Many of the maintenance practices we golf course superintendents use today were started decades before, but how and why we do those things has changed over the years. As the old adage says, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Maybe it’s just me, but I find that concept fascinating. We continually alter a practice slightly to achieve a new goal, or sometimes a new goal is achieved from a slightly different product with the same application.

The use of wetting agents is one of those things. In one form or another, superintendents have been applying wetting agents for decades. However, that doesn’t mean we haven’t altered and tweaked the way we apply them to fit new demands and new situations. The wetting agents themselves have changed, as well.

Matt Wilkinson is a turfgrass specialist for the Wilbur Ellis Company in Seattle. A former superintendent himself, Wilkinson knows exactly what we need and expect from wetting agents.

“The way we use wetting agents has changed,” Wilkinson said. “They have changed because of the type of products that are available today as well as the growing demands of the superintendent to have more control over the results.”

I think that’s the key: The ability to micromanage today’s golf courses in a way we couldn’t just 20 or 30 years ago. That ability to tweak the turfgrass one way or the other is what we are all looking for, and other than altering cutting heights or perhaps rolling, the use of wetting agents is one of the best ways to achieve it.

Among other things, wetting agents enable us to control the “hardness” of the greens, which ultimately means controlling speed and firmness.

“Superintendents are demanding more performance and control from their wetting-agent applications,” Wilkinson said. “I also think superintendents have become more aware of the varying chemistries available today.”

Obviously, superintendents are concerned with the playability of the turf and their ability to micromanage conditions, but water restrictions and irrigation limitations are a huge concern for just about every turfgrass manager.

Wetting agents have always given us the ability to get more bang for our watering buck, so to speak, but although the needs haven’t changed over the years, science has. The evolution of specialized surfactants and wetting agents is staggering.

It’s safe to say we’ve come a long way since the basic definition of wetting agent: “Any compound that causes a liquid to spread more easily across or penetrate into the surface of a solid by reducing the surface tension of the liquid.”

Today’s wetting agents are made up of a variety of different classes of surfactant chemistries: canionic, nonionic and cationic surfactants. Within these categories are chemistries like block copolymers, modified methyl capped block copolymers, alkyl polyglucoside surfactants, humic substance redistribution molecules and multibranched regenerating wetting agents, to name a few. And, of course, each new year brings us entirely new chemistries.

Knowing what you want your wetting agent to do will help you pick the right chemistry for the job. Are you trying to prevent isolated dry spots from occurring? Is your goal to use less water and improve irrigation efficiency? Are you using the wetting agent as a spray adjuvant when applying chemicals? Are you trying to move water through the soil with your irrigation system? Are your trying to reduce leaching? Are you trying to rewet water-repelling soils? Are you trying to soften or firm up your greens?

Some superintendents have discovered that they need to do more than one of those things at the same time and have figured out how to take science into their own hands.

Wilkinson has seen this happening firsthand. “Some managers are utilizing the opportunity to blend chemistries to achieve a desired result,” he said, “possibly going beyond the intended use of the manufacturer.”

Shane Riley is a sales rep for Winfield Solutions, also in the Seattle region. Riley agrees with Wilkinson that wetting-agent usage on golf courses has advanced to the point where today’s superintendents have more control over certain situations than ever before.

“There are a multitude of options on the market,” Riley said. “Wetting agents should be customized based on what soil type(s) the site has, whether the greens are push-up organic based or sand based, and the climate of the region.”

I think Wilkinson summed it up best when he said, “Less common are the days of a ‘one size fits all’ solution.”

Knowing what you want your wetting agent to do is the key. Once you figure out exactly how wetting- agent usage can aid and assist in your management of top-notch turfgrass, give one of your local sales reps a call. If they’re anything like mine, they’ll help you achieve your desired goal of using wetting agents to their optimal advantage.

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