homeowner to do with an established lawn that’s in need of some serious help?
If done properly, the technique of “top-dressing,” or adding a thin layer of soil over your lawn, can improve the soil without killing the existing turf. Top-dressing addresses some common lawn problems, including:
- Low spots due to rotting tree roots, settling after underground pipe or cable installation, or erosion.
- Uneven terrain caused by winter freezing and thawing, water runoff, tunneling critters, or general soil settling over time.
- Compacted soil in high-traffic areas or low-lying places where water pools.
- Bare spots from variations in soil texture and nutrients, heat, drought, or other environmental damage.
- Depletion of nutrients due to leaching, neglect, or repeated use of chemical fertilizers.
Top-dressing gradually improves soil over time. As organic matter breaks down, it filters through the existing soil to improve texture and overall health. Top-dressing can:
- Improve drainage and drought-resistance
- Even out the terrain
- Reduce the need for supplemental fertilizers
- Transform your lawn into organic, low-maintenance, healthy turf
When to Top-Dress
Ideally, do it in early fall or spring since you’ll want to give your grass time to grow through 3-4 more mowings before severe heat or cold, especially if you are overseeding. It can be done all at once, or in stages. I know one meticulous gardener who top-dresses small patches as he finds them, whereas I brought in a truckload of top-dressing mixture and had an autumn marathon.
Top-dressing involves some physical labor, but the process is really just a few simple steps:
Step 1: Aerate
Lawns should be aerated every 2-3 years, and if yours is due, start with a nice core aeration. Core aeration removes plugs of soil from the ground and leaves channels for air, water, and our top-dressing mixture to penetrate the surface. For more information, see our article on Adventures in Aeration.
Step 2: Prepare Your Top-Dressing
You can make your own top-dressing using a mixture of:
- Sharp sand (not sea sand which contains lime)
- Loam or topsoil (a fine crumbly soil that is neither clay nor sandy)
- Peat (or compost if your soil needs a nutritional punch, but be prepared for sprouting weeds!)
For average loamy soil, mix these three ingredients equally. For applications on clay soil, reduce or eliminate the loam/topsoil. For sandy soil, reduce the sand. Your ingredients need to be dry and sifted until there are no clumps larger than ¼”.
Another option is to purchase high-quality top-dressing mixture or bagged lawn soil. Check with your local landscape supply yard – they often have a blended topsoil mixture on hand. While you won’t be able to guarantee the proportions, it’s economical and sold in bulk.
Step 3: Apply Top-Dressing
Now you’re ready to get started. Working a few square feet at a time, shovel out a small mound (maybe 2-3 shovelfuls) of mixture onto your lawn.
Spread the soil using something flat, like the back side of a heavy garden rake, working it into aeration holes and covering low spots. Make sure the top-dressing is no more than 1” deep (preferably ½” or less) over the existing grass.
Keep working the mixture until your grass peeks through and the depth is even. I like to flip the garden rake back and forth from the flat side to the tine side, carefully combing the grass to get the top-dressing mixture settled on the soil surface.
For low spots requiring more than a couple of inches of top-dressing, first remove the existing sod to prevent underground decay that can damage new grass seedlings. After filling in the low spot, either replace the old sod or re-seed the area. You can also address deeper spots by adding a couple of inches of top-dressing each year, slowly building it up over time.
Step 4: Water and Adjust
At this point you’re technically finished, but in my experience a good top-dressing mixture does some settling. I would recommend watering the area well (or top-dressing before a nice rain), letting the mixture settle for a day or two, then go back with your rake and smooth out any little hollows or bumps that may develop.
Step 5: Plant Grass if Needed
Now you can replant grass in any bare spots. Existing grass should be able to grow through as much as an inch of top-dressing.
How Often to Top-Dress
Trouble spots may need repeat applications, but regular, uniform top-dressing does not need to be an annual tradition. Keep in mind that you’re adding soil, which over time will raise your grade and affect thatch breakdown and soil ecology, so don’t go overboard. Plan several light applications for troublesome yards, rather than one deep one. For overall organic soil amendment, a very light application of top-dressing brushed into aeration holes can improve the soil without raising the grade.
The information on danny lipford’s site is great; however, I tried numerous times to reprint article on topdressing and am unable to . Any clues as to why??
I just tried printing it (click on print button, then click on the print button on your computer), and it worked okay for me.
Where can a good topdressing product be purchased?
I’m with Mike, where can you buy topdressing? HGTV’s Paul James found a perfect topdressing, but they taped over the name on the bag.
Peatmoss is great…mix with sand will make the peat moss go much further…
Will adding lots of grass clippings over time add to the depth of your topsoil?
(I am thinking maybe 1/8 inch a year)
I was thinking this would be the way to improve the soil. I am going to get a load of really good organic soil delivered to our place. I hope also rototilling a few inches of good organic soil into concrete-like non organic soil that is hardly letting our grass grow in some areas will improve it. -Do you think so? any ideas on that?
will topdressing work to reestablish a front lawn that is nothing but weeds over time? I am thinking topdressing, mix in some seed,and slowly bring back somewhat of a healthy mix. Then maybe adding some weed and feed to gradually make more improvement. I’m thinking several seasons not an overnight improvement, its about an acre.
Ffor a large area, is there a way to mechanically spread the soil, such as with the types of spreaders used to apply fertilzer?
Could I use a regular Spreader and buy some dry or let dry before using, top dressing and just make multable passes with the spreader on my lawn every few weeks to improve my lawn. Using this process might take a long time but growing grass in CLAY is not happening. Thank you, Jerry
if the soil has a clay problem – then applications of Gypsum are called for. The gypsum allows the clay to soften and the water percolate through the clay and breaks down the clay. The gypsum should be applied once a year to maintain the soil and prevent the “hardpan” of the clay from forming.
what will improve my lawn as it is surounded by forest and the soil has a very high acid content .What can i do?
many thanks Clive
I have still got holes showing in my lawn after aerating removing deep plugs,I have top dressed it with 4 parts sand to one of topsoil( my lawn is on a lot of clay) will these holes fill in naturally?
I am in a new home (less than two years). I am told my soil is sandy loam but it is vey high in sand content and it since I saw the home being built, I know that the soil is the same consistency as deep as they dug to put in my basement. Water just seems to go straight to China. I plan to add top-dressing over several years. (I am bordered on two sides by farm fields so I have quite a bit of weeds and field grass.) I am very hesitant to aerate. Thoughts?
What to do in Florida sandy soil area where runoff has taken quite a bit away and is showing large roots?
a couple months back the beginning of grass leaving and dirt only showing appeared. It continues jumping alll over what was a weed/grass lawn. Almost can watch it. No fungus, not wet, but very rock hard soil. Big job. We will buy the top soil and peat moss but it it cost worthy to hire a dump truck full delivered and have them smooth out. Age is catching up with us and we love green grass! Thanks much for all the great help!
I live in Northern Virginia and bought a house with a yard that had not been well maintained for several years. For the past 18 months, since I bought the house, I have selectively added a bag of Home Depot’s standard TOP SOIL about every week or so. I pick low spots, bare spots, places that are not even, etc. I do some overseeding, unrelated to this, and a little fertilizing as normal. However the 1-2 bags of top soil every couple of weeks ($4.50) has really made a difference in the yard. I plan to do this forever, I think. It is slow, and you don’t see the results for a couple of months. The top soil is hand applied like brown sugar over an apple tart. I recommend this if you have the patience. A single application (1-2 bags) will have no negative impact on the yard and I don’t rake–it just drops between the grass. I know every yard isn’t the same, but this is my primary yard additive, and my grass is also looking much better than when I bought the house.
Using the same chemical fertilizer is really a no-no since it’s unhealthy for the soil. And also planting grass is another good method to improve the soil because it also holds the soil from erosion.
I had my septic system replaced last year. Our soil is a gravely mix. The septic ‘digger’ did not remove any top soil when he dug in for the septic pipes and drain field. Much of my grass in that area now has lots of gravel in it, and, consequently the grass grows very poorly. Can I improve the soil without adding truckloads of dirt so my grass will grow better?
I would like to bring some topsoil in, so that I might take care of some uneven terrain in my yard. My question is, would the winter months be a bad time to execute this process since my zoyzia grass is now dormant?
If you put earth on the lawn during winter to level it – uneven lawn – will this kill or harm the grass?
I was installing sod in some bare spots in our backyard. My first step was I tilled the soil, place about 1″ of Scotts Lawn soil into the bare spot,worked the new sod into place and topped dressed with more Scotts over it. My question is will this help seat the sod and allow the roots to grow or am I just defeating the purpose and killing off this new sod in these spots.
You said that grass would grow through 1 inch of Top dressing. My grass is dead and I only covered it with a 1/2 inch of top dressing. I Cover it until I could just see the old grass coming through. I seeded it and then put a thin cover over the seeds. A very small portion of the original came through. How is this dead grass going to affect my lawn and the new seeding?
This is a well-written article. I would like to know if there is any value in applying peat moss to a garden in late fall without grass seed, as the lawn seems to have difficulty retaining moisture (possibly because of two large trees nearby with roots under the lawn). If there are any other preferred treatments for late fall in zone 5b (Northeastern States, southeastern Canada), please let me know.
My mom started getting topsoil every year to help her garden. I’m usually the one that has to come over and spread it out too. I’m not sure she watered it though after we dressed it, I think we just left it there. I’ll have to ask her this year if she does that. Thanks!
Of all the online research I’ve done and several landscapers I spoke with, I believe your article offers the most detailed information on the topdressing process. My soil and seed when on last week. I’m watering every day with high hopes for positive results on my 3 year old new construction lawn.
The article appears that it will be helpful, but I have a couple of questions. 1. There are A LOT of weeds, and also moss in my sister’s lawn. What should be done about those, and when? I know she would not want to use any weed or moss killer. The point of getting the lawn healthy is to make it hard for the weeds and moss to grow in it. The grass has been terribly neglected for many years. My guess is that she would NOT want to have the current lawn completely removed and then start over. Thank you for your help!
We laid new lawn in July this year and would like to know if its a good idea for top dressing now considering the current drought.
We have a client who would like sand added to his garden beds during tilling. We are in Southern Manitoba. How much sand do I add to help him?
We keep reseeding bare spots in our lawn for the past 3 years. We have good so said lawn seed make our own compost with some DG and potting soil never seems todo much. Rabbits have made some bad problems what am I doing wrong?
Add mushroom soil to your lawn. Mushroom soil is high in organic material and nutrients. Some areas it can be purchased from your local landfill at a fraction of the price of topsoil.
Great Tips on Top-Dressing and the aerator. Thank you.
I was talked into ‘top dressing’ by the company that applies fertilizer/weed killer to our lawn 6-7 times a year.
We have a new house, rolled lawn, and I was told the top dressing would smooth out all the holes/divots in the lawn and also help the grass.
The price was a hefty 925.00 for doing just the FRONT yard since the side yard and back yard sloped more than 14 degrees, preventing their high tech hopper/spreader from dispersing the sand.
SO…. Approximately 2,800 sq ft. was done.. with sand.. and they did not aerate first. Was I taken for a ride?
Living in Charlotte NC we have woodland soils high in clay and sand. My yard was compacted and full of weeds. Over the past two years i’ve aerated twice a year and then reseeded, top dressed with an inch of compost over the lawn repeatedly. Now after two years the lawn is thick and green much healthier. Aeration and top dressing with compost is very effective.
Geez Louise! I have learned that the clerks at most businesses are 80% BS! I thought I was speaking with knowledgeable clerks at a local landscape supply – not! In the fall of 2017, I spread two-(2) cubic yards – first Erth Food and second bulk topsoil; the Erth Food really produces a “Chicken Shit Grass” and the top soil felt and looked more like sand: I spread these 2 cubic yards across the front yard and part of the back yard that surrounds the swimming pool. This effort essentially and effectively “Killed” our lawn. In the spring and summer of 2018 our lawn became a carpet grass, crab grass and weed producing “Monster”! Who can you trust these days? Through spring and summer I continued to spray weed killer – many brands all over the lawn: it was futile, so I commenced to lay sod – the poor man’s process by using hand tools only. I had to dig out the weeds with a shovel and two-(2) rakes for nearly seven-(7) rounds of purchasing twenty-(20) pieces of “classic Saint Augustine (C-SAS)” sod per trip. Thank God I met Johnny W. at the landscape supply! Johnny has his own irrigation and lawn business: he was a gift from God he offered a very cost saving tip. Johnny overheard my conversation with the landscape supply clerk: I purchased three-(3) pallets stacked with the C-SAS; Johnny followed me home and commenced “scraping” our front yard and scraped the side yard twice with that rugged machine; the front yard and side yard look a thousand times better after the “Erth Food” and “Bulk Topsoil” devastated and killed our lawn. I know I will need topsoil again, but sadly it is nearly impossible to find a honest broker that sells good topsoil as described in your article.
I live in Brisbane Australia and these tips are the best I have seen,. We have had only 3 ml of rain in 2 months and my front lawn which was green has burnt thanks to some lawn seed which I applied and it burnt the grass. I have now aerated my compacted lawn, pulled all the weeds out. gave it a light mow, then I applied my composted soil that has worms all over. Fingers crossed for a lush green lawn.
Buy a few 4×8 pieces of plastic lattice panel.
Lay them flat on your grass. Dump a wheelbarrow or few bags of soil on top. Use the back side of a grader rake to filter the soil through the lattice holes.. move panels and repeat process. Now the compost or amended soil left behind on the grass May be 1/2 inch or more where there are uneven ground. Since only 50% of the ground is covered use the backside of the rake again to spread the layer of soil. You will end up with a nice even dress. Of about 1/4 and also a more even lawn.. Apply seed and water in as desired at this point. Seed will mix with existing lawn and top dressing. Apply granulated powders lime with hand as it is difficult with a spreader as it is dense.PH value and fertilizer effectiveness will be immediately enhanced. You cannot over lime but be generous it’s cheap., this is much like putting A nice black pepper on your meal. Your body will absorb the nutrients considerably better. Rick The FARMER.
Thanks for sharing, Rick!