Creating vibrant, lush food plots seems easy enough. After all, we see them on outdoor television shows all of the time, right? Well, we also see huge bucks shot show after show, week after week as well and we all know how easy that is...
The reality of food plots for most of us is that they aren't easy to put in and maintain. For some of us, it's not even a remote possibility due to hunting on public land or permission-granted private ground. That was the case for me for most of my life until a few years ago when I bought a small property in northern Wisconsin.
Since then, I've worked on "poor man's food plots" quite a bit and the results haven't exactly been outdoor-television quality. But, they are fun and on a tiny property where scouting trips take about 20 minutes in total, they are a great way to feel like you're doing something.
I don't own an ATV and have only recently invested in a super weed-whacker that I can attach a saw blade to for clearing brush. In other words, everything I've done in the past has been by hand from clearing brush to carrying in bags of lime and fertilizer. It's a ton of work, to be honest, but it's also fun. And it all starts with the right spot.
Location, Location, Location
The first step is to identify a really good hunting spot right off of the bat. You want a place the deer like to travel through already. I prefer staging areas, which are my favorite spots to catch bucks dinking around as the last minutes of daylight fade away. These areas are usually 100 to 300 yards off of a major destination food source such as an agricultural field.
It's imperative that the area of your choosing also allows for easy ingress and egress. If you can't get in and out without spooking a bunch of deer, keep looking. And on that note, take a good look at stand trees and factor in the prevailing winds. I like to plan my plots to allow me to hunt two different wind directions if possible. That way, if I can get two kill plots in on a property, I might be able to hunt any conceivable wind direction if I have the chance to sit.
Clearing Brush & Trees
I'm prone to stitches, so I'm not allowed to run chainsaws. I have a few buddies who are pretty good with them, however, so they are the ones that I call when I need to take a patch of woods and turn it into an opening. For this task, most of us will look for a natural opening in which to start, but I'm shying away from that strategy.
I actually like my food plots to begin in places with older-growth trees and very little underbrush. This makes it easier to clear and work on without having to worry about layers of ground cover.
This is by far the most dangerous step of the process, so make sure that you're keeping things safe. More than a few bowhunters have met their maker over falling trees, don't be one of them.
When you've cleared out your plot and raked the leaf litter away, the best thing to do is to get a soil test. This will show your PH, and give direction on what to do to improve the conditions. Depending on where you're at, you might need to haul in some lime and will almost definitely need to bring in some fertilizer. The good thing about this is that with a really small plot, all of this can be hauled in on your back, or on a deer cart.
When you do open up the soil to sunlight it hasn't seen in years, long-dormant weed seeds will take every opportunity to pop. This means one of two things. You'll either need to let things grow for a bit and spray them down, or plant something right away and hope that it outcompetes the weeds.
I've gone both routes, largely because I use to try to do more fall plantings. In that case, killing the weeds is a necessity. I've started to ditch that strategy because where I live, rain is far from a guarantee throughout the late summer and fall. Instead, I now almost always plant in the spring so that I know my plots will get plenty of rain and valuable early-summer sunshine.
There are so many options for food plot seeds these days that it is mind blowing. I think the best overall deer food out there are soybeans, but for my plots they aren't an option. The next best thing for me is clover. I like to plant oats and clover at the same time in the spring.
Oats, which can dang near grow on an asphalt parking lot, will germinate quickly and poke through the soil first. They keep growing and seed out early. While they are a draw to deer, turkeys and bears, they aren't my first choice for an attractive food source. They function more as a cover crop to give my clover a chance to really take hold.
"There are so many options for food plot seeds these days that it is mind blowing. I think the best overall deer food out there are soybeans, but for my plots they aren't an option. The next best thing for me is clover. I like to plant oats and clover at the same time in the spring."
After the oats die off in mid-summer the clover is usually growing well enough to necessitate a haircut. I tend to only have to do this once a year because growing conditions in my area aren't that great.
The best bet for deciding on what plants are right for your plot is to chat with someone who really knows. Track down a local food plot seed company if you have to and find a source willing to give you advice. If you've gotten the results of your soil test back and are ready to take the steps necessary to improve your seedbed, whoever you talk to should be able to recommend several good seed options.
Fall plantings are a little more dicy than spring because there isn't much room for a do-over. If you plant something that doesn't take in late-August, your odds of replanting and getting anything viable to pop are pretty slim. Spring plantings make things much easier, but you've still got to monitor how your plot is doing.
This is the fun part, and can be done in combination with scouting trips and trail cameras. Watching a plot take off and start to draw critters in is pretty cool, and if there is a dead spot in your plot or the original planting doesn't take hold, take a look at the weather forecast.
When you see it is likely to rain in the near future, head out and replant the dead spots or work up the whole plot and plant it again. This is usually a first- or second-year issue and then after that it gets much easier.
The last step is, of course, to hunt your plot. You probably won't be overrun with Booners on a tiny kill plot but you just might have a decent buck stop by on his way to the neighbor's cornfield. Or you might have a few does suddenly decide they like stopping by your buffet, and they could either end up in your freezer or draw in a buck that will. When that happens, the work you put in throughout the spring and the summer won't feel like such a big deal.