Crop Challenge Help

To begin, make sure you keep a garden journal. Take notes about things like what you planted, when and where you planted it. Are you growing annuals or perennials? When did you fertilize your garden, and did you apply any pesticides or herbicides? Did you do this before it rained, or during a dry spell? Did you use mulch, manure, or other things to improve the soil without using chemicals? How often do you water or irrigate your vegetable plot? Have you tested the soil, and do you use the results of the soil test to determine how much you have to fertilize your garden? Do you have any pests that cause problems? Do you have problems with erosion or soil loss? Make notes of all these activities and use this information to develop your plan.

The next step is to ask how all of this affects the streams near your garden plot or the run-off that leaves your plot and goes down a storm drain to the river. For example, do you use any insecticides or herbicides that might pollute the water? Do you use fertilizer that can add nutrients to run-off? These extra nutrients and chemicals are a major problem in Kansas, and cause algae blooms that can pollute drinking water and kill fish. Click here for nutrient lesson

Look for areas where the land is eroding. Gullies can be a major source of silt in stormwater run-off, and removing the riparian trees to farm up to the edge of a stream can cause the banks to collapse. This silt can make its way to streams, and it is a huge problem for lakes that are used for supplying drinking water in Kansas. Perry Lake, for example, is almost a third of the way full of silt, and this reduces the amount of water that can be stored for drinking water supplies and for flood control.

Make a diagram or map of your garden plot and the area around it. Make sure you include any ponds, streams, or other water bodies that might be impacted by your your activities, and indicate where the run-off that leaves your land goes during a storm (including storm drains). Do you see any erosion that would indicate excessive run-off?

Once you have described how you are currently managing your garden, you can identify potential problems that you would like to improve. This will be the basis for picking one problem to remedy in your project. You should make sure that the problem that you pick is something that is within your control to change, and that it is the right size for you to manage.

Here are some suggestions for how you can reduce the impact of growing crops on streams:

  • Use cover crops to reduce the amount of bare soil in your garden plot.
  • Use buffer strips around your garden to absorb run-off and leave a buffer along any stream that borders your garden plot.
  • Use riparian buffers along streams to stabilize the banks and filer and absorb the water.
  • Stabilize stream banks to reduce erosion. Make sure to use natural materials and approved methods (NEVER use trash, cars, appliances or other objects that will pollute the river).
  • Use no-till or minimum till with a planned crop rotation to reduce erosion.
  • If possible, plant perennials.
  • Use organic gardening methods.
  • If you aren't able to use organic farming methods, you can still reduce the amount of fertilizer you need to add by first testing your soil to determine the minimum amount that will be needed, and identify pests to determine the minimum amount of pesticides you can use. Use safer alternatives when you use chemicals.
  • Minimize the amount you have to water by using mulch (but avoid cypress mulch, it harms the coastal ecosystem).
  • The Conservation Reserve Program and other conservation programs provide matching funds that can help you take marginal land out of production and protect streams from erosion.
The two most important things you can do to help the river are to (1) reduce the amount of water that is running off your garden, and (2) reduce the amount of nutrients, bacteria, silt, and chemicals in the water that does run-off your garden.

You can reduce run-off by minimizing the amount of water that you apply, which has the added benefit of reducing the amount of water that is withdrawn from groundwater or the river. Paying special attention to how you are watering (for example, using drip irrigation or a soaking hose, watering early in the morning) and the ability of your soil to absorb and hold water (using mulch, improving your soil with humus, using cover crops) will help you grow healthy plants with less water.

You can also reduce run-off by improving on-site water retention using things like buffer strips, rain gardens, wetlands, terraces and ponds. Water that is absorbed into the soil is used by soil organisms and plants, which remove nutrients and many chemicals, making the water less polluted by the time it gets to groundwater or a stream.

The key principles are: 

  • Test your soil and inspect for pests so that you don't use any more fertilizer or chemicals than you have to.
  • Try to have as much of the run-off as possible filter down into the soil rather than running off into streams.
  • Improve your soil and keep your plants healthy, that way you won't need as much water or as many chemicals.

Some material adapted from the River Friendly Farms Program of the Kansas Rural Center


Click Here for additional resources to help you with your project