Creating A Woodland Food Plot Paradise

By Jeremy Flinn

 I saw what would eventually be the first land I owned in early April. Nestled on the side of a mountain in western Pennsylvania, there was still a trace of snow in the woods from a late arctic blast. The area was about as barren as it would be during the year, yet I saw the potential.

My future house sat about 75 yards from an old log landing, which was used when the property was timbered 15 years earlier. I’ll be honest, it looked rough. The ragged surface from the dozers left little to no topsoil. Rocks the size of quarters to tires speckled the opening. A mass section of mixed briars was about the only thing growing, aside from a couple of trees. But there was potential. It helped that as I turned to go back to the house, some deer jumped out of the brush. Sold. As much as I would have liked to jump into planting plots, I prioritized moving in, and working on the house and career. But as spring led into summer, the dreams of potential food plots grew into well planned strategies. However, planting a woodland food plot is not that easy. From shading issues to poor soil, the task has many challenges. You can overcome them, but you’d better come ready to roll up your sleeves, as hard work will germinate success.

Site Selection

Food plot site selection can be one of the most critical steps. It’s difficult to ignore thoughts of a great hunting spot that might turn into a honey hole with the addition of a food plot, but it’s not that easy. Site selection in woodland food plots might be the most limiting factor. Let’s start with the most obvious: area. The area in which you plant a woodland food plot must be open or have the potential to open. Much of that revolves around your equipment. My log-landing spot provided an open yet overgrown opportunity. But many folks won’t have that. In such cases, break out the chainsaw, and get to work. You don’t have to cut every tree, as an oak or two might be great for acorn production. Just consider the ability of sunlight to reach the ground. That’s key to plot growth. In addition to the area, the soil is likely the next limiting factor. From extreme sand or clay consistency to rocky areas or a lack of topsoil, many soil issues are not fixable. If the soil is acidic or lacks nutrients, you can manipulate it through lime and fertilizer. What you can’t change (at least not easily) is lack of topsoil or rockladen areas. But in some cases, especially wooded food plots, you must work with what you have. My log landing lacked topsoil and was littered with rocks. To create a successful food plot, seedbed preparation would be critical.

Seedbed Preparation

I’ll admit, until that point in my food plot experience, I had been lucky, planting on good soil and having equipment at my fingertips. I probably should have worked on the woodland plot for a couple of years, but because I was impatient, I planned to complete it in a few weekends. At any new food plot site, one of the first tasks is to clear vegetation and, potentially, trees. For me, it was a nasty thicket of briars. As a biologist, I almost hated myself for doing that, as I know it was likely good bedding cover and winter food. However, it was also the best (and maybe only) place for a plot on the property. If you’re dealing with brush and leafy vegetation, it’s not too bad. I went after it with a weed eater and glyphosate. I sprayed glyphosate liberally, and after seven to 10 days, went in and cut down as much as I could. That obviously created a lot of vegetation on the ground, which will block sunlight to a point. To get a cleaner seedbed, I used a prescribed fire. Though many are fearful of using fire — and obviously, be careful — it can be one of the greatest tools for food plotters preparing a seedbed. Successful burns have many factors, especially during a hot and humid summer. Wait for dry — but not too dry — conditions, a steady yet not overly strong wind and proper assistance to control the fire. When run correctly, all organic matter is broken down into a form that’s much easier to incorporate into the soil. Because my log landing lacked topsoil, I need every bit I could get. Though burning improved the situation, I still had to work the soil. With so much rock, a disc or tiller would be ineffective or bring more rock to the surface. And I didn’t have a tractor, which put a damper on that. For many woodland food plots, equipment access is extremely limited. However, many folks can get a four-wheeler or UTV into tight areas. I armed mine with a steel harrow drag. I probably looked like a NASCAR driver running circles, but with that compacted, rocky ground, I didn’t have much success. After hours of constant dragging, I was still not happy with the result. Though way better than at the beginning, I wasn’t seeing the smooth, broken soil to which I was accustomed. But you work with what you are given. After three weekends, it was finally time to put seed in the ground.

Species Selection and Planting

It’s difficult to believe I was finally ready to plant. But all that work built up to anxiety and fear of failure. What if nothing grew? I knew the soil was poor, and there was only so much I could do. Choosing the right food plot species was critical. I was not sure if I’d be planting the plot every year or just maintaining it, so I wanted a perennial and an annual. My go-to perennial in almost every food plot in any soil condition is Imperial Whitetail Clover. It’s by far one of the hardiest food plot varieties I’ve used, and it provides a great source of nutrition to deer almost year-round. However, a straight perennial plot has some flaws, so I always make sure to add some fast-growing annuals. On the new property, that was mainly because I had no idea how many deer would use the plot. Though small, the property joined almost 200,000 acres of contiguous mountain woodlands. The area had no agriculture, few-to-no-food plots and, at best, a neighbor’s garden other than natural foods. Further, I didn’t know the germination success because of soil conditions. To pump up the biomass volume, I mixed in some Whitetail Institute Winter-Greens. That tonnage producer would grow faster than the Imperial Whitetail Clover and almost act as a cover crop. As deer began to hit the Winter-Greens, the clover could establish. That assured that come spring, there would be a great clover plot standing to help build deer health coming out of winter. I took a soil sample, and I added the appropriate amount of lime and I used a standard Triple 19 fertilizer. With small seed, I drove over the plot with the ATV but didn’t drag it in. Planting was planned to coincide with rain, and soon after, a soaking rain started the germination process. The anticipation of success was killing me. In fewer than four days, I saw the first signs of germination. The plot never looked back.

The Result

In September, after being paired with great weather, the plot soared. Excitement grew as deer began to visit the woodland food plot consistently. With October and November and the best hunting ahead, anticipation was high for the food plot to perform. Just before the Pennsylvania gun season, the attraction of the Winter-Greens exploded and deer were everywhere. By the beginning of February, the plot remained with some turnips bulbs and clover, and, with spring not far off, the Imperial Whitetail Clover would take off in the warm spring growing season. Though not nearly as easy, that plot might have been my most satisfying. Maybe it was because it was on my land, but taking it from a raw, unfavorable piece of ground to a successful woodland food plot was exciting. Now, as I go into my second year, the only question is where else I should plant on this mountain.