It’s no secret that food plots are a great way to provide high-quality nutrition to your deer herd. They also offer a great place to hang a treestand. However, a growing number of landowners are using a different type of food to help feed deer and keep them on their land: fruit trees. Why not? Deer love apples, pears and persimmons as much as we do. Even better, a small orchard is a longer-living, lower-maintenance food plot than any of the standard food plot plants we grow. They also cost less in the long run.
“When you consider all the costs involved in planting a food plot every year, you could plant a lot of fruit trees for the same amount of money you spend on one plot every year,” said Allen Deese, nursery and sales manager for The Wildlife Group, an Alabama-based nursery that specializes in wildlife fruit trees. “You only plant trees once and they’ll last for years. The best food plot might last five years, at the most.”
There’s certainly nothing wrong with a food plot. They serve a valuable purpose, but adding some fresh fruit to your deer herd’s diet only makes your ground more attractive.
“I have a lot of fruit trees in and around my food plots,” says Deese, an avid bowhunter. “Deer will key in on a specific food a certain time of the year. If you give them lots of options, you can keep them around longer and have better hunting all season.”
What To Plant
There is no perfect fruit tree, insists Deese. Most deer hunters know whitetails flock to apple trees, but deer also love pears, persimmons, cherries, crab apples and even peaches. Morse Nurseries owner Charlie Morse agrees. A bowhunter who has hunted over fruit trees for nearly 51 seasons, he’s witnessed whitetails step over pears to get to apples one day and then ignore apples in favor of pears the next. They eat them all.
What you plant is somewhat less important than a variety of other factors. However, it’s important to remember that different fruits ripen at different times. Peaches, for example, tend to drop early, often as early as mid-August in some regions. There’s nothing wrong with that, but a peach orchard won’t do you much good if you want to hunt near it. That’s why it’s important to understand the different types of fruit and the wide varieties of fruit species available.
“You definitely want something that is suited for your region. Some apple trees grow well in the North, but they don’t do well in the South, and vice versa. Make sure what you buy is compatible with your planting zone or your region,” Deese said. “Better nurseries will be able to help you with that.”
Whatever you choose, plant several variety of trees that flower at different times and drop fruit at different dates. That will give you an entire season’s worth of hunting opportunities instead of one brief window if all the fruit falls to the ground within a few short weeks.
“You’ll need trees with similar or overlapping bloom times to help pollinate the trees. I recommend adding some crab apples into your orchard to help pollinate your apple trees,” adds Deese.
The Wildlife Group sells tree packages, which contain a variety of each type of fruit. Some apple trees in the package, for example, ripen early, while others ripen later. Some varieties hold their fruit on the limbs well after it is ripe. Others drop fruit soon after it ripens. Some pear varieties produce softer fruit that attracts deer and other wildlife for a brief window, while others produce a harder fruit. They can stay on the ground for several weeks before they turn sour and rot.
“I always recommend large fruit trees, not the dwarf or semi-dwarf. The smaller ones won’t produce as much fruit and they are prone to browsing damage by deer,” says Morse.
Study the available varieties carefully and select those that coincide with your preferred hunting method. If, for instance, you prefer bowhunting, choose trees that drop fruit when bow season is in. Multi-season hunters need a variety — some that drop fruit early and others that hold it until well into gun season. A number of apple and pear trees will hold their fruit deep into the winter.
Morse, however, recommends planting trees that fruit throughout the fall, even if you aren’t in a treestand when that fruit is falling. Giving your deer an early food source conditions them to return to the orchard regularly and it keeps them on or near your land from the beginning of the season to the end.
“Planting a variety of species of each type of fruit is also a good idea because they don’t all produce a bumper crop every year. You know how acorns have good years and bad years? Fruit trees can be the same way,” says Deese.
Planting trees with varied bloom times ensures that you’ll have at least one variety of fruit available. It’s not unusual for a late frost to kill the blossoms on an early-flowering tree variety, which wipes out any chance of fruit on that tree.
If the idea of planting an orchard sounds appealing, be warned: There’s more to it than digging a hole and dropping a young fruit tree into it. Much more. First, says Deese, don’t bite off more than you can chew. He sometimes talks to new customers who want to start out with a hundred or more trees. There’s nothing wrong with going big, but planting that many trees can take an awful lot of time and work. That’s why it’s better to start out with a more reasonable number.
“I recommend 20 or 25 trees to start with. That way, people can have an idea of what’s involved and how much work they can expect to put into it,” says Deese. “I first tell people to develop a plan that lays out the orchard.”
Starting small reduces your workload, and it can prove to be a less costly lesson if you make some planting mistakes. Digging a hole and sticking a tree in it is the easy part. Doing it right takes a lot more time.
Part of a good plan involves choosing the right location. It might seem like a good idea to plant fruit trees along a field edge, but they might not get enough sunlight. Planting them in deep woods is an even worse idea. In order to maximize their potential and ensure their survival, plant them in full sun. If that’s not an option, plant them so they get morning sun, says Deese. That allows dew to burn off quickly, which helps reduce diseases. Also, avoid planting in low areas where water can collect. Too much water can rot the roots and kill the trees.
Once you’ve chosen an adequate site, prepare the ground by clearing existing plant growth. All plants hate competition from other plants. Clearing the ground with a shot of glyphosate — the active ingredient in Roundup — will keep competing plant growth at bay for a while. Deese planted clover around some of his fruit trees, but only after the trees established a strong root base. Just make sure you don’t disk inside the tree’s drip line. You will likely damage shallow roots.
The work isn’t over after you’ve planted your trees. In order to ensure their survival, you need to protect them when they are most vulnerable to disease and damage. Tree tubes — plastic, translucent tubes about 3 feet tall — protect the saplings from insects, rubbing bucks and gnawing rodents until they are tall enough to survive those and various other assaults.
Although botanists are constantly working to develop strains of trees that resist various diseases, virtually all fruit trees are susceptible to such things as blight, scab and rust. They are also vulnerable to a number of pests like borers, aphids and other living organisms. That’s why all trees should be inspected regularly and treated to prevent disease and damage. Deese recommends a systemic pesticide that is poured on the ground and absorbed into the plant through the root system. Such a treatment might not prevent all pests, though. That’s why it’s important to monitor your trees on a regular basis. Treat them at the first sign of trouble.
“You might need to spray some varieties if you want to eat some of the fruit yourself. There’s nothing wrong with taking some apples or pears, but in order to get the highest quality fruit, you’ll need to tend to it regularly,” says Morse. “If you are just planting for deer, then you don’t need to be concerned about things like spots on the fruit.”
All planted trees, fruit trees in particular, should be fertilized on a regular basis except their first year. That helps produce more and larger fruit and will result in a stronger and healthier tree. However, it’s better to err on the conservative side. Deese recommends fertilizing lightly with an even (like 10-10-10) slow-release fertilizer blend.
“You can kill your trees by over-fertilizing them,” he says.
Virtually any fruit tree you buy and plant properly will grow, but some will outperform others. Morse says the root structure is critical; it will determine a tree’s success. He recommends avoiding saplings with dwarf root stock.
“Ask the nursery about the root stock,” he says.
The best way to know if you are buying the right trees for your goals is to buy your products from a nursery that specializes in wildlife plantings, like those where Deese and Morse work. Both men are avid hunters and both understand the ins and outs of the various trees and how deer utilize them. The guy behind the counter of your local big-box hardware store might not know that a food plot and a fruit orchard are both great places to hang a treestand.