Your lawn is an integral part of your property’s landscape, and when it isn’t looking its best, it can become a source of frustration. Uneven surfaces, bald patches, and poor soils all contribute to a less than perfect view, but luckily there is a solution that can help improve the health of your grass.
Top-dressing a lawn is a practice of applying a thin layer of nutrient-rich soil to the surface of your existing grass. It is a technique that can solve a wide variety of common problems, and is very easy to do on your own without investing in expensive tools. Read on to learn about top-dressing to improve the soil in your lawn.
What is Top Dressing?
As mentioned above, top-dressing your lawn is the technique of applying a thin layer of nutrient-rich soils to an existing spread of grass. It is a practice that is applied to well-established, existing lawns–in addition to regularly applying high quality lawn fertilizer–that are in need of a soil amendment. Over time, soil can become compact and loose nutrients, resulting in uneven surfaces, bald patches, or stunted grass growth.
To amend soils most gardeners will tell you to mix in new soils to what you already have, but this is a difficult process if you don’t want to destroy the lawn you have carefully cultivated. Luckily there is a way to help amend soils without tilling up or ‘working’ in something new; this process is called top-dressing.
Not only does the soil benefit, but so does the overall surface of your landscape. This is a great practice to help even out the ground, fill in holes, level areas that have settled, etc… If you lay it down heavy, you can always reseed over it as well to fix areas in need.
Why is Lawn Soil Important?
Vegetation needs a few simple things to grow, and the soils they rest in are crucial to their overall health. Soil holds the nutrients and moisture required for plants to thrive, but if nutrients are lacking, wash out the soil after fertilization, or are too dry to hold moisture this can become detrimental to plant health.
It is actually very normal for soil to ‘weaken’ over time, hence why we fertilize, but sometimes this isn’t enough. Top-dressing adds organic materials directly to the soils to help create balance for healthier growth.
When Top Dressing is Appropriate
This is an easy enough practice that can be applied when you start to see your grasses struggling to green up and grow. If you notice browning or thinning areas it might benefit from an application. The same thing goes for when you find yourself having to water or fertilize more often than usual to keep it looking green.
Some other common problems top-dressing takes care of include:
- Smoothing out areas that have settled, such as over rotting tree roots, erosion, or underground pipe installation.
- Leveling low areas that collect water.
- Help balance compacted soils due to high traffic.
- Bare spots from heat or stress, drought, or other environmental factors- such as animal tunneling, digging, or marking.
- Depletion of nutrients due to over-fertilization, neglect, or leeching.
Benefits of This Practice
There are many benefits to consider when you decide to top-dress. When determining if this is the best process for your lawn, think about the following:
- Reduces high traffic stress
- Relieves compaction problems for grasses to take better root
- Sandy soils will be better able to retain water
- Helps reduce thatch build-up
- When combined with core aeration helps amend soils and place organic matters deep into the soil
- Can help reduce lawn disease
- Can help reduce the need for fertilizer
- Improves drainage
- Improves drought resistance
- Evens out the terrain
- Builds up healthy bacteria for decomposition
What to Consider Before Top-Dressing
There are a few things to consider before you begin this process. To start, you want to ready your lawn and also choose the best top-dressing for your needs. Don’t worry, this isn’t as complicated as it sounds.
The pH of your soil is critical to your lawn health. Too low, and fungi and diseases will proliferate, too high and the bacterias good organisms feed on will not be present. You want a good balance with a neutral to slightly alkaline result. This is an easy process that allows you to apply a base, such as lime or wood ash over your lawn to help increase pH, or iron sulfate, acidifying nitrogen, and organic mulches to lower it.
Choosing Your Top-Dressing
Top-dressing a lawn is almost exclusively done using a compost like material. Since your goal is to build up the soil structure to help support healthy micro and macro organisms, it is important you choose the proper compost mix to meet the needs of your lawn. Some people like to blend topsoil or sand with their compost as well. Be sure that you do not increase sand if you already have sandy soils, or apply a heavy mix to grasses that thatch, as it will build up on top rather than work into the soils.
Lawns truly should be aerated every 2 to 3 years, more if it is prone to high traffic and/or compaction. Aeration can occur in a few different ways, everything from using special tools that roll over the lawn to a deeper coring technique can be used. This technique removes plugs of soil to allow water and nutrients to reach the root layer of your grass. It also helps loosen compacted soil and is a great step to take prior to top-dressing to ensure your application mixes into the ground well.
When to Apply
This process is best done in early spring to help work with emerging grasses, or early fall to help prepare soils and vegetation for winter. Since you are introducing nutrients you want them to be available to actively growing lawns.
This also does not need to be an annual practice unless you have some areas that need special attention on a regular basis. It is a good practice to do every few years as you feel is needed. Also, keep in mind that you can apply multiple light applications rather than one heavy one depending on the results you are looking for.
Steps to Top Dress Your Lawn
Step One Aerate and Dethatch
If you are on an aeration schedule, doing so prior to ‘dressing’ the lawn is a great practice as described above. You also want to dethatch the lawn to help expose the soils for enrichment purposes.
Step Two Mow Lawn Short
You also want to mow the lawn as short as you can without scalping it. This allows the soils to be exposed to the best application.
Step Three Prepare Top-Dressing
A common mixture includes sharp sand, loam, and peat to form a nutrient-rich base. Clay-like soils can reduce the loam, while sandy soils can reduce the sand. Be sure to dry and sift the ingredients so you don’t have any clumps larger than ¼ inch.
Step Four Apply the Dressing
To apply the dressing simply find a place in your yard to start and place a shovelful of the mixture in a mount. Take a garden rake and spread it out, ensuring it works into the aeration plug holes (if you have any) and is spread evenly.
Make sure it is no more than 1 inch deep were needed, but try to keep it between 1/4th and ½ inch deep. Keep spreading until the grass is peeking through, flipping the rake from the tinned to the flat side to help level it out.
Step Five Water and Adjust as Needed
Give your lawn a good watering and then watch over the next few days as the application begins to settle. If you begin to see issues with coverage or how well it is leveled you can go back and adjust as needed.
Step Six Overseed if Needed
If you had thick areas or needed new grass, now is the time to overseed those spots. Do so once you have a good even application in place and then water as needed.
If top-dressing was a new concept to you, hopefully, you have been introduced to a process that can help improve your landscape quality. Whether you have struggling grasses or uneven terrain, this is a way to address many common lawn issues in just one application.
Top dressing to improve your lawn is simple, inexpensive compared to other, costly treatments, and is a very effective practice. If you have any tips you want to share or questions to ask please do so below! And, as always, pass on the info!