Top Dressing Lawn With Compost: A Complete Guide

Once, I was sitting with one of my uncles, a faculty member of the agricultural institute at my university. We were working to make the playground lawn perfect for the athlete. Because our intra-university football tournament was about to start that day, I had a very deep conversation with my uncle about top dressing lawn with compost. 

He said that a healthier lawn comes with healthier soil. And to improve the health of the soil, adding compost is the most fruitful option ever. Compost contains some basic nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, as well as a portion of micronutrients to feed a lawn naturally. Adding compost to your lawn has many other benefits as well. For proper banishment and better cultivation, topdressing your lawn with compost is a must.

Topdressing with compost adds organic matter to the soil. The beneficial microorganisms provided by the compost can turn organic fertilizer and minerals in the soil into plant-available nutrients that the lawn’s roots can take up.

You can topdress your lawn with compost when the ground is warming up. But if you want a better result, topdress your lawn right after aerating. Topdressing lawns with compost will also get better results while overseeding a lawn.

What is top dressing a lawn?

Top dressing is the process of spreading a thin layer over the surface of something. But here we are going to discuss top-dressing your lawn. In this case, top-dressing a lawn means spreading a thin layer of soil, sand, or compost over a lawn.

You can add enough compost to create a balanced nutrient for your lawn, but not so much it risks smothering it. It requires spreading ¼ to ½ of an inch of compost over the grass while top-dressing your lawn.

A combination of rain, wind, soil organisms, and human actions will help the compost move through the grass and soil and work like magic.

After spreading the compost over the lawn, rake it in or water it. You can wait for the rain as well. And after this, the compost is down into the soil and starts working.

The problem with compacted Soil and Thatch

The problem with compacted Soil and Thatch

Compacted or thatched soil creates many challenges, including less water infiltration and limited pore space for oxygen. It creates an unstable nutrient system to reach the turf’s root zone. The nutrients aren’t absorbed into the grass when applying fertilizers. So basically, homeowners are wasting their time, effort, money, etc.

If you want to reduce soil compaction, core aeration is one of the best ways because it creates plugs in the soil, which help the surface loosen up and carry water, oxygen, and necessary nutrients into the root zone.

Top dressing with compost will help you reduce compaction in the long term. Compost also provides many helpful nutrients, including carbon, for increasing microbial growth and overall lawn performance.

If you want to feel like an authentic turf enthusiast, take a pulp out of your lawn and observe the area, just the upper soil surface. Which is known as the “thatch layer.”

½ inch of thatch or less than that is a good thing, but remember that excess thatch can be harmful by reducing water infiltration, increasing disease activity, weed growth, and other harmful impacts. 

Here, aeration and topdressing with a good compost prevent over thatch on two fronts: The aeration practically breaks up the thatch layer, while adding compost will help in the chemical breakdown of the thatch; this is not so special but useful for your lawn.

The Benefits of Top Dressing

The Benefits of Top Dressing

There is no alternative except top dressing to get the best lawn. Top dressing helps aerate compacted soils as it works down into the soil. It occurs when every soil organism works to digest the compost and open up microscopic pore spaces within the soil. If aerating seems like a hassle, regular top dressing will help.

Normally, a top dressing is just ¼ of an inch thick, which contains all of the nutrients in your lawn and ensures an entire season’s worth of growth. Having clover in your lawn will be good enough because clover leaves are rich in nitrogen, which helps eliminate the need for extra artificial fertilizers while the clippings are left in place.

With very little nutrient leaching, the compost releases nutrients slowly over a long period. This means little to no nutrient runoff can pollute waterways and groundwater. And to solve this, if you spread a mere ¼ to ½ inch of compost on your lawn, it will ensure most of the nutrients it needs to flourish.

Why is compost the best top dressing for lawns?

Compost is a suitable way to topdress a lawn because:

  • First, it is easy to distribute the compost over the turf.
  • It perfectly balances macro and micronutrients slowly released over a certain period.
  • Quality compost has a perfect pH level that is neutral or close enough to neutral.
  • Compost has the food elements that feed your lawn. 
  • Compost is filled with beneficial microbes that digest the compost’s organic matter and slowly release the nutrients into the soil.
  •  It also breaks down the thatch. 
  • One of the major benefits of compost is that you can make it on your own.
  • You can get leaf compost for free from the local municipality’s giveaway made from our local leaf collections.
  • And last but not least, microbes digest the grass clippings and return them to the soil as growth-fueling nitrogen.

When to Top Dress lawn with Compost

Spring could be the best time for top dressing before the lawn “greens up” and in the mid to late fall but before the leaves drop from the trees.

Most homeowners top dress their lawn twice a year, with a ¼ or ½ inch of compost each time. Others opt for once a year at least. 

Mainly, the compost works down to the roots. So spread the compost over your lawn when there is an increased chance of regular rainfall, which could help move the compost down toward the roots of your lawn.

How to top dress your lawn with compost?

Here are some steps you must follow to top dress your lawn with compost 

Step 1: Determine how much compost you need

A default layer of compost is only ¼ to ½ inch thick, which is applicable for established lawns. Thicker layers will make your grass smoother and mess with its vital functions. This sort of compost application is called “top dressing” in general. While getting your soil ready to grow new grass, you could be more magnificent by applying compost.

Before planting your lawn’s seeds, ensure a 1 or 2-inch layer of compost in the top 4 to 6 inches of your soil. I recommend 1 inch if the soil is healthy and 2 inches for very sandy, heavy clay, or soil that lacks organic matter. 

Here is a table for how much compost you’ll need for existing and new lawns based on your lawn size.

For Existing Lawns

Lawn Size 1/4-Inch Compost Layer1/2-Inch Compost Layer 
1,000 square feet27 CFT56 CFT
5,000 square feet108 CFT216 CFT
10,000 square feet 216 CFT432 CFT
20,000 square feet 432 CFT810 CFT

For New Lawns

Lawn Size 1-Inch Compost Layer2-Inch Compost Layer 
1,000 square feet 81 CFT162 CFT
5,000 square feet405 CFT810 CFT
10,000 square feet 810 CFT1620 CFT
20,000 square feet 1620 CFT3240 CFT

Step 2: Choose the appropriate compost

Compost should be produced through a hot composting process. The biological microbes should give off more than 140-degree heat. It neutralizes the weed seeds and pathogens in the compost inputs. If you buy compost from someone or a marketplace, ensure all these things.

On the other hand, if you use homemade compost, test the compost pile with a thermometer while it is active. In terms of buying compost, consider some tests before buying it, such as touching the compost. It should be free of stones, glasses, plastic, and any other harmful element that is not environmentally friendly.

The earthy smell from the compost matters a lot. When you press the compost in your hand, it is supposed to clump together well. At the same time, it is supposed to break apart easily. If your selected compost fails to pass these tests, don’t buy it.

Step 3: Distributing the compost

To distribute the compost, you will need a wheelbarrow with bags or loose compost, and you will have to dot the lawn with small compost piles. Three or four shovelfuls for each of the piles. The piles require space for spreading out the compost, ensuring full coverage with no lawn gaps.

A compost spreader is practical and can distribute compost evenly across my lawn. There are many types of compost spreaders on the market, so picking one that works best is important.

Related post: Best compost spreader for lawn

Step 4: Rake the compost on the lawn

The compost should be spread evenly over the lawn. There are so many ways to do this. My uncle suggested I use a metal rake (for large lawns).

It feels like pulling part of a chain-link fence behind me. You should spread the compost in every corner or direction to get full lawn coverage. And be careful to make the compost layer thin enough so the grass blade is visible over the compost layer. Applying compost to a lawn can be very irritating, but the following proper steps will make you feel more comfortable doing this job.

Some steps are given below that will help you apply compost to your lawn. Applying compost to your lawn will be much easier if you follow these steps.

  1. Mow your lawn and uproot the garbage, like clippings and leaves.
  2. Spray the lawn seeds on the bare patches.
  3. Use a shovel to spread the compost. If your compost is large enough, then use a perfect compost spreader.
  4. Slightly rake the compost while raking it to cover all areas; maintain a layer ¼ to ½ an inch thick.
  5. You can water your lawn to settle it, or you can let it settle.

Step 5: Water in

Keep in mind that a perfect amount of water is important. Don’t apply a heavy amount of water. It will help to get the compost out of the ground instead of letting it stay there for the lawn. A polite application of water will help the compost go down to the soil and help grow the grass blades, which will come up to the soil and won’t be smothered.

Step 6: Repeat steps 2–5 Every few months 

Top dressing your lawn in the spring and fall helps it grow by feeding it the nutrients it needs. These two seasons are the main growing seasons for lawns. I prefer you to continue these steps; you will see how your soil improves and helps grow a healthy lawn over time.

Other Natural Nutrients to Feed Your Lawn

The best natural nutrient that grass can have as a nutrient is grass itself. Grass clippings ensure the exact ratio of nutrients for the grass. It can provide 25% of the nutrients your grass needs over the year. It helps the grass retain moisture by balancing the temperature. 

Buying or making compost is time-consuming and expensive, while recycling grass clippings is less labor-intensive. Even applying the compost is extra work, while you can get the same benefit from the clippings on your ground. 

After cutting down the grass, it remains where you have to apply the compost for the top dressing of your lawn. Also, leaves drop on the lawn in autumn; you can decompose them to feed the lawn. This way, you can save money and time for another task. 

When to Supplement Your Lawn With Organic Fertilizer

Though applying compost and grass clippings will reduce the need for supplementary fertilizer, this exercise can not completely replace fertilizer.

Milorganite is a very synthetic, organic, and completely slow-release fertilizer that will properly feed your lawn for three or four weeks.

Fertilizer will help the grass in many ways, including proper growth and a deep, emerald green color. The lawn will be thick. Besides, the grass will be able to withstand foot traffic and stop weeds from taking hold.

The perfect application time for Milorganite in the northern regions is between Labor Day and Thanksgiving, where cool-season grasses dominate. Ensure two applications of that fertilizer and a 10-week gap between applications.

On the other hand, the perfect application time for southern regions of warm-season grasses should be in the spring, right after the grass breaks its winter latency, and the second application should be placed again around Memorial Day. The application between Labor Day and early October will be enough for the Fall.

Challenges to overcome when top dressing lawns with compost

  1. You must ensure proper lawn watering to avoid any drought activities because of having a new compost on your lawn and to start working the compost properly on your soil.
  2. You must ensure a proper compost spreader to properly apply the compost in the fenced area. Because the special compost spreader is 36” or larger. If you have a smaller compost spreader, you won’t be able to apply the compost to the fenced area.
  3. A compost spreader covers a certain path. If the lawn is narrower, the spreader won’t be able to spread compost in that area.
  4. The compost spreader should be able to spread properly on the steep hillside. But in the case of slopes, it will definitely work better.
  5. One of the major problems with the compost spreader you will face is that you can’t apply the compost up or down steps or stairs with the spreader.

FAQs About Top Dressing With Compost

How do I spread compost on a large lawn?

Generally, a small spreader can’t cover a large lawn. A large lawn requires a better piece of equipment. Here, mechanical topdressing spreader machines can help. Though it will save considerable time, it is slightly pricey. But it has the advantage of preventing large clumps or unfinished compost nutrients from getting into the grass.

Can you spread compost on a lawn?

Spreading compost on the lawn is a very common practice nowadays. Ensure a thin layer while spreading compost on your lawn. A proper amount of water will help the compost settle into the grass. It provides the soil with necessary nutrients and makes the soil fertile and the lawn healthier.

How do you spread compost on existing grass?

A lawn spreader will be none other than the best option. Ensuring an effective absorption of the compost’s nutrients depends on how you spread the compost on your lawn. You can also spread the compost by hand, but it will be more time-consuming and probably not the most effective.

Can you put compost on top of the soil?

Yes, you can put compost on topsoil. It will automatically go down the soil and work properly. But mixing it before application will help to break down the compost faster and ensure nutrients to your lawn quickly.

How much compost do I add to my lawn?

It depends on the land area and the condition of your soil and lawn.¼ to ½ inch of compost is a standard quantity for application to the lawn each season.

Final verdict

So everyone wants to have the best lawn in their garden, playground, or anywhere else. But to get something best, you should put in your best effort. Top dressing with compost could be the nuclear weapon to get the best grass ever. Also, top dressing the lawn with compost will cost less than top dressing with fertilizer. Even the raw materials for preparing compost are very cheap. It is an organic way to supply the proper nutrients to make the soil fertile. If the soil gets fertile, it will work in favor of lawn growth. You must follow some instructions in this article for top dressing with compost. These instructions will help you top-dress your lawn successfully.

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Jeffrey Bromley
Jeffrey Bromley

Jeffrey Bromley is an experienced lawn care professional with over 13 years in the industry. He is the owner of The Lawn & Landscape Company and the founder of Lawn Gardeners Blog. His passion for lawn care extends beyond his business ventures, with a personal commitment to helping individuals take better care of their yards.

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