How to Maximize Performance and Longevity of Perennials

By Jon Cooner

 When it comes right down to it, we all want the same three things from our perennial food plots: we want them to be as attractive as they can be, as nutritious as possible, and last as long as they should. For that to happen, one of the things we have to do is keep weeds in check. In this article, I’ll show you that the very same comprehensive, balanced approach to optimum weed control also helps maximize the attraction, nutritional content and longevity of your perennials.

Hopefully, you keep and file Whitetail News articles you find especially informative and put them in a binder or file them for future reference. I certainly do. Most of the articles about food plots that I save are filed under subject-specific tabs, such as “Food Plot Design,” “Equipment,” “Planting Instructions,” and “Perennial Forage Maintenance.” A few articles I’ve saved, though, won’t fit neatly into a single subject’s section because they tie multiple subjects together in a way that made a light bulb turn on in my brain when I first read them. Those special articles go into a separate section in the very front of my files under a tab appropriately marked “Light Bulb Articles.”

If you keep a file like I do, then I hope that this article is one you’ll want to save in your own “Light Bulb Articles” section for future reference because it will tie multiple subjects about food plots together in a way that reveals something you may have never considered before: The steps to optimum weed control, perennial-forage attractiveness, stand longevity and overall performance are exactly the same — and many of them depend on each other for optimum results. To explain, I’ll start with a look at the “Integrated Weed Management” approach set out by Dr. Carroll Johnson, the Whitetail Institute’s Weed and Herbicide Scientist, in an earlier issue of Whitetail News. Then, we’ll expand its application to perennial performance and longevity. Finally, we’ll tie everything together with a look at the planting instructions for Whitetail Institute perennial forage products. As you’ll see, all three are based on the same premise: a comprehensive, balanced approach yields optimum results.

A Comprehensive, Balanced Approach
 The Model for Optimum Results
Weed Control (Specifically)
The clearest explanation of why a comprehensive, balanced approach offers optimum weed-control results in perennial food plots appears in an article I have in the “Light Bulb” section of my binder: “Integrated Weed Management,” which was written by Dr. Carroll Johnson, and published in Whitetail News, Volume 18, No. 3. In that article, Dr. Johnson used a three-legged stool to illustrate that the three types of weed control measures (cultural, physical and chemical) should be considered as part of an integrated weed-management plan for optimum comprehensive weed control. In the same article, Dr. Johnson provided the following explanation of this concept:

“Any crop production practice that enhances crop growth and uniformity also improves the ability of the crop to compete with weeds. This is true for any crop. Another way of describing this relationship is equally relevant. If a crop is not growing normally or uniformly, there is a parallel weed control problem. Uniform crop growth is the single most powerful form of weed control in any cropping system, including food plots. Forage selection, proper soil fertility (particularly pH), seedbed preparation, seeding rate, and overall growing conditions are cultural practices that provide weed control benefits of troublesome weeds.”

As you read on, keep two terms in mind: “optimum growth conditions” and “crop production practices.”

Even though Dr. Johnson’s article was specifically about weed control, this short paragraph is also the clearest statement I’ve ever seen of how to achieve a much broader goal: maximizing the attractiveness, nutritional content and longevity of perennial plantings. To show you why, I’ll break down what Dr. Johnson said and look more closely at each part. I’ll start with a sentence in the above paragraph from Dr. Johnson’s article because, as you’ll see, it’s the key to everything — it’s the key to an effective weed-management plan, and to ensuring that your perennials are highly attractive, nutritious and as long-lived as possible.

“Uniform crop growth is the single most powerful form of weed control in any cropping system, including food plots.”Now, why is that the case? You may have noticed the answer in your own perennial food plots and not even realized it: Weeds are opportunists. They usually show up in areas of the plot where the forage stand is thin. It stands to reason, then, that the healthier the forage stand is, the less opportunity weeds have to invade the plot. As Dr. Johnson also explained, “Another way of describing this relationship is equally relevant. If a crop is not growing normally or uniformly, there is a parallel weed control problem.”

So, how do we make sure our forage plants can grow vigorously and uniformly? By making sure they have optimum growing conditions, meaning that the planting environment is such that the forage plants can get everything they need to thrive. In most cases, the environment doesn’t provide optimum growth conditions when it’s in its natural state. And that’s where we come in. We have to make the growth environment optimum through “crop production practices that enhance crop growth and uniformity,” or making sure we correctly address the factors Dr. Johnson mentioned, “forage selection, soil fertility, seedbed preparation, seeding rate,” and others vital to establishing optimum growth conditions.

If all that sounds familiar, there’s a reason: Those and other such crop production practices ARE the steps in Whitetail Institute’s planting instructions for its perennial forage products. And just like Dr. Johnson’s three-legged stool of Integrated Weed Management, many of those steps work together to help you achieve optimum growth conditions so that your perennials can be as attractive, nutritious and long-lived as they can be. We’ll cover that next.

Optimum Growth Conditions Depend on Crop Production Practices Working Together
Weed Control (Specifically)
Here’s a question for you to consider: When is the first time you think about weeds in your perennials? Is it only after they show up? If so, then you’re being entirely “reactive” — you’re trying to “get rid” of weeds after they appear.

Of course your weed-control plan should be reactive — in part. Since weeds will eventually show up in even the best-prepared food plots, you do need to be reactive and deal with them when you see them. The point of Dr. Johnson’s three-legged stool is that being entirely reactive isn’t the best approach to comprehensive weed control. While you’ll probably be able to control weeds in most cases if you wait until they actually show up, optimum growth conditions will usually take more time and effort than if you’d also been proactive — taking steps before weeds appear to make it harder for them to get a foothold.

And as you’ll see next, that is exactly the same understanding on which the planting instructions for Whitetail Institute perennials are based.

Whitetail Institute Planting Instructions for Imperial Perennial Forage Products

 So far, we’ve covered quite a bit of information, so let’s quickly recap: As Dr. Johnson advised in his article, a healthy forage stand is the most important tool for weed control, and the same comprehensive, balanced approach to optimum weed control he described in “Integrated Weed Management” also applies fully to the broader goal of perennial stand performance (maximized attraction, nutrition and longevity). And the path to achieving all these goals is the same: a comprehensive, balanced application of crop production practices that will increase yield.

The planting instructions for all Whitetail Institute perennial forage products are similar, but none is identical to the others. Here, we’ll be reviewing the planting steps for Imperial Whitetail Clover in greater detail. When we’re through, you should have a clear picture of how far-reaching the benefits of a balanced, integrated approach are. And as is the case with weed control, you’ll see that ensuring that your forage plants have optimum growth conditions depends on many of the crop production practices in the planting instructions working together.

1. Follow all instructions below, step-by-step, when planting Imperial Whitetail Clover. (See our planting guide DVD for further details and instructions.)

The first step is there just to remind you that the Whitetail Institute’s DVD provides tons of information about the planting process. In addition, you can find lots of instructive photos, videos and articles on the Whitetail Institute’s website, And as always, you can get rapid, direct personalized assistance for free just by calling (800) 688-3030, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Central time, Monday through Friday.

2. Stay within the planting times for your state on the back of your Imperial Whitetail Clover bag.  

This is where we start getting into crop production practices designed to yield optimum growth conditions.

Optimum Growth Conditions. Like any crop, optimum results can be expected from Whitetail Institute perennials when they’re planted in specific climactic and weather conditions.

Crop Production Practice. Follow the Whitetail Institute’s published planting dates. The Whitetail Institute publishes recommended regional planting dates for each of its perennial forage products. Those dates, which are provided on the back of the product bags and at, have been shown through Whitetail Institute testing to be ideal for stand establishment and growth. Planting outside the Whitetail Institute’s recommended planting dates elevates the risk that unexpected hot, dry or cold weather will compromise the forage planting. The dates are not the same for all Whitetail Institute perennials, so be sure you check the specific planting dates for the forage you’ll be planting.

3. For Imperial Whitetail Clover, select an area with heavy soil that holds moisture. If possible, avoid sandy soils, hilltops and hillsides that drain quickly.

This is where we start getting into crop production practices WORKING TOGETHER to yield optimum growth conditions.

Optimum Growth Conditions. Select a forage product designed for the type of soil in the site, and the slope of the site. Some forages require more moisture for optimum growth than others. Some require less. Some soil types can hold moisture better than others, and that’s generally the result of two factors: the soil type in the plot, and the slope of the site.

Crop Production Practices Working Together. The good news is that virtually no matter what type of soil type and slope of your plot, the Whitetail Institute has a perennial forage product designed for it. To help you make sure you select the correct forage product for each of your food plot sites, the Whitetail Institute has provided an interactive forage-selection program on its website, and it will lead you to the best options for each of your sites with just the click of a few buttons. And if you still have questions, the Whitetail Institute’s in-house consultants are just a phone call away.

4. If the plot you are planting has grass, it is a good idea to spray a Roundup-type product and wait the recommended 10 days before disking. (Always follow herbicide label directions.) Optimum Growth Condition. Maximized root space.

Crop Production Practices Working Together. To help ensure that your forage plants won’t have to compete with grass and weeds for root space, remove as much grass and weeds from the seedbed as possible before the seeds are sown. Doing so will help keep your forage plants from having to compete for nutrients and moisture available in the site, making it easier for your forage plants to grow without restriction. Remember what we said earlier? For optimum results, start weed control proactively during seedbed preparation, and also reactively as soon as grass and weeds begin to reappear in the stand. You’ll get optimum results if you deal with weeds before they appear and make it harder for them to get a foothold in the first place. By removing weed and grass competition before you plant (proactive weed control), you free up root space in the seedbed and you make it easier to deal with weeds that appear later in the established forage stand (reactive weed control).

5. Soil test for a Giant White Clover to determine fertilizer and lime requirements. Be sure the pH of the soil is between 6.5 and 7.5. Proper pH is a very important part of soil preparation. If no soil test is available, use 400 lbs. of 6-24-24 or equivalent fertilizer per acre. Also, apply a minimum of two tons of lime per acre. A heavy application of lime can maintain a neutral soil pH for several years.
Optimum Growth Conditions. This concerns “soil fertility” (soil pH and levels of important nutrients such as Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium in the soil). For optimum forage growth, soil pH must be 6.5 to 7.5, and the soil must contain sufficient levels of all the nutrients the plants need. A laboratory soil test will tell you whether any of these levels are low and, if so, exactly what blend and amount of fertilizer to add to correct it. It will also tell you whether soil pH is low and, if it is low, how much lime to add to the seedbed to raise it to the ideal range of 6.5 to 7.5.

Crop Production Practices Working Together. If the level of any soil nutrient is low, then it should be raised with fertilizer before planting. If soil pH is low, then it should be limed in advance of planting, a few months in advance if possible. The forage plants won’t be able to uptake all the nutrients they need unless both nutrient levels and soil pH are addressed — the nutrients must be there, and soil pH must be “neutral” ( 6.5-7.5) for the forage plants to access those nutrients. Most fallow soils in the U.S., though, are “acidic” (soil pH lower than 6.5), and as a result some of the nutrients are bound up in the soil in a way that the plants can’t reach them. And the lower the soil pH gets, the worse it gets. For example, if you spend $100 on fertilizer and plant in soil with a soil pH of 5.0 without raising soil pH first, the plants will only be able to access about half the fertilizer you put out. In other words, you will have wasted $50. And here’s something else you may not have thought of: making sure soil pH is in neutral range can also help with weed and grass control. Native grasses and other weeds tend to grow best when soil pH is in its natural state. As I mentioned earlier, most fallow soils are acidic. By raising soil pH to neutral, you not only provide an optimum growing condition for your forage plants, but also make it harder for grass and weeds to freely uptake nutrients. Are you starting to see how all this is interrelated?

6. Disk ground thoroughly to prepare good weed-free seedbed.
Optimum Growth Conditions. Most fallow soils have huge amounts of dormant weed seed and grass seed in the soil. Some have such thick seed coats that they can literally lie dormant in the soil for decades. Disking the seedbed a few times at two-week intervals can bring a lot of these seeds to the surface where they germinate and are then killed by the next disking. isn’t the only way disking the seedbed can help promote optimum growth conditions. In addition to the weed control benefit, repeated disking during seedbed preparation can also help thoroughly incorporate lime added to the seedbed to raise soil pH. Lime raises soil pH by acting in particle-to-particle contact with the soil (a piece of lime has to touch a piece of soil to raise that soil particle’s pH), so for best results, lime should be incorporated into the soil by disking or tilling. So, if soil pH is low, add the recommended amount of lime, and disk it in. Then disk a few more times at two-week intervals. Doing so can help incorporate the lime even more thoroughly and reduce the amount of dormant weed seed you have in the soil. Be sure to disk or till to the same depth each time. That way you don’t bring even more dormant weed seed up into the top layer of the seedbed.

7. Prepare a good, firm seed bed. For best results use a cultipacker or heavy roller to smooth and firm the soil. If no cultipacker is available, use a weighted fence-type drag (see DVD for details). It is critical to level the ground and fill in any cracks that will allow the seed to get too deep. (NOTICE: We are cultipacking or dragging before the seeds are sown.)
Optimum Growth Condition — Seed Depth. For optimum survivability, small seeds such as Imperial Whitetail clover, chicory and brassica should be left on top, or very near the surface, of the seedbed. Large seeds such as oats and beans should be left just under the surface in loose soil. You can understand why that’s so critical if you think of a seed as a can of fuel. A “large” can of fuel contains more energy for the seedling to push up through the soil to the surface, so large seeds should be planted just below the surface. A “small” can of fuel contains much less energy, so small seeds such as Imperial Whitetail Clover, chicory and brassica should be left on top of the seedbed or very near the surface.

Crop Production Practices Working Together — Step 7 and Step 9. How you make sure you plant the specific forage product you’ve selected at the correct depth depends on three things: the size of the seed, whether you use a drag or a cultipacker (roller) to smooth the seedbed prior to putting the seed out (Step 7), and what, if anything, else you do after you put the seed out (Step 9).

Step 7. Before seeding small seeds, you should eliminate cracks from the seedbed into which small seeds might fall and be buried too deep. Second, you should firm the seedbed so that the seeds aren’t driven too deep into the soil where they may not be able to come up. Step 7 gives you two ways to do that: with a weighted drag, or with a cultipacker (a roller). Either will smooth the seedbed sufficiently to accept small seeds. However, the cultipacker will firm the soil much more than a drag. That’s why Step 9 depends so heavily on what you do in Step 7.

8. With a good seedbed prepared, broadcast 8 lbs. or more seed per acre. If you use a hand spreader, be certain to adjust the seed opening to about 1/8 inch. This adjustment will insure proper distribution of seed. This is usually the smallest setting on most hand spreaders.

Optimum Growth Condition. Keeping the root space in the plot from becoming crowded saves you money by not having to buy excess seed. Planting at too heavy a seeding rate can negatively affect some forages by crowding the available root space. While that isn’t an issue with a forage such as Imperial Whitetail Clover, since the strongest plants will take over the space, using more seed than you need to will cost you money you don’t need to spend.

Crop Production Practices Working Together. Plant Whitetail Institute perennials at the seeding rate shown on the front of the product bags. In addition to making sure you don’t spend more money on seed than you need to when planting, it can be a good idea especially in northern climates to top-dress the standing forage with additional Imperial Whitetail Clover seed during your spring planting dates every year or two (frost seeding). Since Imperial Whitetail Clover seed can germinate earlier in the spring than most native weeds and grasses, top-dressing Imperial Whitetail Clover plots during the spring planting dates for the upper half of the U.S. and Canada can help with weed control as well as extend the life of the plot.

9. After broadcasting seed, if available, use a cultipacker or some type of heavy roller to roll over field. This presses seed into ground and helps insure better seed-to-soil contact and good germination. If no cultipacker or roller is available, you are finished with the planting process. Do not cover seed more than 1/4 inch. Do not disk seed into ground. (NOTICE: This is the second time we recommend use of a cultipacker.)
 Crop Production Practices Working Together. Remember what we said under Step 7 above? Step 7 gave you two ways to smooth the seedbed before seeding: a drag, or a cultipacker. Step 9 tells you how to finish the seedbed depending on whether you used a drag or a cultipacker in Step 7. A cultipacker will firm the soil more than a drag will, so if you used a cultipacker to smooth the seed bed prior to seeding small seeds (Step 7), then roll the plot once more after seeding to press the seed into the surface of the seedbed. If you used a drag in Step 7, however, do nothing further after you put small seeds out because the seedbed will be comparatively soft, allowing small seeds to fall and naturally settle into optimum contact with the seedbed. Never drag over small seeds. Step 10 really sums up this whole article.

10. Remember Imperial Whitetail Clover is a high quality forage seed. Proper planting effort, favorable soil, weather conditions, good timing, and the other crop production practices in these instructions will provide a comprehensive, balanced approach that yields optimum growth conditions for maximum attraction, nutrition, and longevity, and impact on the quality of your deer and wildlife. I hope this article is one you will want to put in the “Light Bulb” section of your files for future reference.