By Tom Fegely

More than one “food plot farmer” has stood on the edge of his sparse, green-tinted patch of deer forage and scratched his head, wondering what happened. Or what failed to happen. Why didn’t the rich, green food plot shown on the bag and in magazine or TV advertisements look like his meager, struggling handiwork? What went wrong?
Or did he forget or misunderstand the role of some magical ingredient that was necessary for healthy growth? Take solace in the fact that all of us encounter food plot failures now and then. Learning from them is the key to turning things around. Whitetail Institute vice president Steve Scott is frequently faced with answering food plot and related forage questions at seminars and outdoor shows. I asked him for his thoughts on what might be the most frequently asked questions on getting your “deer garden” to grow. Call them steps you cannot skip.

CAN THE SOIL BE TILLED? “Some forages are designed to grow well and attract deer with minimal ground preparation,” Scott said. “If you can’t till the soil for some reason, the Institute’s Imperial No Plow and Secret Spot are great options.” These products are excellent choices for sites with limited access on foot or by ATV. These high-protein annual blends respond to simply scattering the seed onequarter inch deep or less, or even spreading it on top of the ground. Both blends germinate quickly, even without tilling before planting. Secret Spot was created for those small clearings within the woods or tiny openings near a tree stand that deer will discover and visit regularly.

DO YOU HAVE THE TIME? How much maintenance a plot will get may just be a matter of how much time you can afford. Your hunting lease might be a long drive from your food plot, which makes regular visits for spring-through-fall care difficult while juggling a work schedule. Even if you can’t perform spring forage maintenance, though, you still have excellent forage options. “If you want to just plant for fall and not have to do any spring maintenance, again, stick with an annual such as No- Plow or Secret Spot or go with Winter-Greens or Pure Attraction," Scott said.

MUST I HAVE A SOIL TEST? I posed this question to Matt Harper, WINA’s deer nutritionist. “Too often, people don’t take a good representative sample of the field to be planted," he said. "They might take enough soil, but it’s usually only from one spot. I advise taking small samples from different spots.” After mixing the samples, send a composite sample in for testing. Be sure to use a soil-testing service that actually sends the soil to a lab. And remember to note on the package what forage you intended to plant so that the lab can give you the precise recommendations. On the Whitetail Institute soil-test form, you can just check the block beside the Imperial forage you intend to plant. High quality soil tests usually cost about $10 and are also available from County Agents, agricultural centers and universities, and most farm supply stores. If you want to purchase a high quality soil-test kit from the Whitetail Institute, just call them at (800) 688-3030. Their consultants can also help you understand your soil test report, whether you purchased the kit from the Institute or not.

HOW IMPORTANT IS LIME? “Other than sunlight and water, proper soil pH is the most important thing you can control to assure success,” Scott said. “It is the most important aspect that you can control.” The soil test report lists your plot’s pH level. The closer it is to 7.0 (neutral) the better. If you need to add lime, disk it into the top few inches of soil if possible, and try to do it well in advance of planting if you can. It must be noted that lime treatment takes time and money. Several applications during a year or so may be needed to complete the job. Soil pH, and adjusting it when necessary, are extremely important with any forage planting. Alfalfas are especially dependent on soil pH, and you should not plant alfalfas or alfalfa-based forage products in soils with a pH lower than 6.5.

WHEN AND WHERE SHOULD I PLANT? Imperial perennials can be planted in the spring or in the fall in most areas. However, folks in the North usually plant their perennials in spring, and most folks in the South plant them in the fall. “Each perennial forage blend from the Whitetail Institute of North America is designed to work in a specific soil type and drainage,” Scott said. Imperial Whitetail Clover, Chicory PLUS and Double- Cross are the best choices for good soils that hold moisture—for example, bottom land, creek bottoms, river bottoms and flat spots with good soils. Alfa-Rack Plus is designed for good soils that drain well. The grazing alfalfas, chicory and clover in the blend have super drought tolerance. Extreme is the perennial to choose for plots with sandier or lighter soils that drain well. Planting dates vary depending on region. The planting dates and instructions for Imperial blends are on the back of the product bags, and they are also available on-line at

PLANTING AT THE CORRECT DEPTH Generally, small seeds, such as clovers for example, should be left on top of the seedbed and not covered. That means that you should get the seedbed as smooth as you can before you plant. If you use a cultipacker to smooth the seedbed before you plant small seeds, then roll the plot again with the cultipacker after you put the seed out. However, if you use a drag to smooth the seedbed, then put our your seed and do nothing further – do not cover small seeds. Large seeds such as oats or beans should be covered by an inch or less of loose soil when planted. Since the soil covering large seeds should be loose, do not cultipack the plot after planting large seeds.

DON’T TAKE PLANTING SHORTCUTS Another step you can absolutely not skip is carefully following the planting instructions on the product bag. “If you think about it,” Steve Scott said, “the last thing a seed seller wants to do is to make planting instructions so detailed that it makes customers think it’s too much trouble to plant the products. “Even though there might be relatively few steps in the planting process, some people become intimidated and take shortcuts. That could be costly — each step is important.”

MISCELLANEOUS MAINTENANCE As noted, properly maintaining your perennial forage will go a long way toward maximizing a food plot’s overall value and quality. “Once again, it is important to study in detail the maintenance instructions for the forage product being used,” Scott said. Such attention includes: • Controlling competitive grass in early spring when it has started to grow once again. • Mowing the top few inches off the plot a few times in spring and summer and maybe again in fall to stimulate new growth and help control weeds that rely on reseeding. • Fertilizing at least once a year according to the directions on the seed bag. • It may also be a good idea to top-dress your plots with 600 to 800 pounds of pelleted lime per acre every year or two. This may not raise soil pH as quickly, but it can help keep it from dropping as quickly over time. • In the North, consider over-seeding your plots with additional seed in spring, when the ground is thawing during the day and refreezing at night. This is referred to as “frost seeding.”