Wetting agents’ crucial role in turf management programmes

Moisture management utilizing the latest wetting agent technologies is a crucial part of the integrated approach to quality turf management.

February 12, 2020
5 mins

With escalating pressure on golf course maintenance budgets and a changeable climate, the selection and use of wetting agents as part of turf management programmes are becoming increasingly scrutinized.

The sand-dominated, free-draining constructions which are so important for year-round play are susceptible to hydrophobic (water-repellent) soil conditions. Additionally, large quantities of sand used to top-dress existing surfaces to manage organic matter accumulation present the same challenge. Add to this, water shortages in some areas and a new trend to restrict irrigation inputs, and you must still consider the potential benefits of wetting agents.

Wetting agents are surfactants, a class of chemical compound designed to cause a physical change at the surface of liquids. In simple terms they will lower the surface tension of water. Several different classes of surfactant chemistries are utilized in the manufacture of wetting agents, producing different modes of action. Broadly speaking these modes of action are grouped into “summer” wetting agents, primarily used for water conservation and to prevent hydrophobic dry patches developing and “winter” wetting agents used to improve water movement, particularly infiltration and downward penetration. More specialist products are also available to aid dew dispersal, flush through salts, and to treat dry patches curatively. Understanding the mode of action of a wetting agent is therefore integral to selecting the correct product for the task in hand.


When to Apply a Wetting Agent

So, when should you apply a wetting agent? That depends on your desired outcome. For fine turf management, where turf uniformity and high levels of playing quality and surface refinement are essential, then a full season-long wetting agent program is recommended. This gives optimum wetting agent performance, allowing effective water management and control of localized dry spots with their associated inconsistent turf quality. The program should commence early in the season with the initial application made as early as March. The majority of products are designed to be used preventatively on a monthly basis and in general, their effect is cumulative. This means that the level of wetting agent in the soil increases with each application. The aim is to maximize levels to coincide with the hottest and driest part of the year (usually July/August) to maintain a better balance of air and moisture within the soil for optimal plant health and surface performance. As a result, the sward should be stronger and healthier with a deeper root system, and as such will provide the best playing surface and will be less vulnerable to disease.

Using a quality wetting agent in a programmed approach through the season will provide additional benefits for rootzone constructions dominated by sand. These products will retain a healthy level of moisture deep in the upper profile, keeping any organic matter layer drier at the top but reducing leaching. This can be particularly important where ground cover is restricted, especially in newly sown areas where vulnerable seedlings are particularly susceptible to hot and dry conditions. As well as ensuring the turf has access to enough moisture for healthy growth, the potential cost savings are significant, especially where mains water is relied upon.

Where Fairy rings are consistently problematic, regular applications of wetting agent can help to prevent their development and reduce the severity of their impact on the turf when used in conjunction with preventive fungicide applications, where organic matter is managed effectively. Type 1 Fairy rings cause the most severe damage to turf and if allowed to develop will result in turf death, usually due to hydrophobic compounds released by the causal fungi (basidiomycetes).

Wetting agents can also bring about significant improvements in playing quality to give the competitive edge required by many sporting venues in these economically challenging times. This is particularly true in fine turf situations such as golf and bowling greens, where the ball-to-surface interaction is so important. If moisture levels are inconsistent, surfaces will be bumpy and unpredictable with significant variations in pace—not an enjoyable surface to play. A more uniform level of moisture brought about by regular wetting agent inputs will serve to improve the consistency of grass growth thereby maintaining a smoother, truer, more predictable surface for members to enjoy.


The Use of Penetrant Wetting Agents

Increasingly, many turf managers are also looking at penetrant wetting agents for use during the winter or periods of higher rainfall. Their use focuses attention on year-round water management which assists in fine turf surface improvement. During wetter periods, turf surfaces can become and remain saturated. This is problematic for many reasons: reduced sward density; reduced rooting; poor water-to-air ratio leading to anaerobic conditions in the soil and a reduction in microbial activity; reduction in organic matter breakdown; surface deformation caused by pedestrian and machinery traffic; increased susceptibility to disease and moss invasion.

Penetrants work by reducing surface water tension to assist the downward flow of water, and can be used all year round to move excess water from the soil surface into the soil profile if that is required. Maximum benefit will be gained when used in conjunction with surface aeration and in the presence of underlying drainage. Regular use will keep surfaces drier and help to maintain a healthier balance of water to air in the profile. The benefits will be stronger, healthier turf with a good root system that is less prone to disease. Additional benefits should also include more effective organic matter breakdown, and a more consistent surface with good turf density and less moss and algae, and fewer weeds.

Wetting agents are not a silver bullet that will solve problems and improve playing qualities on their own. For maximum benefit they should be used as part of an integrated management plan which utilizes effective irrigation to replace water lost to evapotranspiration and linked to frequent aeration operations to variable depths to keep a healthy rootzone environment. A good-quality moisture meter is a great agronomic management tool for any turf manager, allowing soil moisture levels to be monitored. Such instruments bring an objective focus to a previously difficult science and allow a much more targeted approach to irrigation and moisture management where surfaces can be allowed to dry out more than could be risked previously, and with a greater emphasis on hand-watering.



In summary, moisture management utilizing the latest wetting agent technologies is a crucial part of the integrated approach to quality turf management. There are many wetting agent products available on the market so make sure you know all about the product you are buying and ensure that it is designed to give you the results you desire. Be prepared and make the initial application early enough to optimize the benefits in quality; follow the program recommended by the product label. If possible, use a moisture meter to assist in decision-making and be flexible; don’t be afraid to make changes to your moisture management program to provide the results you want for your surfaces.