Wetting Agents to Help Survive the Drought

Wetting agents are a gardener’s dream come true during drought, especially when we’re doing everything we can to conserve water.

Just because we’re currently in the middle of a drought doesn’t mean we have to let our precious plants and flowers go dry. Wetting agents are substances added to the soil to increase water infiltration and water-holding capacity, and they can be a gardener’s dream come true, especially when we’re doing everything we can to conserve water.

A wetting agent is defined as a chemical substance that increases the spreading and penetrating ability of a liquid — in this case, water — by reducing its surface tension. These are molecules that have a hydrophilic, or “water loving,” end and hydrophobic, or “water hating” end.

Wetting agents are frequently called surfactants, but in actuality they are just one class of the surfactants that assist in water infiltration. (Other surfactants that assist pesticides to coat and penetrate their intended target, whether insect or plant, are known as spreaders, or stickers.)

Here are a few “wetting agent” products you can find at local nurseries or make yourself using ingredients and materials you probably have lying around your home.


A thin layer of quality, double screened compost applied to the soil and lightly sprayed will combine to create a simple wetting agent. As the compost decays, it creates long molecules with acids, hydroxyls, nitrogen and a host of other goodies attached.

Compost leachate:

Likewise, running water through compost and a screen, coffee filter or panty hose, will create a liquid that has immediate effects.

Compost tea:

Compost, sugars and beneficial bacteria that are “brewed” together to provide a living wetting agent.

Humic acid/fulvic acid/humus:

Components in organic matter such as peat, bio-char and coal that form long organic molecules to assist in fertility and water retention.

Dish soap and home remedies:

Simple dish soap in a bucket of water is actually a simple wetting agent. The web is replete with hundreds of DIY versions. Keep it simple – ½ cup of Ivory dish soap per 5-gallon bucket and one 12 oz. can of Sprite for acid and sugar.

Apple cider vinegar and a simple sugar:

Apple cider vinegar is all the rage now, eliminating everything from belly fat to bunions, and it also makes a great wetting agent. Combine one cup of vinegar and one soda or one cup of molasses in a 5-gallon bucket.


A commercial product that is made from the roots of the yucca plant. Why? Pioneers used yucca roots as a shampoo.


One of the oldest, and still a personal favorite, of the commercial products. An alkyl molecule, it produces quality infiltration with minimum side-effects.

These are but a few of the products to increase the infiltration and storage of both natural and manmade precipitation. Take a moment this weekend to mix yourself up a batch.

Picture of Mark Peterson
Mark Peterson
Mark A. Peterson was a conservation project coordinator for San Antonio Water System before retiring. With over 30 years of experience as an urban forester and arborist, Mark is probably the only person you know who actually prunes trees for fun. When not expounding on the benefits of trees and limited lawns, you're likely to find him hiking San Antonio's wilderness parks or expounding on the virtues of geography and history to his friends.
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