How to Top Dress Your Lawn with Compost

If you’re looking for an easy way to improve the quality of your lawn, top dressing could be the answer. Compost is a natural fertilizer that helps to improve soil health, and when applied to a lawn, it can help to reduce weeds, increase water retention, and promote healthy growth. In this article, we will cover how to top dress your lawn with compost, and the benefits of doing so.

Wheelbarrow full of compost to be used to top dress a lawn.

What is Top Dressing?

Top dressing is the addition of a thin layer of material to the top layer of your soil. 

The material you use to top dress your turf can vary depending on the needs of your lawn.

Common choices for top dressing include:

  • Sand
  • Compost
  • Topsoil
  • Peat moss

Before top-dressing your lawn, it is always best to have a soil test to determine if soil amendment is needed to meet your goals. 

It’s also a good idea to get whatever medium you plan to add tested as well to ensure it meets your lawn and soil requirements.    

Benefits of using compost to top dress a lawn

Hands holding compost for lawn.

There are many benefits of top dressing a lawn with compost. Some of these benefits include:

Improves Soil Health

Top dressing with compost can help to improve the overall health of your lawn’s soil.  This is because compost contains organic material with a variety of nutrients that are needed for a healthy lawn. 

Some of these essential nutrients include nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. 

Reduces weeds

Compost can help to reduce weeds by smothering them and preventing them from getting the sunlight they need to grow. 

Improves Water Retention

Compost also has the ability to hold on to water and increase the holding capacity of water in your soil.

When your lawn is able to hold more water you can decrease irrigation time and improve the drought tolerance of your lawn. 

Please note, that if dealing with sandy soils or extreme soil compaction, your lawn may benefit from the addition of compost and its moisture-holding capacity.  On the other hand, if you have clay soil, moisture retention is not necessarily needed and compost may make your soil structure less than desirable for a quality lawn or turf.

Promotes Healthy Growth

Compost top dressing can also help to promote healthy growth in your lawn. 

This is because compost provides a slow and steady release of nutrients, which helps to encourage strong root development and reduce stress on the grass plants. 

It is important to note that top dressing with compost is not a quick fix for an unhealthy lawn. 

Top dressing is a long-term strategy that should be used in conjunction with other lawn care practices, such as mowing, watering, and fertilizing. 

When Should You Top Dress a Lawn?

New Lawns

Although not always possible, the best practice for adding compost to your lawn is to add it before you have grass and to till it into your native soil. 

The addition of compost works best within the structure of the soil when it’s between 4-8 inches deep. You can accomplish this by tilling the compost into your soil to ensure the compost will be in the root zone of the grass.

This will lead to better availability of nutrients and water holding capacity where the plant needs it most.

After completing this step you can sod or overseed your lawn at the ideal time of year.

Established Lawns

That being said, if you have an established lawn, you’re not going to want to destroy it by tilling compost into your soil.

In that case, it is best to apply the compost to the surface of your lawn is growing at a vigorous rate.

For cool season grasses this is going to be in the early spring and early fall.  Cool season lawns will consist of Kentucky Bluegrass, Rygrasses and Fescues. 

Warm season grasses like Bermuda, Zoysia and St. Augustine grasses are growing at their peak in the warmer early summer months.  Soil amendments like compost are best applied during this time.

How Much Compost Do I Need to Top Dress my Lawn?

When applying compost and tilling bare soil it is best to use 1 inch of compost for every 1,000 square feet of lawn.

If you’re adding compost to an existing grass it’s best to use ¼ inch to ½ inch of compost for every 1,000 square feet of lawn you have.  

How to Top Dress a Lawn with Compost

Raking debris from lawn to prepare for top dressing.

Step 1: Prepare Your Turf

When adding compost or sand to your grass it is best to bring down the height of cut of your grass by about ⅓ of your normal mowing height. 

If your lawn has a thatch layer or a lot of dead material it is important to remove any debris before adding compost. You can dethatch your lawn manually with a rake or dethatching machine.

Skipping this step may lead to fungus or the inability of water to bypass this layer and make it to the soil and root system.

Now is also a good time to aerate your lawn.  Removing plugs of soil and creating aeration holes will help to improve thatch decomposition, reduce water runoff and puddling, as well as increase infiltration of oxygen, water and nutrients into the soil.

Step 2: Spread the Compost

After mowing and removing dead debris you can spread compost by renting or using a compost spreader. 

This is the easiest method as you can just fill it with compost and push it in parallel passes to disperse your chosen material. 

This method works well because it will not allow for larger pieces of debris or sticks, that are commonly found in compost, to pass through the mesh screen on the roller during application. 

If you don’t have access to a roller it is best to use a shovel and a wheelbarrow or garden cart to transport the compost throughout the different areas of your lawn. 

Use the shovel and a throwing motion to disperse a thin layer of material where it’s needed. You can take this opportunity to level out any low spots by filling them with more soil.

After the yard is covered you can go back through with a rake or lawn leveling tool and rake your material into the lawn and soil. 

It is important to make sure the grass blades remain exposed as failure to do so may suffocate the grass as it reduces its ability to get sunlight and in turn, might kill it. 

Step 3: Water

After top-dressing your lawn with compost, it is important to water the area.  This helps the compost material to settle in, release nutrients and start to work quickly. 

Tips for top-dressing your lawn with compost

  • Choose a compost that is low in salts to avoid burning your lawn
  • If making your own compost make sure the process is complete to ensure that any weed seeds in the compost have been killed.
  • For best results, top dress your lawn when the grass is actively growing
  • Be sure to rake or spread the material evenly to prevent smothering the grass.
  • Water after top dressing to help settle the compost

Top Dressing FAQ’s

Q: What else can I use for top dressing?

A: There are a few other materials you can use for top dressing, such as sand, manure, or even topsoil. The best choice will depend on the type of soil in your area and the needs of your lawn.

Q: How often should I top dress my lawn?

A: Top dressing should be done every one to two years, or as needed. If you notice that your lawn is starting to look thin or patchy, top dressing can help to improve its appearance.

However, topdressing your lawn will raise the level of the turf, so be sure to allow time for settling in-between applications.

Q: Can I hire someone to topdress my lawn?

A: Yes, top dressing is a common service that lawn care professionals offer. If you’re not sure how to top dress your own lawn, or don’t have the time, hiring someone to do it for you is a great option.

Q: Can I top dress my lawn in the winter?

A: Top dressing can be done in the winter, but this really depends on the type of grass you have. No matter what, it is best to wait until the grass is actively growing. Topdressing in the winter can kill the grass if it is not done correctly.


Top dressing is an easy way to have a healthier lawn without having to put in a lot of time or money.

By top dressing with compost, you will be able to improve soil health, reduce weeds, and promote healthy growth. Be sure to follow the tips outlined in this article to ensure that you complete the process correctly for the best results that will keep your lush lawn looking great all season long.