Home Improvement Expert Danny Lipford

Top-Dressing to Improve the Soil in Your Lawn

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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.

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17 Comments on “Top-Dressing to Improve the Soil in Your Lawn”

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  1. Gail Callahan Says:
    September 20th, 2010 at 3:09 pm

    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??

    Thanks

  2. Official Comment:

    Ben Erickson Says:
    September 27th, 2010 at 12:29 pm

    Hi Gail,
    I just tried printing it (click on print button, then click on the print button on your computer), and it worked okay for me.

  3. Mike Says:
    March 28th, 2012 at 10:45 am

    Where can a good topdressing product be purchased?

  4. James Says:
    May 8th, 2012 at 5:41 pm

    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.

  5. Joey Says:
    May 13th, 2012 at 10:10 pm

    Peatmoss is great…mix with sand will make the peat moss go much further…

  6. Todd Says:
    July 7th, 2012 at 10:04 am

    Will adding lots of grass clippings over time add to the depth of your topsoil?

    (I am thinking maybe 1/8 inch a year)

    tchike5@gmail.com

  7. Dave Says:
    September 5th, 2012 at 12:10 pm

    Very Good!
    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?
    THANK YOU

  8. marty Says:
    October 11th, 2012 at 8:26 am

    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.

  9. Tim Says:
    October 12th, 2012 at 11:52 am

    Ffor a large area, is there a way to mechanically spread the soil, such as with the types of spreaders used to apply fertilzer?

  10. Jerry Vitzthum Says:
    July 26th, 2013 at 3:53 pm

    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

  11. Paul Says:
    September 8th, 2013 at 2:08 am

    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.

  12. CLIVE Says:
    September 10th, 2013 at 7:02 am

    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

  13. Brenchie Says:
    March 27th, 2014 at 8:39 am

    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?
    Many thanks

  14. Tom Mustian Says:
    May 6th, 2014 at 3:54 am

    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?

  15. Shelly Says:
    July 3rd, 2014 at 12:16 pm

    What to do in Florida sandy soil area where runoff has taken quite a bit away and is showing large roots?

  16. Barbara Says:
    August 18th, 2014 at 8:24 am

    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!

  17. JB Says:
    September 1st, 2014 at 9:27 pm

    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.

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