Start now. There’s work to be done. Lots of it. Planting season might be a month or more away, but if you want a bountiful food plot that draws deer and keeps them on your land, it’s time to get to work.
Sure, you can throw down a food plot in a weekend, but the best plots take time. They take careful planning and several steps long before you even think about dropping a sack of high-dollar seed on the ground. What you get out of your plots is a function of what you put into them.
1) Make A Plan
Simply figuring out what you want to plant is a challenge unto itself. These days, the choices seem almost endless. That’s a good thing. You can plant plots ideal for bow season or ones that are attractive to whitetails later in the season. Some plants hold up in dry weather while others excel in damp conditions. You can choose annuals, which die at the end of the growing season, or perennials, which can last up to five years before they need to be replanted.
Both types of plants draw deer and both offer a number of advantages. Clover and chicory, for example, will provide ample forage during the fall and winter and also provide vital nutrition throughout the spring and early summer. They also have a few drawbacks. Perennials require more maintenance. Just as they flourish in the spring and summer, so do weeds. Annual weeds and perennial grasses like fescue and Bermuda grass can overwhelm even the most productive perennial plots. You’ll need to mow them once or twice a year. You’ll also need to spray them with a selective herbicide to keep those grasses in check.
“Determine if you have the time and energy to maintain a perennial plot. They can be cheaper in the long run, but you can’t just plant them and forget about them,” says Whitetail Institute vice-president Steve Scott.
If you can’t devote the necessary time, go with fall-planted annuals. They don’t require any post-planting maintenance, but they are highly attractive to whitetails, providing you with a great place to spend your season. Even better, once the season is over, there’s no work to be done until next summer. Turnips, brassicas, annual clovers, oats and a variety of other annual seeds are all good low-maintenance choices.
“Plant them, hunt them and forget them,” says Scott.
2) Map It Out
You’ll need to know exactly how much to order, which means you’ll need to map out your plots. How big should they be? Where should you put them? All food plot plants need adequate sunlight; the general rule is at least four hours of direct sunlight per day. That means most small openings in mature forests and field edges close to tall trees are not suitable locations. A good rule of thumb is that food plots need to be at least a third of the surrounding trees’ height away from those trees. In other words, if the forest is 100 feet tall, you need to plant at least 33 feet away from the woods or the plot won’t get enough sunlight. However, plots along the north or east side of a field will get more sun than those along the southern or western side, assuming the entire field is surrounded by tall trees.
“The other benefit to putting a food plot on south- or west-facing edges of fields is that the soil gets warmer and stays warmer, which stimulates plant growth in cooler fall weather,” says Quality Deer Management Association director of outreach and education Kip Adams. “You do want to put plots in a location that makes them suitable for hunting, of course. They need to be within a reasonable shooting distance from your stand location.”
That also means you’ll need to factor the size of the plot into your hunting style. Bowhunters should plant smaller plots, while gun hunters don’t need to be as concerned about the specific size.
“Just as long as you can reach the other side with a rifle,” says Adams, adding that one trick to put more deer in front of your stand during bow season is to create a pinch point in your food plot. “A lot of hunters create a kidney-shaped or hourglass plot with their stand at the narrowest point.”
Other ingredients factor into the size equation, too. Areas with high deer densities require larger plots, only because small plots won’t last long. What’s the point of planting a food plot if it’s gone a week into the season?
3) Test The Soil
No matter what you decide, get a soil test prior to spreading seed. A soil test is nothing more than a professional analysis of your dirt’s nutrient makeup and pH level. In most cases, soil tests provide specific nutrient recommendations for the plants you intend to grow.
“You are really putting yourself at a disadvantage if you don’t know exactly what your plants need for the soil you have,” says Scott. “By amending your soil with the recommended fertilizer and lime rates, you automatically give your plots an advantage over those who don’t conduct a soil test. Healthy plants also withstand severe weather better, they produce more forage and they are generally more palatable to deer.”
Some soils might be so nutrient-rich they don’t need added fertilizer or lime, but such instances are rare. In most situations, you’ll need to add something, and a soil test will tell you exactly what you should put down, right down to the specific amount of each nutrient. It will also figure the soil’s pH level and provide the recommended lime application.
“A soil test will also save you money,” explains Scott. “A lot of people just put down a bunch of 13-13-13 or a similar generic fertilizer and however much lime they think they need, but they may not need any phosphorous, for example, or they many not need that much nitrogen. They are just throwing money away by putting down something their plots don’t need.”
4) Kill The Weeds
While you wait for the results of the soil test, get to work on the plot itself. A summer’s worth of weed growth can swallow last year’s food plots. Brand-new plots can have even more unwanted plants. Start by using a non-selective herbicide like Roundup or a generic version on the entire plot. Killing the existing plant growth is a critical step that helps clear the ground for the good plants. It’s not impossible to build a plot without clearing out what’s already there, but it certainly makes the job easier and it creates a much better plot.
In most cases, it can take several days for any residual herbicide to disappear, so it’s a good idea to wait before moving forward with the next step. Besides, the longer you wait, the more the plants and their roots will break down. Adams says attempting to disk or till green plants can be a difficult task, especially with lighter disks.
If possible, consider burning the dead plants, particularly if the area is covered with thick vegetation. That clears out the existing plant matter and allows for easier soil preparation. A lighter disk like one pulled behind an ATV doesn’t always cut through vegetation in a single pass. Removing those existing plants with fire will make disking easier. Burned plant matter also serves as its own fertilizer.
Any controlled burn involves an element of danger, so make sure it’s an appropriate option for your situation. Not sure? Check with your local fire department or forestry office. They can offer guidance on controlled burns.
5) Turn Some Dirt
Once you’ve killed off the existing plant growth, you’ll need to turn some dirt. Some seeds will germinate and become established simply by tossing the seed onto unprepared ground, but the results can be spotty. The best plots come with a little extra effort. That means you’ll need to run a disk or tiller over the ground to expose the soil. A tiller will also do a fine job of turning under dead plant matter, but most experts agree a disk is a better multi-purpose tool.
“Tillers tend to be pretty slow and they can really get clogged up with plant matter. They don’t do very well in rocky soil, either,” says Adams. “You don’t need to get down very deep, so a light disking is usually all you need to make a good seed bed.”
Disking a week after you spray will produce a decent seed bed, but if time allows, wait a few weeks. That allows new weed seeds to sprout. Hit those new sprouts with another dose of non-selective herbicide and then wait a few more days and disk again.
It’s a lot of work, but anything worth doing is worth doing right, isn’t it? Besides, the more you put into your plots, the more you and your deer get out of them. Start now, take your time and watch the results from your treestand this fall.