Top dressing and overseeding is the absolute best way to renovate your lawn. If your lawn is showing signs of weakness, consider these steps to have your best lawn ever.
It happens to the best of us. Despite your best efforts, some years your lawn just goes to complete junk.
A lot of times things may look good in the spring, but as the heat of the summer sets in you can be overwhelmed with problems.
Weeds, fungus, grubs, and heat stress, can attack your lawn, and your sanity. As defeating as this can be, there is plenty of reason to be hopeful.
The cooler weather is around the corner and that means it’s the perfect time to top dress your lawn.
Top dressing your lawn, especially when combined with core aerating and overseeding, is the best way to renovate your lawn.
What Is Lawn Top Dressing?
Top dressing is the process of spreading a thin layer of material (usually compost or sand) over your lawn, or sections of your lawn. This layer is only about a 1/4″ and is meant to amend the soil of your lawn while letting the existing grass grow through the top dressing material.
It is important to be clear that when top dressing your lawn you don’t want to cover your lawn in a thick layer that suffocates it.
Instead, you are looking to improve soil conditions for your existing lawn while providing a good environment for new seed to germinate.
Benefits of Top Dressing
1. Improves Soil- Top dressing adds nutrients to your lawn organically and improves drainage.
2. Breaks Down Thatch- The top dressing material helps to break down the thatch layer in your lawn.
3. Levels Lawn- If you have areas of your lawn that are bumpy top dressing is a great way to smooth out these areas.
4. Helps Seed Germinate- If overseeding your lawn, top dressing allows seed to make direct contact with soil which is best for germination.
5. Helps In Renovating Distressed Lawn- If there are bare spots in your lawn, or if your lawn is being crowded out by weeds, top dressing is your best bet for correcting soil conditions and incorporating new seed.
Top dressing is even more effective when done after core aerating.
When Is the Best Time to Top Dress
The best time to top dress your lawn is when it is actively growing and you are heading into prime growing conditions.
For cool season grasses late summer/early fall is best.
You hear a lot of talk about fall being a good time to seed your lawn, but in colder climates you have to be careful. In some regions if you wait until fall, the soil temperatures will likely be too cool for germination.
For warm season grasses the best time to top dress is early summer. This is when warm season grasses begin to take off.
How to Top Dress a Lawn
1. Test Your Soil- If you’re thinking of top dressing your lawn, chances are you had some lawn issues come up. Now is a great time to do a soil test to make sure you correct any nutrient deficiencies or to see if your lawns ph needs a tweak.
2. Kill Lawn Weeds- A couple of days before you top dress, go around your lawn and spot treat any weeds using a good herbicide that kills weeds without killing your lawn.
3. Dig Out Bad Sections- If you have any areas of poa, bentgrass, or other clump forming nuisance grasses then it is best to manually dig these out using an edging shovel. These grasses can be tough to control with herbicides.
4. Purchase Quality Material- Purchase quality compost to add nutrients to your lawn. Purchase coarse sand if you want to add drainage. You can also mix compost and sand together to receive the benefits of both.
Make sure you don’t get a screened sand with a lot of fines, it could actually make your drainage problem worse.
Don’t skimp out and try to save money on this step. The whole reason you are doing all this work is to amend your lawns soil, so make sure you are doing so with a quality product.
5. Make Small Piles- Fill your wheelbarrow with your material and dump a bunch of small piles over your lawn. Dumping small piles will make it a lot easier to rake out later on and ensure that you are creating a thin layer.
6. Rake In Piles- Any rake should do the job but an aluminum landscape rake is best since it does the best job of creating a smooth layer. This is especially useful if you are trying to smooth out a yard that is bumpy.
Be sure to break up any clumps of compost and make sure you thoroughly rake out each area so it is no more then a 1/4” thick. There should be plenty of grass visible once your material is raked in.
7. Apply Starter Fertilizer- Apply a starter fertilizer. Starter fertilizers have a higher middle number which is phosphorus. Phosphorus helps in root growth and early development.
When applying fertilizer use a good broad cast spreader and apply twice in opposite directions. Just make sure you decrease the settings on your spreader accordingly.
For example if the bag of fertilizer says to set your spreader at a 3.5 then I set the dial to a 2 (rounding up) and apply twice in opposite directions. For a better understanding of fertilizer application rates check this out: Fertilizer Application
8. Apply Seed- After applying your starter fertilizer it’s time to apply your seed. Once again, use a broadcast spreader and apply twice in opposite directions.
Do some research before just purchasing any bag of seed.
Here in the northeast, you can’t go wrong using this northeast mix. It is definitely not the cheapest, which is good. You don’t want the cheapest! Stay away from the cheap stuff, especially anything that says contractors mix.
9. Irrigate- Don’t forget to setup irrigation! If you don’t have an irrigation system then check out this battery operated irrigation controller. You can schedule them to come on multiple times a day.
You can set up to 4 zones per controller and get atleast 2 sprinklers per zone. This will cover a lot of square footage and get you out of moving sprinklers all day.
The early to late summer weather can be unpredictable. Really hot days can pop up. Be sure to monitor the weather and plan for these hot days. New seed needs to be constantly damp to germinate.
Check Out These Posts Next
Lawn Care Schedule Using Only 3 Products
Lawn Dethatching: Everything You Need to Know
Kill Weeds Without Killing Grass
White Grubs: Prevention and Treatment
Join my free email list!
Plus, follow me on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.
Great information! Thank you from Ga.
Astrid Kamp says
Which lawns would benefit from aeration and top dressing? Lawns that have a soil depth of four inches or more will benefit from this treatment.
All lawns can benefit from periodic top dressing and aeration, especially lawns that are in distress.
Which type of grass seed would you recommend for best growth in Colorado
Where in Colorado are you located?
Lee Ann says
Hi. I am in zone 7 in Upstate SC. I was planning to work on my yard and had planned on waiting until September. Would you agree with that time? Also, I’ve been searching for the info you provide here and it’s clear and helpful! Thank you.
Hi , glad you’ve been enjoying the info! You’re in that transition zone where some people have cool season grass while others have warm season grass. Assuming you have cool season grass such as kentucky blue, fescue, rye, I would say late september is good timing in your area. This is when cool season grasses thrive and broadleaf weeds start to wind down. Just keep an eye on the weather and make sure you’re not entering a stretch of hot dry weather. Once nights start cooling off it helps to reduce soil temps which triggers a boost of growth for cool season grasses.
Jason Snow says
I bought a compost spreader (drum 24×18″). Seemed to work pretty well – do you have any thoughts on that versus using a wheelbarrow and dropping in places?
Compost spreaders are awesome. Definitely saves time, energy, and does a great job of an even, thin spread. Most homeowners don’t have one so I recommend using a wheelbarrow but a compost spreader is definitely superior.
Jarod Rinders says
Hi, thanks for the article! I’m in zone 5 and my lawns basically just weeds and crabgrass, I’m too cheap to rip it up and sod so I was going to roundup everything, top dress with 1/2” and seed in sept/oct, then fertilize and irrigate in the Spring. Do you think I’m on the right track?
Hi Jarod, If you think you have all weeds with no viable turf, then yes you can use round up to kill everything. But you’d probably be better off renting a sod cutter to remove the weeds, add some loam over the area and re-seed. I agree sod can be expensive but if you can seed instead it wouldn’t cost that much more and you’d have much better results then top dressing over a bunch of dead crabgrass. Just a thought but good luck!
Thanks for posting the information. I am in Southern Maine and it is mid Sept. I generally aerate in the fall. My lawn could definitely benefit from top dressing and overseeding. Is it too late this year? Should I wait until spring?
Thanks for any insight!
Hi Todd, You should be fine as long as you get to it asap. At this point I would recommend overseeding with perennial rye, or fescue, or some kind of cool season mix. The mix can even contain kentucky blue but at this point I wouldn’t overseed with straight kentucky blue. It takes forever to get established and time is running out. Hope this helps thanks for your question!
my front lawn is slope and has two big maple trees and due to erosion, big roots are very visible and some are above the ground, is it okay to put a regular top soil to cover the roots and aerate and put a layer of compost then apply the seed?
Hi Mario, Yes I would definitely cover the roots, rake smooth and then apply seed. Stay away with the aerator because it sounds like the roots are shallow and the aerator could damage them. You might want to stick to a seed that is a little more shade tolerant since its under trees. This will help keep it established and hopefully prevent erosion moving forward.
Mary Ann says
We just had the lawn aerated and would like to overseed today. Frost is expected overnight and I wondered if I should wait a few days. The weather should be in the 50’s for the next few days with possible temperatures in the low 40’s overnight.
I wouldn’t worry about the frost effecting the seed. In fact some people use a strategy called frost seeding where they seed in very cold temperatures and the seed will germinate when the weather warms in the spring.
I have a very, very bumpy backyard. I get the lawn aerated every year. Is it better to use a roller on the lawn first, before trying to top dress? The lawn is heavy clay – would a pure compost top dressing work OK?
Though I don’t have a thatch problem I’ve also wondered about using a power rake to try and take out some of the high spots.
Any thoughts are appreciated!
Hi Steve! For a very bumpy yard with clay soil I would recommend core aerating and then top dressing with pure compost. For a very bumpy lawn you might have to repeat the process next year, but eventually you should be able to smooth it out a lot. I would stay away from rolling it, especially since you have clay soil. That will cause even more compaction. Instead core aerating and top dressing will help work compost into the soil and that will help considerably with drainage and compaction issues. As for power raking, if you don’t have a thatch problem then power raking isn’t going to do much. A power rake won’t move the earth around or do any kind of leveling. They are designed purely to remove thatch. Feel free to check out the link here if you’re not sure how to check for thatch problems: http://plantforsuccess.com/lawn-dethatching/ Overall, incorporating compost is the ultimate approach to clay soil management. Your idea of core aerating and top dressing with compost is the right way to go!
Thank you Mark. Starting to plan the spring yard work and this is handy to know.
You’re very welcome!
Great article. Exactly what I want to read. I have a mostly dead yard of mixed grass and weeds. I’m thinking of killing it all (chemical) and starting over using a thick top dressing of compost in min NC. Clay soil. Thinking mostly compost? Low maintenance can survive in part sun. Thinking zoysia?
Hi Kyle, before killing off the lawn chemically, I highly recommend looking into a sod cutter rental. They do such a neat job and you can scrape out the root system of the old lawn. People usually underestimate how much work is still left after killing their grass of with chemicals. You still have to get the dead grass, and ideally the root system out. Once all that is removed, I agree compost is a good choice. If you really wanted to amend the soil you could put a top layer of compost down and till it into the soil and then put a final layer of compost on top that just gets raked out. Also, I agree Zoysia sound like a good choice. Pretty low maintenance and tough. Is great in full sun but can handle some partial shade.
Thanks for the reply. Unfortunately a previous owner used sod years ago and left the layer of nylon netting that is now about an inch or so below the surface. I’m not sure how effectively I can use a sod cutter or tiller. I am also dealing with a lot of small corners and edges. Haha, it’s a mess. I’m not looking for perfect, the goal is to get something closer to grass and less wild strawberries.
I understand… then by all means try your top dressing approach. Another option is to spot spray or blanket spray the whole lawn with a product like Ortho Weed B Gone leading up to your lawn renovation. This will kill weeds but leave the desirable grass. Then you can top dress the whole lawn and seed. You’d be surprised how many disaster lawns I’ve turned around with this approach. Much better then nuking the whole lawn. Just a thought, hope that helps!
Thanks again. What are you thoughts on torching weeds/lawn? Might this be an alternative to chemical?
Honestly I don’t know too much about it but I know some people who do it. My understanding is you can burn your warm season lawn in late winter early spring right before its ready to come out of dormancy. This kills weeds and thatch but my understanding is the grass comes back and the char acts as a natural fertilizer. If you go down this route check locally to see if there are any restrictions on this due to safety.
How long after applying the weed killer can a top dressing be done? Will the selective herbicide loose effectiveness on broadleaf weeds that are covered by the top dressing?
Hi Paul, I would let the herbicide have three days to get soaked into the weeds before applying the top dressing. The weeds won’t be dead by then but they will be in the cells of the plant by then and will eventually kill them. At that point they shouldn’t be as disturbed by the top dressing and should die. Now, if you are going to apply seed I’d be extra careful since most herbicides require you to wait about 3 weeks after application to apply seed. Tenacity herbicide however, with the active ingredient Mesotrione can be used at the same time as seeding and will not effect germination of grass seed. That’s why it’s my go to herbicide whenever doing a seeding job.
I just did a top dressing on my lawn of compost and half of my lawn has turned brown. Any tips I’m definitely confused on this one
Hi Josh, where are you located? It could be a number of different things, and could even be a temporary shock. If you spread the compost too thick it could suffocate existing grass. Also if the compost you put down is still breaking down it could be given off too much heat. feel free to provide some more info in terms of grass type and location and walk me through your process.
I’m in SE Wisconsin and I have a few problems. Bumpy lawn, lots of dandelions, some bare spots, and just had a new concrete driveway put in yesterday so that area needs grass. I do aerate spring and fall for the past 3 years. My big question is it okay to top dress right now?
Plus we have a puppy now, what’s the safest way to kill weeds and fertilize?
Hi Jamie… my favorite herbicide leading up to a renovation is Tenacity. Tenacity is non toxic to people and pets after the herbicide has dried. So as long as you can spray the weeds and let it dry for several hours you are safe! I prefer to wait until the fall for top dressing, especially now that we are getting near the summer season. If you have an irrigation system you should be fine to top dress now, otherwise you definitely need to make sure you set up sprinklers so you can water your newly top dressed lawn throughout the summer. You’ll see weeds pop up if you top dress now, but during the fall you can apply the Tenacity again. Eventually if you keep feeding the lawn the weeds grass will take over and the leads will be out competed. In terms of fertilizer, Milorganite 6-4-0 is made from bio solids and is almost completely organic. It’s not the best starter fertilizer though. I would use the 12-12-12 Starter Fertilizer by Yard Mastery (you can look up and order online). It is more safe than the pure synthetic fertilizers.
Derek Vieira says
I am looking to do the full works soon on my lawn in Livingston Mt. Weed Killer, soil test, core aeration, overseed, fertilizer, top dress.
My question is if a soil test is performed how do you account for then added the nutrients of the compost to the lawn? Would the compost nutrients be negligible in the end and shouldn’t be factored into any other amendments to the soil?
Great question Derek… think of compost as being super slow release in terms of nutrients. Compost will increase microbial activity and supply a steady stream of nutrients to your lawn over time but in addition to it you need to use fertilizers that will deliver a quicker supply of nutrients. In terms of soil testing I would test your existing soil and then add compost. If you were to take a sample from the compost you wouldn’t be getting an accurate reading of your current soil conditions.
If the compost has small twigs in it, will that affect the lawn? I’ve screened some in the past but am looking at a bigger workload this time around.
Charles Reynolds says
Hello Mark, Your thoughts on using a roller after top dressing? I suspect that since we are only putting down a thin layer of top soil that using the roller is not necessary? With that said, if you are doing a new lawn from scratch would you always use a roller to finish the job? Thanks Charlie R.
charles reynolds says
Hello Mark would appreciate a reply to my question about when the best time is to use a lawn roller? This was the original question: Hello Mark, your thoughts on using a roller after top dressing? I suspect that since we are only putting down a thin layer of topsoil that using the roller is not necessary. With that said, if you are doing a new lawn from scratch would you always use a roller to finish the job? Thanks Charlie R.
Chris Nordell says
Hi, I’m located in MN. I’m planning on topdressing this spring. I have a nice lawn but a lot of clay and thin roots. I purchased a commercial top dresser and I’m planning on ordering a clay soil amendment blend consisting of pine bark, organic compost, fibrous coarse peat and coarse sand. How early can I top dress in my climate and what rate would you recommend for healthy grass? The grass is still mostly brown and frost is probably 50% out. Thanks for any input!
Hi Chris, I would wait until soil temps are at a 5 day average of 50 degrees to pull the trigger on this. Grass seed won’t really germinate until 55 degrees. Monitor soil temps at Green Cast Online so you can be ready to go. I’d aim for an application rate of 1/4″.
Hello. I live in coastal NC with sandy soils and ground pearls are a problem. So I have some bare spots and with invasive Oxalis weeds around bare spots. I just had our lawn aerated 2 weeks ago. Can you advise me what should I do . My grass is zoysia empire and some areas are thin some are good. The grass is also slow in getting out of dormancy. Is sodding my best bet. I heard zoysia grass seeds are hard to grow? Thank you.
Hi Maria… If you have zoysia grass that is very thin, to the point where it is pretty much non existent I would either lay sod or plant zoysia plugs. You should be able to find both locally. However, if I you just have a thin lawn I would follow my lawn care plan for warm season grass here: https://plantforsuccess.com/lawn-care-program-warm-season-grass/…. You’d be surprised how much you can turn around a lawn just by feeding it and maintaining it correctly. Especially Zoysia since it spreads quickly. I would spot treat the weeds with a liquid, lawn safe, herbicide such as Atrazine.
Adrian B says
Hey there Mark,
I have a North Texas (DFW area) yard with Bermuda grass, I think. It was sodded in clay when we purchased our home in 2018. Is clay bad for Bermuda grass? It’s been extremely difficult to get the grass to a completely green/healthy state having this soil type. Our lawn care service provider of 4 years cuts and fertilizes, but there hasn’t been any improvement. Is there a recommended grass type that performs better in clay? I had fescue before but the foundation was dirt/soil, not clay and it thrived. I loved the green of that yard. Now the only time I see green is when I look at my bushes. I agree aerating will be helpful, but I’m not sure which of the options you’ve provided will work best. What options and products do you recommend to use so I can get that golf course looking grass? I am not opposed to changing from Bermuda, but the may get costly. As James Brown begged “PLEASE! PLEASE! PLEASE!” Help my grass grow.
Hi Adrian, where you are located I would stick to Bermuda grass over Fescue. Honestly, Bermuda is one of the better choices for clay soil and it’s an aggressive spreader. That being said, if you have a very clay lawn there are things you should do to amend the soil. Top dressing with compost after core aeration is definitely one thing that could help. You can also use liquid aeration and apply some other products that will help break down the clay. Check out my post on growing grass in clay soil here: Clay Soil.
charles reynolds says
Hello Mark, I live and service lawns in a retirement complex in MA., and this year the drought conditions has been very difficult to deal with. Strict town watering bans are in place to the point that the water department actually came to each home and severed the inground water sprinkler systems. I kid you not! My customers beautiful lawns burnt to a crisp! So, now it is fall, right after Labor Day I was out aerolating and overseeding, used milorganite as a starter fertilizer. Waited 3 weeks, a total bust on all lawns. The same procedure that I used with huge success the year prior! Such a disappointment! Now, I am beginning to suspect that the burnt grass which is now technically thatch should have been roughed up and removed. I am also wondering is my Lesco weed and feed I used for 2 seasons may have negated the germination process even though Lesco says no! This Labor Day I am going to top-dress, seed and use starter fertilizer to bring back the lawns. Running out of time, this is my last hurrah for the season on lawn repair. Please, your thoughts and comments on everything I wrote about. Many thanks, Charlie R. PS: A article on how to deal with lawn care in drought conditions with be very beneficial!
Kelvin H. says
What are your recommendations for mossy areas? Do I need to remove the moss before compost application?
I would do whatever you could to remove as much moss as possible. A firm raking, and core aeration will definitely help. Also what is the cause of your moss? Is it lack of sunlight or is it more of a poor drainage issue/neglected lawn issue. Core aeration and top dressing will definitely help with drainage and maintaining a healthy lawn will also block mulch from forming.