April 13, 2012
By Tony Peterson
Food plots are a divisive subject. The average hunter is exposed to countless television shows taped on the edges of vast, green food plots that fill nightly with deer. Magazines and Internet forums are chock-full of photos of hunters happily posing with brute bucks in obvious food plots. The perception is that if you plant a food plot, big bucks will show up and it becomes a matter of merely choosing the deer that tickles your fancy. On lightly-pressured, highly-controlled properties that can certainly be the case. For the rest of us, it's simply not.
Most of us don't have the land or the tools to plant large food plots. That doesn't mean we're out of luck. Over the last decade or so, my hunting buddies and I have tried our hands at creating small, staging-area style food plots any place we could get permission. The results have been surprising.
Our first attempts at planting food plots were futile. With machetes, metal rakes, and more willpower than brains we cleared out spots in the woods that we thought were likely staging areas. We reasoned that a small patch of clover located inside the cover of woods but within sight of agricultural fields would congregate traveling deer. What we found was on the rare occasion when we did create a plot that received enough sunlight, had the right soil, and successful seed germination and growth, the plot still didn't have a chance. By late-August, every one of the plants in our "good" food plots would be trimmed to putting-green height long before we had a chance to hunt.
Since our early attempts we've gotten a bit wiser and now take a more scientific approach to our plantings. First off, location is of utmost importance. If you pick a clearing or other open area because it will be easy to till up and plant, you might be making a mistake. The goal of a small food plot is to provide a situation where hunter and deer can come together for a high-odds shot opportunity. This typically means the best location is right between bedding and feeding areas. It's easy to think of them as a stopping-off place but not an ultimate destination, like grabbing a cup of coffee when you're on your way to the archery range for an early morning shoot.
When deciding on a plot location, there are two reasons to look up. The first is to decide how much sunlight will reach the ground. A little trimming can sometimes open up the canopy and allow adequate sunlight through. The second reason to gaze skyward is to identify a good stand tree that will work in prevailing fall winds.
Assuming all of the necessary pieces of the puzzle have come together, it's time to clear out ground cover. A sharp machete, a handsaw or chainsaw, metal rakes, shovels, and battery-powered weed trimmers are all useful. Herbicides also work well but must be applied well in advance to allow sufficient time to pass between spraying and planting.
After the ground is cleared, the soil needs to be exposed. Soil-to-seed contact is of the utmost importance for planting success. This can be achieved with anything from a metal rake or hand tiller to a pull-behind plow that can be hooked up to an ATV.
Now comes the decision of which seeds to plant and when. The food plot seed market has exploded in the last decade and options are plentiful. There are mainstays like clover or turnips, super-charged soybean plants that can climb to impressive heights, and a multitude of blends designed to cover nearly all situations. I've found the best approach is to take a simple pH soil test with a handheld tester and then conduct some research. Most companies will know the average rainfall of your region and the typical soil type, and can recommend the best option for you.
Lastly, most seeds can be planted in either the spring or late summer. Recommended dates will vary depending on where you live. Spring plantings are a great way to feed all kinds of wildlife and to see deer throughout the summer. But for the purpose of hunting, late-summer and fall plantings are best because deer prefer lush, young plants. Later plantings ensure a maximum level of desirability during early bow season.
If this seems like a lot to consider, take a look at the following products designed for anyone seeking an easy transition into the food plot fold.
One of the leaders of the food plot movement, Whitetail Institute, offers a couple different products like Imperial No-Plow ($39.99/9 lbs.), which is a high-protein blend that is truly easy to plant. No-Plow requires only three to four hours of sunlight a day and is a great option for planting in small clearings or along logging roads. Another option is their new Tall Tine Tubers ($28.95/3 lbs.), which includes the only turnips developed specifically for deer food plots. Tall Tine Tubers provides two types of food -- forage and tubers -- making it one of the best choices for fall and early-winter hunting. Visit www.whitetailinstitute.com or call 1-800-688-3030.
If you were to offer most food plot addicts only one type of seed to plant for an entire year, most would choose clover. Fully aware of this, Mossy Oak BioLogic offers Clover Plus ($16.99/2 lbs.), which features a perennial blend of New Zealand Red and White clovers and chicory. Their New Zealand clover has been developed to produce larger leaves and smaller stems to increase the nutritional value. Visit www.mossyoakbiologic.com or call (662) 495-9292.
Evolved Harvest sells several seed blends that are perfect for small plots, but one of the easiest and most effective is their annual No-Till EasyPlot ($24.99/15 lbs.). EasyPlot contains rye grass, rape and clovers, and can be planted in either the spring or the fall. Visit www.evolved.com or call (225) 638-4094.
A relative newcomer to the food plot market, Wildgame Innovations also has created a no-till option, Backwoods Blend ($17.99/5 lbs.). Backwoods Blend requires a soil pH of 6 to 7.5, meaning a soil test is a good idea and adding lime to the soil might be necessary. This seed mix contains annual grains and sweet brassicas that grow quickly, providing hunting opportunities shortly after planting. Visit www.wildgameinnovations.com or call 1-866-995-4263.
A perfect choice if you find yourself wishing for a secret honey-hole tucked deep into the woods is No Sweat ($14.95/4.5 lbs.) from Antler King. No Sweat is a no-till plot mix that contains both annual and perennial seeds, is extremely pH tolerant, and requires minimal sunlight. Antler King also offers a liquid soil conditioner called Plot Max ($19.95/32 oz.) that raises soil pH and promotes moisture retention. Visit www.antlerking.com or call 1-888-ANTLER1.
Canola, chicory and turnips, along with four types of perennial clovers, make up the MonsterBuck Pasture Mix ($31.95/6 lbs.) from Wisconsin-based Elk Mound Seed Company. Pasture Mix germinates in 10 to 14 days and can be planted in spring or fall. Visit www.monsterbuckfoodplot.com or call 1-800-401-7333.
Buck Forage Oats ($35/50 lbs.) from Buck Forage Products are perfect for small food plots. Buck Forage Oats grow well when planted 2" deep in the soil with an optimum pH level of 7. The winter-hardy oats grow slower than normal oats, meaning they'll stay tender and palatable long into the season. Visit www.buckforage.com or call 1-800-299-6287.
Tecomate Seed offers Frost Zone ($19.99/4 lbs.), which contains a blend of seeds chosen specifically to thrive in colder climates. Spring and fall plantings are an option, but this seed also does well when "frost seeded," which is a planting process that involves broadcasting seed on frozen ground and then waiting for the thawing process to literally absorb the seed into the ground. Visit www.tecomateseed.com or call 1-800-547-4101.
If you own or have access to an ATV, Plotmaster's Hunter 300 ATV Model ($3,199) might be worth looking into. The Hunter 300 features an all-in-one design that allows easy discing, plowing, planting, and cultipacking. Plotmaster's VERSA-SEEDER system allows you to plant any type of seed through a unique reverse-auger system. Visit www.theplotmaster.com or call 1-888-629-4263.
Lastly, small food plots have a tendency to disappear quickly into the stomachs of wandering ungulates. So, to protect your investments until you're ready to hunt, check out the Plotsaver Starter Kit ($49.99) from Messina Wildlife Services. This kit is designed to protect an entire acre for up to 100 days through the use of Plotsaver deer repellant and a reusable ribbon system designed to deter marauding deer. Visit www.messinawildlife.com or call 1-888-411-3337.
While they may not ensure instant success, small food plots are a rewarding way to increase bowhunting enjoyment. All it takes are the right tools, appropriate seed, and a willingness to put in a little sweat equity. After that, it's a matter of waiting for the right wind and calmly picking a spot.