Benefits of Planting Perennial Plots in the Fall

By Gerald Almy

 Like many land managers, when the last day of the hunting season arrives, I immediately start thinking ahead and planning how I can work the land during every free minute. I usually have woods projects, such as hinge-cutting trees and creating cover, thickening up a potential travel corridor or planting a few shrubs in a thin staging area. I might need to remove rocks and branches at some fields and update soil samples or apply lime or fertilizer at others.

But the overwhelming urge to sow seed and see it start growing often leads to plans for another plot. And so it was during a recent spring, when I decided to plant a small Imperial Whitetail Clover plot. I have lots of these plots already, but some are getting older and might need to be plowed under soon, so I decided to put in one small clover patch that spring. By late March, I had killed the weeds with glyphosate, tilled the ground several times, added the recommended fertilizer and was ready to plant. After cultipacking, I spread the seeds carefully, re-packed and then sat back to wait. It wasn’t long before a lush, green plot began to appear. The clover had emerged and was thriving. I was elated. But as the plot continued to grow, something more started to grow. Weeds. And then grasses. At first, there were just a few. Then they multiplied. But the clover was young and, being a little inexperienced, I didn’t want to stress it that early with herbicide applications aimed at weeds and grasses.

So I waited a bit and decided I’d whack them down later. (I’ve since learned that herbicides are much more effective on young weed and grass seedlings.) When the weeds and grasses grew tall enough, I mowed the plot just above the tops of the clover. That helped prevent them from going to seed. But the weeds kept multiplying, as did the grasses. My Imperial Clover was doing fine, but it was slowly being overtaken by competing plants. Then summer grew hotter. Rains stopped coming. Being a high quality plant the clover held on but the weeds seemed to thrive in the dry conditions, and the competing grasses were not slowing down, either. Finally, I sprayed with selective herbicides, but it did not knock the weeds or grasses out completely. They had already grown too tall. To make a long story short, that small plot is still alive, and there’s still quality clover in it. But the weed and grass competition took a toll. It’s far from my best perennial plot. In a year or so, I expect, I’ll be forced to throw in the towel. I’ll till it under, plant an annual such as Winter-Greens or PowerPlant for a year or two and then try again. And when I do, I’ll make one major change. I’ll plant in fall. That’s what I did with another similar-sized plot that year, and the differences in the plots are stunning. One has almost no weed or grass competition. It's taller and thicker, and deer feed there regularly. Now I’ll admit, some skilled habitat managers can get awesome plots planting in spring. To them, I say congratulations. Keep growing them. For those living in northern climates, that's definitely a viable option. And frost-seeding in very early spring can also be successful. But for most food plotters of average skills with limited time, fall plantings are by far the best way to go for healthy, enduring perennial plots. We’ve already touched on a few of the challenges you face when putting in plots during spring. But let’s look in more detail at some of the hurdles spring perennial plantings must overcome and, by implication, why fall plantings are usually preferable for folks in the middle or southern portions of the country, or those of us with meager skills and limited time.

Differences, Spring and Fall

Before getting into those, however, it’s worth pointing out that “fall” plantings really mean late summer for most parts of the country. And that solves one of the worries novices have about planting at that time. They’re concerned about giving up hunting time. Generally, you can have most or all of your fall plantings done well before archery and gun seasons arrive or just run into those openers by a few days. The weather’s usually too hot for much good deer movement then anyway.

Wet soil.

Sure, there’s plenty of moisture in spring. That and the urge to get out and plant tempt us to put in plots in March and April. But in most parts of the country, spring soils are often simply too wet to work. If you rush things and try to till anyway, you’re simply compacting the soil more with your tractor or ATV and making it harder to get good germination and root growth. If you don’t till the soil well enough because it’s wet and clumpy, you’ll probably be tempted to re-plow. That will bring to the surface more competing weed and grass seeds in the soil bank. When you plant, your clover, chicory and Alfa Rack Plus will likely come up well in the wet ground. But so will the newly energized competition — weeds and grasses.

Root development and summer’s heat.

There’s no question that hot summers, particularly in the South and middle part of the country, are challenging for perennial plots. To adequately endure long summer days of sunlight and little rainfall, clovers, alfalfa and chicory need to develop their roots. That takes time, because most perennials are slow-growing. And time is something spring-planted perennials don’t always have. Within a few months after sprouting, it’s facing long hours of harsh sunlight and extreme heat. If you plant in late August or September, on the other hand, the plants will have almost a year for the roots to develop before they must face searing hot summer sun and long days. Plots planted in late summer and early fall experience some hot weather, but the days are considerably shorter, so the parching sun isn’t as damaging. And soon, cooler fall weather arrives, in which the plants thrive.


Besides the hot sun and long daylight hours, spring planted plots can also face a lack of rainfall during June, July and August. Unless your area gets those stray pockets of thunderstorms that pop up on the radar, summer plants must often face weeks with no meaningful precipitation. Plots planted the previous fall have a strong, mature root structure to cope with those dry periods. But spring planted perennial plots may be small and immature and can be stressed by lack of moisture. In most areas, fall is when rains increase. This comes at the perfect time for plants you’ve just put in, when they need the moisture to develop their roots before cold conditions arrive. By the time the next hot, dry weather spell occurs the next summer, the plants will be taller, with a strong, mature root structure, and able to better withstand it without problems.


Almost all weeds and grasses begin growing aggressively in spring, with increasing daylight, warming soil and abundant moisture. That’s why after years of trying to knock down those competitors and plant a perennial plot in spring, I gave up. Sure, I’ll put PowerPlant in during late May or June and Tall Tine Tubers in July. But it seems impossible to get all the weeds and grasses gone in time for a March or April clover planting. I’ll bet many of you feel the same way. And this is true even if you started trying to kill the weeds the previous fall. More will pop up the next spring — lots more. That’s why I like to devote spring and summer to getting plots ready for fall perennial plantings. I focus on eliminating weeds and preparing the soil rather than planting them. By spraying with Roundup® or a generic glyphosate, tilling the soil repeatedly and spraying again if more weeds crop up, you can eventually get a plot almost weed-and grass-free. Not completely, but almost. And that’s a lot better than one in a spring plot destined to burst out with weeds and grasses. Sometimes to help make a plot even more weed-free, I’ll plant it with an annual such as Winter-Greens or Tall Tine Tubers and wait another year to put in the perennial plot to make doubly sure the plot is as weed-free as possible. The Winter-Greens and Tall Tine Tubers will outcompete and shade out many weeds, sort of mopping up after you’ve killed most of the weeds with herbicides and repeated tilling. Not to mention the added benefit that Winter-Greens and Tall Tine Tubers make great hunting plots in the fall and winter.

Soil pH and fertilizer.

A final benefit of planting in fall is it gives you plenty of time to fix pH or fertilizer deficiencies your soil tests revealed. You’ll have time to get the results back, buy or order appropriate fertilizer, and apply lime. (Note: If possible, apply lime several months in advance of planting but apply fertilizer at the time of planting). More important, you’ll have time to work the lime and fertilizer into the soil where they're needed by disking or tilling them into the dirt several inches. Lime especially tends to stay where it’s applied, so working it down into the soil is required to boost the pH where the roots of your clover, chicory and alfalfa will grow.

The nurse crop option for fall planting:

To give my fall-planted perennials an added boost and give the plot even more appeal to deer, I sometimes use a cover or nurse crop with the clover, such as Whitetail Oats Plus at about 1/3 to 1/2 the recommended rate. First, I lightly disk the oats in 1/2-inch or so. Then I cultipack, broadcast the Imperial Whitetail Clover or other Whitetail Institute perennial and cultipack again. That cover crop will provide an alternative food source for deer throughout fall and winter and relieve some of the pressure on the freshly emerging young clover. It will also help outcompete and shade out any potential weeds.


Whether or not you use a nurse crop, my bet goes to fall plantings for perennials. The odds are stacked in your favor at that time. And I want everything I can control pointing toward success when I put my time, money and work into planting a plot for deer. The reasons are obvious. We want to see our work succeed, and we want to help wildlife. But the bottom line is the better the plot, the more likely a heavy-racked old buck will find it to his liking.