Turf & Rec

With the earth heating up, topdressing with compost is all important

February 11, 2013  By  Mike Jiggens

Climate change is in the news—2012 was labeled as the warmest year on
record for our neighbours to the south by the U.S. National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration—and water conservation is often a top
priority. Last year, the severe drought in eastern Canada caused dry or
dead lawns with bug infestations and weed problems. There is no doubt
that current lawn care maintenance and repair practices need to adapt
to the new reality of consistently warmer, drier conditions.

The excessive irrigation method is no longer practical or environmentally acceptable. And when there’s a lack of water, the turf suffers. Many lawn care professionals must now rethink how they handle lawn care. How can they adapt?

There are a few effective practices that will make it easier for you, as a lawn care professional, to keep your customers happy. No one wants a customer to stand in the middle of a brown lawn in July or August and ask what you are going to do about it. It is far easier and less expensive—generally two to three times less expensive—to prevent problems than to repair them, though the methods are similar, consisting of good mowing practices, aerating, overseeding and topdressing with compost.

Step one: mowing. The best practice for a healthy green lawn, especially in a dry season, is to mow higher than previously thought; an optimum height is two inches, and to mow less frequently. However, if this is brand new growth, ensure that the grass has reached four inches in height before the first mowing. When mowing for the first time, leave at least three inches in height, and be careful with the tiny, fragile grass roots. Use a well-sharpened blade in order to obtain an optimum cut and avoid pulling out the new grass. Higher grass, mowed less frequently is the first most effective maintenance procedure for a healthy greener lawn.


Step two: aerating. Whether maintaining a currently healthy lawn or repairing a drought-damaged lawn, the next step is to aerate. While no one imagines it is particularly useful to aerate hard, dry soil, it is actually very effective for turf renovation. In conjunction with overseeding and topdressing with compost, aerating helps to create deep, healthy turfgrass roots that need less watering and, therefore, can better survive in drought conditions. The deeper the root system, the more water the roots can hold and the deeper into the soil the nutrients from the compost topdressing can reach, thereby more effectively feeding the lawn.

Step three: overseeding. Overseeding is nature’s way. Consider the seed dispersal that happens every spring! New germinating grass seed is essential to lawn renovation. However, it is also a useful practice in regular lawn maintenance to prepare for drought conditions and possibly to prevent lawn damage during those dry times. When overseeding a healthy lawn or repairing a damaged one, eco seed is recommended; it will need less feeding (i.e. fertilizer), and will remain greener and healthier with less water. In times of drought, a lawn with eco seed will already be diverse with enough varying types of grass that it won’t turn brown. Avoiding a mono-cultural lawn will protect against further decimation by pests, as well.


Step four: topdressing. The most effective way to help a lawn prepare for a dry season is by topdressing with a compost soil mix—whether maintaining a healthy lawn or renovating a damaged one. The mix must contain a high percentage of compost, around 75 per cent. This holds true for both organic and conventional lawn care. Compost topdressing protects against extremes by balancing the soil’s three dimensions: chemical, biological, and structural. Rather than being a specific soil amendment, such as an NPK application, topdressing with compost is a protective preventative practice that balances the lawn’s holistic structure, even enhancing other applications. In conjunction with overseeding, for damaged turf, the lawn care professional is essentially turbocharging the entire renovation process.

Why compost topdressing? For a myriad of reasons—environmentally friendly, ease of use, sustainable, good earth stewardship, customer demand, and supreme effectiveness, especially when it comes to drought conditions as it greatly increases the water-holding capacity of the soil. Similar to aerating when it was first introduced 25 years ago, topdressing is a versatile practice that is well-adapted to the current lawn care provider’s list of services.

Water retention

Compost retains water, meaning you can water the lawn less and the water remains available longer. The organic matter in the compost soaks up water like a sponge, keeping water available in the soil for the plants to use. Without compost, the water just drains away, leaving nothing but dry, hard soil around the roots of the plants. Additionally, as the lawn grows denser through the use of compost, it will naturally retain more water, resulting in more drought-resistant, green turf.

Natural nutrients

Besides retaining water, compost feeds the lawn with nutrients in a slow-release process. A single topdressing with compost, as part of a continuing lawn care program, will handle from 50 to 100 per cent of the lawn’s fertilization needs. At the same time, compost, unlike any other topdressing application, will improve the actual soil structure, stimulate microbial activity, break down thatch, and neutralize the pH—creating a healthier, stronger lawn. A balanced and healthy lawn will naturally crowd out weeds and stop bug infestations. And homeowners will see the benefits of topdressing with compost not only on their lawns; it will also help trees, flowers, and shrubs, strengthening all the plants whose roots will grow stronger as they feed on the nutrients.

Environmental concerns

Legislation banning phosphorus from fertilizers is the beginning and not the end of government intervention in the field. As more regulations are passed, as more restrictions on chemicals and synthetics are put in place, and as homeowners are further educated about sustainable practices, compost topdressing will become mainstream. For an absolutely perfect, emerald green, weed-free, pest-free lawn, some may currently still prefer herbicides, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers. However, with compost being sustainable, environmentally friendly, and, most importantly, extremely effective, lawn care professionals would be remiss not to make topdressing with compost the No. 1 tool in their arsenal for healthy lawns.

How to topdress with compost

The topdressing process has been made much easier and less expensive in recent years with the manufacturing of affordable, self-propelled, walk-behind topdressing machines. Turfgrass professionals are no longer restricted by bulky, tractor-driven applicators for topdressing. The new machines are designed for topdressing applications on lawns and landscapes, rather than enormous sports fields and golf courses, making it possible for landscape professionals to provide this valuable service to residential customers.
It is easier than ever to topdress with compost. After ensuring that the lawn has been mowed to the correct height, and has been aerated and overseeded as necessary, simply load compost in the hopper of a self-propelled spreader and let the machine spread it across the grass. A direct application of a layer of compost should be from one-eighth to one-quarter-inch.


Drought can happen almost anywhere and is not a one-time occurrence. Using compost, professionals can focus on two things: one, creating an effective maintenance program that prepares lawns for the next drought, minimizing or preventing future damage, and, two, repairing drought-damaged lawns. Combining compost topdressing with aerating and overseeding as part of routine organic or conventional lawn care, turfgrass professionals will be on their way to providing their customers with healthy, beautiful lawns.

Article courtesy Ecolawn

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