Soil Surfactants: A Deep Dive into Their Role in Turfgrass Management

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Water repellency, poor infiltration and localised dry spots are common problems for turfgrass managers. 

Soil surfactants, often referred to as “wetting agents” within the turfgrass industry, have become essential tools in recent years in turfgrass management. These agents improve water-use efficiency and distribution, ultimately enhancing the quality and health of amenity turfgrass. Despite their varying chemical compositions, all soil surfactants share the common function of increasing the wettability of hydrophobic soil particles. This characteristic helps in retaining water or soil moisture around soil particles, promoting better water infiltration and turfgrass performance.

Factors Influencing Effectiveness.

The selection of a specific soil surfactant should consider soil type, turfgrass species, management practices, climate conditions, and the desired quality and playability of the turfgrass with surfactant efficacy being influenced by multiple factors, such as: 

  • Turfgrass Age: Younger turfgrass may have different water retention and infiltration capabilities compared to mature turf.
  • Soil Organic Matter Content: Higher organic matter can influence surfactant performance by altering soil structure and water retention properties.
  • Rootzone Composition: Whether the soil is predominantly sandy or mineral-based affects how surfactants interact with soil particles and water.
  • Method of Surfactant Application: Application techniques (e.g., foliar spray, soil drench) can impact the distribution and effectiveness of the surfactants. 

Research Insights

Extensive research has demonstrated that turf treated with soil surfactants maintains lower volumetric water content (VWC) levels compared to well-irrigated turf over an extended period of two years. Additionally, soil surfactant-treated turf shows better distribution uniformity than those with reduced irrigation. This implies that while surface water content may decrease with surfactants, the remaining water is more evenly distributed within the root zone. Furthermore, studies indicate enhanced soil moisture uniformity when using soil surfactants on sand-based putting greens, which is crucial for maintaining consistent playing conditions.

Beyond the Surface: The benefits of using soil surfactants extend beyond improving water movement: 

  1. Compaction: Surfactants enhance water penetration into compacted soils, improving infiltration and reducing runoff, which leads to better nutrient uptake and root development.
  2. Water Repellency: Surfactants help break soil water resistance, enabling water to spread evenly and infiltrate the soil profile, promoting deeper root growth.
  3. Nutrient Availability: Improved water infiltration facilitates better access to essential nutrients for turfgrass growth.
  4. Microbial Activity: Increased water availability in the root zone fosters a vibrant soil microbiome, crucial for nutrient cycling and overall soil health.
  5. Disease Suppression: Healthy soils with improved water movement are less susceptible to disease outbreaks.
  6. Thatch Reduction: Surfactants can help break down existing thatch and prevent further buildup, improving air circulation and overall turf health.

Reduce PGRs & Surfactants by 25% with the same turf quality

Research I have personally carried out over recent years has shown many benefits from sequential surfactant applications, not only during dry summer months but also when used during periods of extended precipitation and even during the Irish winter. The obvious target for surfactant use is to ensure soil moisture consistency and elimination of drought stress and wilt and as can be seen most surfactants are successful in this regard. 

Overall, soil surfactants are valuable for conserving irrigation water, improving irrigation efficiency, and mitigating drought stress and soil moisture deficits. They positively impact soil moisture levels, water distribution. 

However there are numerous other benefits from surfactant use, less obvious than just improving soil moisture. 

Impact on Soil and Turfgrass Health Soil surfactants have several beneficial impacts on soil and turfgrass health: 

Nutrient Uptake: They optimize water and nutrient uptake by turfgrass roots through improved water distribution in the rhizosphere. 

Microbial and Root Biomass: Soil surfactants increase enzyme activities, microbial biomass, and root biomass near plant roots. These changes can enhance turfgrass performance under water deficit conditions.

Research over the past 5 years has shown significant enhancement of turfgrass quality and health under a range of differing climatic conditions, an example here from work done in Ireland in 2020:

Research is ongoing, but the potential of soil surfactants as a sustainable tool for turfgrass management is undeniable. These products significantly impact turfgrass quality, water-use efficiency, and soil health, offering benefits such as reduced irrigation needs, lower maintenance costs, and enhanced turfgrass quality. 

Considerations for Optimal Use To achieve the best results, consider the following factors: 

  • Proper Application: Consult product labels for specific application rates and methods based on soil type and desired results.
  • Timing: Apply surfactants before periods of heavy rainfall or irrigation to maximize their effectiveness.
  • Soil Testing: Understand your soil’s characteristics, including texture and water repellency, to choose the most effective surfactant type.
  • Integration with Existing Practices: Combine your surfactant strategy with good irrigation management, fertilization, and cultural practices for a holistic approach to turf health. 

Conclusion Soil surfactants offer a powerful tool for unlocking the full potential of your turfgrass. By improving water movement, enhancing nutrient availability, and promoting soil health, these products pave the way for lush, thriving landscapes while conserving precious water resources. Embrace the power of soil surfactants and watch your turfgrass flourish. 

Key Points 

  • Enhanced Water-Use Efficiency: Soil surfactants improve water-use efficiency and delivery, enhancing the quality and health of amenity turfgrass.
  • Increased Wettability: They increase the wettability of hydrophobic soil particles, facilitating water retention and infiltration.
  • Influencing Factors: The effectiveness of soil surfactants is influenced by factors such as turfgrass age, soil organic matter content, rootzone composition, and application method. Research Evidence: Research shows diverse impacts of soil surfactants on soil volumetric water content and distribution uniformity.
  • Quality and Function: Soil surfactants also enhance turfgrass quality and functionality, beyond improving soil moisture and water infiltration.
  • Broader Benefits: The benefits of soil surfactant applications include enhanced enzyme activities, microbial biomass, and root biomass near plant roots.
  • Water Conservation: Soil surfactants contribute significantly to conserving irrigation water, enhancing irrigation efficiency, and mitigating drought stress and soil moisture deficits in turfgrass and agricultural management. 

By integrating soil surfactants into your management practices, you can achieve healthier, more resilient turfgrass, with enhance quality and better tolerance of abiotic and biotic challenges with optimized resource use.

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