How to Make Compost and Top-dress Your Lawn


Sep 14, 2019

Share the Love!

After a healthy dinner or snack – we’re not talking a bag of tortilla chips and a hot dog, folks – you are often left with scraps of fruits and veggies, or maybe some eggshells. Do you toss these inedible parts in the trash?

If so, you could be doing your lawn, wallet, and the environment a big disservice. You can keep these leftovers out of the landfill and turn them into valuable compost that you can later use to top-dress your lawn.

Here’s how you can turn those scraps into homemade compost to top-dress your lawn, and help keep your grass green and lush year-round.

What is Compost?

How to Make Compost and Top-dress Your Lawn 1

Compost is basically worm and micro-organism poo. Yes, poo. When you toss your scraps in the compost bin or pile, the decomposition process begins.

Causing this decomposition are tiny micro-organisms consuming the leftovers and excreting what we know as compost. Worms do the same, but on a far larger scale than micro-organisms, which is why earthworms are a welcome sight in any compost pile.

After months of waiting, some careful stirring, occasional watering, and a few “oh my goodness, that stinks” moments, you are left with nutrient-rich compost, which looks a lot like dark, moist dirt. Once your compost reaches this dirt-like phase, pat yourself and the microbes on the back because you’re ready to top-dress your lawn. Alternatively, you can use this compost to start a new garden and continue that precious circle of life.

How Do I Make Compost?

How to Make Compost and Top-dress Your Lawn 2

Composting is far simpler than one may think, but it does require a fair amount of dedication, both spatial and time. In terms of spatial commitment, you must decide how much compost you need and carve out a spot in your yard that is for composting only.

You’ll want to keep a few things in mind when finding that perfect composting spot.

First, you will have to feed this pile scraps after every meal, so you want it close enough to the house that you resist making excuses not to walk your daily scraps to the compost pile or bin.

Second, like your Uncle Buck, compost piles are often unsightly and a little smelly, so you’ll want to put it somewhere out of the sight and sniffer of any guests.

Third, composting works best with some moisture, so you’ll want your pile somewhere with water access.

Once you find that perfect spot, block it off with a low fence or set up a plastic composting bin and start tossing in scraps. Keep in mind that these scraps will not instantly turn into nutrient-rich microbe and worm poo. It can take months of tossing apple cores, grass clippings, rotten tomatoes, and eggshells into your compost heap or bin before you start seeing that dirt-like substance you’ll use to top-dress your lawn.

Just make sure to keep the scraps coming, keep the compost pile moist, and always cover the pile with a tarp or plastic lid to keep sunlight out and moisture in.

As your compost takes form with a dark, rich soil-like appearance, you will want to periodically “stir” it with a shovel to ensure your best compost is at the top and any new scraps are kept underneath. This not only speeds up the process, but it can also help keep that rotting-food smell to a minimum.

Once you have at least 10 inches of the dark, soil-like compost in your bin or on your pile, you can scoop it out and use it in a garden or to top-dress your lawn. Just make sure to leave enough compost on top of the fresh food scraps to keep the composting process moving along.

What Can I Compost?

Composting may seem like a mindless task of tossing scraps on the heap and stirring, but you must remember what you can and cannot throw on that compost pile. Sure, any organic material will compost, but only certain organic items help your cause.

Some of the obvious compost-friendly organics include: fruits, veggies, nutshells, eggshells, grass trimmings, houseplants, tree trimmings, coffee grounds and filters, and tea bags.

Some of the lesser-known compost-friendly items that may otherwise find their way to the landfill include shredded newspaper, cardboard, paper, cotton and wool rags, dryer and vacuum cleaner lint, hair and fur, and fireplace ashes, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

What Not to Compost

While the list of compostable items may be nearly limitless, there is also a substantial list of things you may think are OK to compost but are not. A biggie is pet waste. You may think that since manure is used to fertilize plants, pet waste may be just as good.

While your logic is solid, the EPA states there may be bacteria or diseases in pet feces that can be harmful to humans and using it to grow plants can spread these bacteria.

Other no-nos in the compost bin include: black walnut tree leaves or twigs, coal or charcoal ashes, dairy products, whole eggs, fats and greases, meat scraps, diseased plants, and chemically treated yard clippings.

Most of these are not recommended due to odor issues, but walnut tree twigs and leaves, diseased plants, coal and charcoal, and chemically treated yard clippings can actually harm the plants you use this compost on.

Top-Dressing Your Lawn With Compost

How to Make Compost and Top-dress Your Lawn 3

First, what is top-dressing and when should you consider it?

Top-dressing is sprinkling a thin layer of compost on an existing lawn so the nutrients seep into the soil and help rejuvenate your yard.

Homeowners should consider top-dressing their yards when the grass starts losing its lushness or is starting to brown. Another good time to top-dress is if your yard develops low spots due to settling or other issues, as this can build these areas back up while rejuvenating your lawn.

The process of top-dressing is more than just tossing compost around and expecting the nutrients to David Copperfield their way into the soil. You must give the nutrients an access point.

You want to start by mowing the grass as low as possible (without causing damage), raking up the clippings, then dethatching and aerating your lawn. This preparation gives the nutrients in the compost a direct line into the soil and to the roots of your lawn.

With the yard prepped for top-dressing, you will want to run your compost through a screen that filters out any pieces larger than 3/8 of an inch, as these large chunks will not absorb as easily as sifted compost. Using a top-dressing machine or a shovel and wheelbarrow, spread about a quarter inch of compost over your entire yard.

In areas where there are low spots, you can add extra compost to build it back up. With the compost spread, immediately water your yard to push the compost into the soil and share its wonderful nutrients with your grass.

When is the Best Time to Top-Dress Your Lawn?

Aeration and top-dressing can be stressful on your lawn. It’s kind of like hitting the gym for your grass; it hurts for a while, but it rebounds stronger than ever. Because of this stress, you’ll want to perform your top-dressing when the grass is actively growing so it rebounds quickly.

If you have warm-season grass, midsummer is when it grows most actively. If your lawn is a cool-season grass, Fall is the perfect time to aerate and top-dress it.

Don’t know which grass you have? Check out our Grass Identification Guide for a quick reference.

The Dos and Don’ts of Top-Dressing Your Lawn

Top-dress your lawn like a pro with these quick dos and don’ts.

  • Check your compost for weeds before top-dressing.
  • Overseed before top-dressing, if needed.
  • Aerate your lawn before top-dressing for optimal nutrient absorption.
  • Water your lawn immediately after top-dressing.
  • Use this opportunity to fill any low spots in the yard.
  • Top-dress only when the grass is actively growing (mid-summer or fall, depending on grass type).
  • Top-dress on excessively hot days.
  • Apply more than a half-inch of top-dressing.
Now Give It a Try

With the knowhow to make nutrient-rich compost and top-dress your lawn with this homemade compost, it’s time to get the job done.