Level out an Uneven Lawn With Topdressing

Fill in Low Spots Before You Twist Your Ankle!

Nice grass (image) is beautiful but a lot of work. The hydrangea backdrop adds to the scene.
Your lawn needs to be nice and level to provide a usable surface upon which to walk without worry. David Beaulieu

Areas of a lawn can become uneven over time, due to "settling" and other factors. In the least extreme cases, you will want to solve the problem by "topdressing," which allows you to level out your lawn. Is this problem new to you? If you have never experienced it, you may need a brief introduction to it -- and its solution -- in order to understand what it is all about. The following exchange between a reader of my Landscaping website and a lawn care expert at John Deere provides a case study that will help bring you up to speed.

The Problem: Low Spots Develop in a Lawn, Making the Surface Uneven 

Reader, Springtime writes, "I have a lawn that was put on over a ledge where the house was build in 2006. Now the lawn is very uneven with dips in the surface that can twist your ankle while walking. The grass is in bad shape too and looks dead in places. One side of the lawn is sloping. What should I do?"

The answer to this question follows:  

The Solution: How Bad Are Those Low Spots?

Most of us enjoy our turfgrass lawns as a great foundation for outdoor activity. Maintaining our lawns properly is very important, in part, to ensure safe and enjoyable outdoor activity. A lawn needs to be smooth to avoid injuries that might be caused from stepping on an uneven surface. Your grass is the "floor" of an outdoor living space, and floors need to provide stability.

A level and even lawn is also easier to maintain. Who wants to mow a lawn with low spots in it, right?

Not only is it uncomfortable (as when you drive your car over potholes), but it can also cause you to scalp the grass (because, as the mower drops down when the tires pass over low spots, the level of the mower blade also drops, plunging into the higher spots and cutting the grass there much too low).


So what is the solution to the problem of low spots? It really depends on the severity: are we talking about some minor depressions, extreme cratering, or something in between? The solution differs accordingly, which is why the response must be broken up into three parts, which we will term Methods 1, 2, and 3:

Method 1 -- Leveling Out a Mildly Uneven Lawn by Topdressing

Topdressing the low spots works well for leveling mildly uneven areas; it is the least invasive approach. Here is what to do:

  1. In a wheelbarrow or similar container, mix up a batch of topsoil, sand, and compost -- basically, a soil medium that can support turfgrass growth.
  2. Apply 1/2 inch of this soil mixture on top of the low areas. Do not make it deeper than that, because this approach must be gradual, so that you do not smother the grass.
  3. Rake the topdressing to spread it out evenly.
  4. With a push-broom, work the soil mixture in between the blades of grass as thoroughly as possible.
  5. Monitor the progress in the area. Eventually, you should see just grass, no dirt (assuming there were no bare spots before you began the process of topdressing). If it is still uneven, keep repeating these steps until it is level. If the spot is level now, then you are done.
  1. But if you had bare spots in the area before you started topdressing it, you will have to overseed the lawn in these areas.

Method 2 -- Leveling Out a Moderately Uneven Lawn: "Sweeping the Dirt Under the Carpet"

The topdressing process described above takes time to work. What if you have a few really low spots in your lawn? Obviously, topdressing would not be very effective, because (since you have to proceed 1/2 inch at a time) you would be waiting forever. Yet, since, it is only a few low spots that we are talking about, there would be no need to take the kinds of drastic measures described in Method 3. Fortunately, there is an intermediate method. I call it "sweeping the dirt under the carpet," because you are essentially picking up sod (the carpet) and putting dirt under it. This method works as follows:

  1. Remove the sod over the low spot (if the area is bigger than 1 foot square, cut out multiple chunks, since a piece of sod greater than 1 foot square is hard to move around without breaking) and set it aside.
  2. Shovel enough topsoil into the hole that, once you replace the sod, the area will be even.
  3. As you shovel the soil into the hole, add water. This will remove air pockets. The last thing you want is for the sod to settle after you have finished -- which would defeat the whole purpose of the project.
  4. Replace the sod and water the grass.

Method 3 -- How to Level Out a Lawn That Looks Like a Moonscape

Finally, we come to the most extreme end of the spectrum. Is your lawn so littered with craters that it looks like the surface of the moon? If the uneven areas are substantial enough and numerous enough that neither topdressing nor the sweep-the-dirt-under-the-carpet method will solve the problem, then you may need to do a more major renovation by regrading the area and establishing a new stand of turfgrass. To accomplish this, you need to take the same steps that you would take to establish a new lawn, except that you are applying these steps to a smaller area. You have two basic options:

  1. You can lay sod
  2. Or you can start the grass from seed 

After establishment, the grass should be maintained properly to ensure that you can obtain the most enjoyment from the lawn.

Source: the lawn care experts at John Deere.