So you had a good year hunting over or near your food plot. The season is winding down, so it's time to relax since next year's season is a long way away, right? Wrong.
On our deer lease, we came to realize that the period right after the season ends can be a great time to prepare for your food plot to be even better next year. With springtime planting and preparations only a few months away, don't miss out on this great opportunity to get a head start doing some important tasks now.
A lot of our food plots are located in small, wooded areas. If you have a 1/2- to 1-acre area carved out of the woods and it is fairly new, you might still have stumps or rocks to clear. Now couldn't be a better time to tackle that task. We had one long, narrow food plot that was lined with trees. A big improvement for that plot was to trim back the tree branches, allowing more light to hit the field once green-up came.
If you can remove trees on the property you hunt, then you also might benefit from removing some trees completely, especially trees such as maples that don't add anything for the deer (other than browse when the trees are small). Every fall they will drop tons of leaves on the plot. Obviously plants that are buried in leaves don't grow well.
However, fruit trees do benefit your deer herd. Why not make your food plot a perennial food plot while you are out there trimming and clearing trees? Even on leased property where you can't remove trees, few owners will object to you planting pears, apples and even persimmon trees.
Keep in mind these trees will require a good amount of sunlight, so try to picture where the sun angle will be in spring-summer before you plant. There are many nurseries around the country that specialize in fruit trees, even fruit trees for wildlife, and in many climate zones it is possible to find a mix of fruit tree varieties that will drop fruit from late summer until early winter.
A mix of tree varieties that drop fruit for months will attract deer early in the season and during the rut. Does will be tempted to walk over acorns to get to ripe fruit trees — and as we all know, where the does are, the bucks will follow. It is also very important to get a variety of trees for good cross-pollination.
When planting your trees, plan ahead so that they will survive that first dry summer when the stress on them is highest. Dig your hole twice as large as needed and amend the soil with soil conditioner, then loosely fill it back up. Now you can easily use your hand to dig a small hole for the root ball or even bare root trees. Plant the tree slightly higher than ground height to allow for settling.
Use some of the extra soil to make a small dike around your tree to help hold water. It is also good to use one of the many types of water storing polymer crystals designed to reduce water loss during periods of drought. Just mix the crystals right in the soil, around each tree. You may not always be able to get out to your plot during the most critical periods of that first summer to water them and this can make a huge difference.
I can tell you that this technique works very well, even in mid-summer when everything was dry as a bone. I dug down around my new fruit trees only one-half inch, to find moist balls of soil from where the crystals did their job.
It is also important to mulch as usual. Make sure that you secure each tree with tall stakes, just as you would with any new tree planting.
If you haven't by now, you should start a log or a journal. Now is a great time to catch up on past entries, recording your past soil sample results, types of plants seeded in each plot during summer and fall plantings and your deer harvest results.
How did the plantings come up? Did deer and other wildlife favor some plantings over others?
Include sightings of all animals, trail camera surveys and food plot exclusion cage results, from this year's hunting season. All this information allows you to notice trends, mistakes and successes over time.
Writing these notes down in real time makes a difference. You'll be surprised how much you forget about timing and results over a couple of years. Having accurate notes adds up to an incredibly valuable tool. We all get busy throughout the year and even if you haven't updated your log for a while, now is a great time to make it current.
I mentioned soil samples. Go ahead and collect a soil sample now before the spring season starts. If you know you will need lime or fertilizer (most do) now is a great time to get it in the ground in preparation for spring.
Speaking of fertilizer, I like to add some cow, horse or chicken manure at this time or right when you turn over the ground in preparation for spring planting. Also, if you turn over legumes such as beans, clover, peas and alfalfa just before spring planting, you will allow the natural process of biological nitrogen fixation.
Much of our atmosphere is actually in the form of nitrogen (N2), however this is not useful to plants unless nitrogen is in the (N3) or ammonia form. This occurs when nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the soil live in close association with the plant. When the bacteria die, the nitrogen is released for other plants. This allows for proteins and amino acids to be produced, all part of the requirements for healthy plants. However if you harvest the plant, the benefit is largely lost. Since the plant uses up a lot of this nitrogen, some of it is leaked into the soil for future plants to use. However, to gain this benefit, the entire plant, roots, leaves and stalk must be returned to the soil.
I love hunting deer wherever I can find them, but there is something extremely satisfying in creating a healthy environment that they want to visit and then hunting and harvesting the top of the herd, year after year. Not only will this benefit the health of the herd, but give you something fun to do that is hunting related, all year long.