Wetting Agents: [HOW TO] Use Surfactants In The Yard & Garden

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If you’re new to gardening, you may not know of wetting agents (a.k.a.: spreader stickers or surfactants).

If so, you may find yourself pleasantly surprised to know just how much energy, time, and money you can save in your yard and garden with judicious use of these handy products.

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In this article, we will discuss the use of wetting agents for soil and provide tips on how to use the “adhesive forces” for the greatest effect. Read on to learn more.

What Is A Wetting Agent & Its Purpose?

Wetting agents or surfactants lower or reduce the surface tension between two liquids. It also lowers the tension between solid and liquid matter.

They act as emulsifiers, dispersants, detergents, and water infiltration agents.

In short, soil-wetting agents or surface-active agents (surfactants) help you get the most benefit from the lawn and garden products you spend your hard-earned dollars on.

For example, a wetting agent can help liquid insecticide products adhere to or “wet” your plants’ foliage rather than simply beading up and dripping off.

Wetting agents or surfactants make water wetter by helping break the surface tension!

This phenomenon can be a big problem when trying to provide a foliar application of treatment to plants with waxy leaves like grandma’s old hoya plant and jade plants because very often, your product simply rolls off the leaves and doesn’t benefit the plant.

When you include wetting agents properly, you can correct this problem.

Wetting agents work by providing a binding layer or breaking the surface tension between the applied product and the leaf surface or soil surface.

Consider making your own homemade surfactant wetting agent.

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Photo Credit: Instagram @seasol_international

This helps a spray stick to the leaf surface and provides the greatest benefit.

A good natural product made using organic ingredients (e.g., coconut oil) can greatly enhance the effectiveness of products like liquid plant fertilizers, foliar sprays, and homemade insecticide soaps you apply.

Biodegradable, water-soluble, and non-toxic wetting agents help get the most value from your gardening dollar by improving the sticking, wetting, and absorption qualities of any garden product you wish to use.

When combined with the most popular garden chemical sprays, a wetting agent can greatly enhance effectiveness.

Nonionic Surfactant Versus Ionic Wetting Agent

Select the right type of wetting agent to work well with the product you plan to use. The term “ionic” refers to a compound’s electrical charge.

Generally, neutral or nonionic wetting products are the safest and can be used in most applications. This is because they have no electrical charge. A non-ionic surfactant can be used with any product.

Make The Most of the Water You Have!

These days, drought stress conditions are becoming more and more common. It can be heartbreaking to watch your well-established plants and lawn suffer and die from heat and lack of water.

When you use wetting agents for soil effectively, you can make the most of even limited amounts of water and save your cherished plants.

It’s important to note that drought conditions worsen following flooding conditions. The reason is that flooding tends to strip the nutrients from the soil.

If the area where you live has experienced a repeated cycle of drought and flooding, part of the ground may have become hydrophobic soil.

This means that rather than soaking up available moisture, your soil particles may actually repel moisture.

Always Use Biodegradable, Water-Soluble, Natural Wetting Agents

It is important to select the right type of wetting agent. Surfactants with alcohol or petroleum-based can actually make soil conditions worse by damaging the soil and killing off friendly fauna.

Look for soil-wetting agents made up of natural substances or chemicals that biodegrade quickly and easily and do not damage your plants, friendly fauna, or the soil. 

Ingredients you should look for in a beneficial wetting agent include:

  • Soil conditioners, such as seaweed extract and fulvic acid, help improve the overall condition of the soil so soil particles can be more receptive to moisture and nutrients.
  • Polysaccharides are natural humectants that can even source moisture.
  • Lawn and soil surfactants are substances that help break the surface tension and allow moisture to penetrate the soil.

How To Make Your Own Wetting Agent

It is actually possible to make your own natural wetting agent to help improve the condition of your water-repellent garden soil. You would begin with a natural gelling agent called Agar – Agar.

This substance comes from a variety of algae and also seaweed. It is available as a powder in health food stores.

Agar-Agar (amazon) is completely safe. In fact, vegetarians use it as a substitute for animal-based gelatin, and the product you buy in a health food store will be food-quality.

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. 

To use it as a soil wetter, you would boil some water and mix in the powder to create a paste.

Once you have attained the substance and texture you desire, combine 250 milliliters of the paste with 4 1/2 liters of water.

With regular use as directed, it can help manage irrigation water, increase nutrient availability, and decrease surface run-off, giving you a more cost-effective process in keeping your turf in top shape.

Till this mixture into a garden with high water repellency and potting soil improves its texture and increases its ability to retain available nutrients.

Other Solutions For A Hydrophobic Soil

Experienced gardeners learn that mixing organic matter into the soil provides a good solution and prevention for various problems.

When you regularly amend your soil with organic matter such as aged compost, green manure, and plant matter, take steps towards improving the soil’s moisture-holding ability and ability to drain appropriately.

Adding these substances to your soil helps form humus, which helps balance the soil. While all soil types can become hydrophobic, sandier soils (which inherently hold less water anyway) seem to have the most severe problems. While there is a trend toward “firm, dry, and fast,” 

Humus works to improve both moisture retention and drainage because its structure works similar to that of a sponge squeegee.

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Photo Credit: Instagram @geoponics_corp

It can help open up heavy, clay-based soil profiles by increasing soil aeration and allowing excessive moisture to drain off.

Conversely, humus can also soak up water and hold it very efficiently. In fact, balanced humus can soak up 100 times its weight in water.

This moisture is then released gradually into the soil rather than flooding it and washing away nutrients. This sets up a good environment for beneficial microorganisms to thrive.

It’s important to understand that to resolve soil hydrophobia. You need a healthy population of friendly fauna. They are the true natural wetting agents that help keep the soil in your yard and garden properly hydrated.

What About Dry Patches In The Lawn?

You may have a localized dry spot in your lawn that always seems to be dry no matter what you do.

These spots often occur on very sandy soil and worsen during the hot summer or when a drought is in progress.

Dry patches resist wetting due to the soil’s content, resulting in a barren or dry spot on the lawn.

No matter how much water you apply, the surface tension simply doesn’t penetrate the soil and stays there properly to nourish the root zone of your grass.

When this is the case, the use of a lawn surfactant, aka wetting agent, may be very helpful.

Test Your Soil

Before you do anything about localized dry spots in your lawn, it’s a good idea to understand the entire situation.

Very often, a dry spot will only absorb about 20 percent of the moisture applied when compared with the surrounding area.

To know exactly how much your dry spot is or is not absorbing, you should perform a water drop soil surface penetration test.

The high surface tension of water is problematic in many applications where spreading and penetration of water are required. These include, for example, paints and other coating formulations, detergents, pesticides, and others.

To do this, you would take a five-inch core sample of the soil and treat it with small amounts of water at one-inch intervals from the top of the core to the bottom.

Using a lawn wetting agent will penetrate the soil, helping improve water retention and increase precipitation and irrigation effectiveness.

If the water is not absorbed in the areas you test, you will know that your soil is compacted and unable to absorb moisture.

If the water is not absorbed in the areas you test, you will know that your soil is compacted and unable to absorb moisture. A perfect case where a wetting agent could help.

Three Types Of Wetting Agents For Lawn Care

Select the right type of lawn-wetting agent to suit your needs. These products come in three distinct categories. They are:

1. Residual wetting agents for soil work over a measured period. This type of agent doesn’t usually resolve dry patches, but it can improve the appearance of dry patches. 

Residual wetting agents are sort of like chemical fertilizers. They may provide a boost for grass suffering from dry patch, but they do not cure the problem.

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Photo Credit: Instagram @weedingwomen

It is estimated that 40% to 60% of residential water use in the United States is applied for irrigating landscapes, which are typically composed primarily of turfgrass (White et al., 2004). 

Generally speaking, you can use residual soil-wetting agents for a period of one week for a quick fix. They work by re-wetting an area for a measured seven-day period. 

Some of the better wetting agent products also contain kelp, which is a natural stimulant to grass growth.

A good-quality moisture meter is a great agronomic management tool for any turf manager, allowing soil moisture levels to be monitored. 

2. Curatives do address the root causes of dry patches; however, they do not completely alleviate the problem. 

The reason is that the typical lawn care habit of top dressing exacerbates dry patch problems. The more often you add a top dressing, the worse your dry patch becomes.

Curative treatment is often used on the greens of golf courses. This type of treatment can be applied repeatedly over a 30-day period of time to address a specific problem. Typically, a curative may be applied three times each season.

The latest editions inside the wetting agent market were found to be more effective against dry patch problems.

3. Penetrants work by helping standing water to disburse. A wetting agent can also facilitate the movement of water through dry spot and/or compacted soil. Combining penetrants with other soil treatments and amendments can be a good way to get maximum benefit from their use.

A penetrant may also be applied to grass as a seven-day treatment in advance of a hot, dry spell.

Penetrants are helpful because they break the soil surface tension and prevent grass from becoming scorched when temperatures become excessively high. They make a good preventative for anticipated dry patch problems.

Make A Smart & Thrifty Choice

It’s easy to see that the smart use of wetting agents on your lawn and in your garden can help you make the most of the resources you have. 

Good use of these natural products can shorten the amount of time it takes to care for your food company, yard, and garden. Additionally, they provide true value and help you avoid frustration!

Sources: 1 | 2

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