Is bigger better? When it comes to planting and maintaining food plots, the answer isn’t a simple “yes” or “no.” Size certainly has its advantages, but for many hunters, a sprawling field of clover or wheat simply isn’t an option. They don’t have the land, the necessary equipment or the financial means to plant a few acres of deer food. That’s OK. Small plots can serve a valuable purpose. They draw deer just like a larger food plot, providing you with a high-quality, high-opportunity hunting area.
How small is “small?” There is no right or wrong definition, says Whitetail Institute Vice President Steve Scott. It simply depends on what you can do with what you have.
“Anything you plant of any size will draw deer,” he says. “It’s just a question of whether or not it will still provide a food source during hunting season. I’ve seen plots as small as a tenth of an acre work for some guys, but I’d say anything less than a quarter-acre is considered a small plot.”
In other words, planting something, even if it’s just a tenth of an acre, is better than planting nothing. Small plots can have a few advantages over larger plots, says Georgia hunter Phil Barnet.
“How many times have you sat in your tree over a big food plot and watched deer feed on the other side?” he asks. “That’s certainly not an issue during rifle season, but if it’s bow season, that can be frustrating. That won’t happen with a small plot.”
If that’s not enough, consider this — a 1-acre plot can set your bank account back hundreds of dollars. By the time you factor in seed, fertilizer, lime, herbicide and fuel, you’ve spent nearly enough money to book a trip with a first-class deer outfitter.
If you already have an ATV, you won’t need much more than a sprayer and a disk to plant plots up to a quarter-acre. Smaller ones can be planted with nothing more than a walk-behind garden tiller or even a rake and some sweat.
“It really comes down to how much time and effort you are willing to spend. If the ground doesn’t have a lot of existing plant growth, then it will be pretty easy,” says Scott. “As long as you have good seed-to-soil contact, you will be fine. A rake is usually enough to rough up the soil, but you will need to kill off the existing plant growth and remove as much as possible for best results.”
Before you buy any seed, turn dirt and even choose a site, you need to consider the purpose of the plot, agree Scott and Barnet.
“Is it a hunting plot or a forage plot? A hunting plot is meant to attract deer during hunting season and a forage plot is grown to provide quality forage during the spring and summer,” says Scott. “Of course, some nutrition plots last into the early part of hunting season and attraction plots do provide nutrition, but for the most part, they serve a single purpose.”
Scott adds that in many situations, a nutrition plot of a quarter-acre or less won’t last long enough to reach maturity. Deer will nip off the tips of emerging plants as soon as they discover them. That will leave you with a bare patch of dirt just weeks after you spent all that time and money planting.
“If you don’t have very many deer, a small summer nutrition plot may last, but there’s a good chance it won’t,” he says. “I often don’t recommend them if they are less than a quarter-acre.”
What’s more, with so much native food available during the spring and summer and so little in a small plot, it’s tough to say if it will have any impact on your deer herd’s overall health. That is, assuming they don’t demolish it before it has a chance to reach its full potential. In other words, there’s not much point to a small nutrition plot.
That’s why Barnet recommends planting an annual product in the fall for the specific purpose of drawing deer during hunting season. An avid hunter and food plotter, Barnet uses Evolved Harvest’s Buck’n Oats, a blend of annual oats and brassicas, in his small plots.
“The oats offer an early-season food,” he says. “They germinate quickly and deer will start eating them almost as soon as they sprout, but they will continue to grow even after they’ve been browsed. Deer generally won’t touch brassicas until they’ve been hit with a frost, so they provide a great late-season food.”
Scott agrees that fall-planted annual blends are a great small-plot option. Not only are they simple to plant, but they’re also less expensive than perennials in the long run. They require virtually no maintenance and the soil only needs to be amended once.
He recommends Whitetail Institute’s No Plow, Pure Attraction, Bow Stand or Secret Spot, which are all annual blends that provide lots of all-season forage. Each is a different blend of seeds, with anywhere from two to five plants in each blend. As Barnet says, blends give whitetails a variety of food choices in a single space, and those choices can last from the opening day of bow season to the fleeting moments of the late firearms season.
Perennials might not offer those advantages, but Scott says there’s certainly nothing wrong with planting perennials, if that’s what you want to do.
“Imperial Whitetail Clover is a good choice if you do want a perennial,” he says. “It can last up to five years, but you will have to maintain it if you want it to reach its full potential. The problem with perennials is that they typically don’t provide the amount of forage you can get from annuals, so if you have a lot of deer, there may not be any food left come hunting season in a small plot.”
Perennial plants like clover and alfalfa can also go dormant in northern climates. Deer stop using them when they are no longer palatable. A number of annual plants, brassicas and wheat in particular, will stay vibrant through the coldest months.
Brassicas also provide a huge amount of forage, or what plant experts call “tonnage.” So do other plants that grow tall and leafy. Turnips, for example, produce large, broad leaves and softball-sized fruit that deer will eat once they’ve devoured all the leaves. Winter peas produce a high tonnage as well, but they might never get a chance to reach their full potential in small plots.
What you plant depends on where you can plant it, at least to some extent. Although all food plot plants require at least four hours of direct sunlight, a few are more shade-tolerant than others. That means they can work in field corners adjacent to tall trees, along tree-lined trails or in other spots that might get some shade during a large part of the day. Be warned, though — “shade-tolerant” does not mean they will grow in deep woods. Scott says that is a common mistake many hunters make.
“We get calls from customers who tried to plant a plot in the middle of a mature forest where almost no sunlight reaches the ground all day,” he says. “No food plot plant will grow in that situation.”
Sunlight considerations aside, selecting the ideal location is as simple as you want it to be. Since your plot size is limited by your available space or your bank account, you may have to put it in the only available spot and hope for the best. If you do have choices, consider everything from the prevailing wind direction and the amount of sunlight a specific location gets to the direction you’ll approach the plot when you hunt it and the soil type.
Heavy soil holds moisture better than sandy, well-drained soil. Some plot plants thrive in heavier, wetter soils, while others do well on ground that doesn’t hold water quite as well. Hilltops and slopes, for instance, are great places for a blend of turnips and oats or wheat. Bottomland soils are ideal for clovers and other annual blends that contain clovers. Just make sure the site has adequate sunlight.
Barnet and Scott agree that no matter where you put a plot, it’s imperative to conduct a soil test. That will tell you how much lime and fertilizer a specific plant or blend needs to flourish, and will ensure your deer have the highest nutrition available in your plots.
“Deer won’t eat unhealthy plants,” says Scott. “It’s always a great help to get a soil test and follow the recommendations, but if you only have a small plot, it’s even more important to get everything right. Why bother planting anything if you aren’t going to give the plants the nutrients they need?”
Barnet keeps an eye on his soil’s pH level with Evolved Harvest’s pH meter. He says the pH level is equally important as the right nutrient levels.
“Without the right pH level, your plants are not able to take up nutrients as well, so there’s no point in fertilizing if your pH level is not where it needs to be,” he says. “It doesn’t matter how small or large your plot is if it’s not growing well.”