Extend Life of Plots with Frost Seeding

By Craig Dougherty

When my son and I design food plot programs, our staple has always been clover — Imperial Whitetail Clover to be exact. We’ve been running it for years, and it feeds the deer we hunt. It greens up early and stays late. Ever see a deer paw through the snow to chomp down on clover? I have. We’ve learned a few things about clover through the years. Mostly, we’ve learned that if you take good care of your clover plots, they will take good care of you and your deer.

Replanting your food plots every couple of years is an amateur move. It wastes time and money. The real pros can get many more years than that out of a clover plot. That means keeping it relatively weed free and freshening it every so often. Herbicide applications and strategic mowing will help handle weeds, but the freshening-up part will require some effort — very little, actually — especially if your food plots are planted in a part of the country where the ground freezes in winter. Frozen ground opens the door for what we call frost seeding. It’s one of the simplest food plot procedures you will ever do. If you can walk a food plot and figure out how to spread seed, you can master frost seeding. All you need is winter temperatures that freeze the ground for extended periods, a spring thaw and, of course, some seed. Each winter, water in the ground freezes and then thaws in spring. Typically, spring thawing occurs when night temperatures are still at or below freezing and daytime temperatures warm. The freezing ground expands (because of ice forming), and the thawing ground contracts as the ice gives up its form. The continuous cycle of freezing and thawing forces the top few inches to open and close regularly. This cycle continues until nighttime temperatures typically remain above freezing.

This expansion and contraction allows particles of matter (including seed) to enter the ground and make contact with the soil. This opening and closing action allows seeds to enter the ground and be planted. The time to frost seed is when the frost is leaving the ground in early spring. Typically, across most of the North, this lasts for two to three weeks. The ground often takes on a honeycomb appearance during the frost-leaving phase of the spring thaw. Walking on the morning ground typically sounds like walking on cornflakes or potato chips. The freeze/thaw cycle allows the seed to penetrate the uppermost layer of soil and gives your seeds a reasonable chance of germinating and surviving. The open ground allows the seed to work into the earth and make contact with the soil. The soil contact will result in seed germination. No special equipment is required, and the results can be satisfactory. Not all ground freezes in winter. Don’t confuse a frost with a frozen ground.

You need frozen ground for frost seeding. An overnight frost or light freeze is different. Frosts and light freezes are temporary events that often leave a thin coating of ice on anything containing moisture. Frozen ground refers to a condition when the first few inches (or feet) of earth freeze for extended periods. I live in an area of New York where the ground freezes a foot or more during most winters. Our plots are concrete-hard in winter, but sometime in April, the sun gets higher in the sky, and the spring thaw and frost seeding can begin. If you don’t want to work with the freeze-thaw cycle, you can spread your seed directly on the snow. We like to do it in spring so the seed doesn’t have to be exposed to the elements for extended periods. Also, if you snow seed too early, you cannot always be certain about where your seed will wind up. Melting snow has a bothersome way of transporting seed from where it was intended to grow to somewhere downstream. You can seed on top of snow if you happen to catch a spring snow or the final snow of the year. This type of snow typically doesn’t hang around for long. Around here, we call it an onion snow. A note of caution: If you spread seed after the ground has already passed through the freeze/thaw cycle, you might be simply spreading your seed on bare ground. You need the opening and closing of the ground to ensure good seed-to-soil contact.

Without it, germination will be limited. You can only frost seed if you have frozen ground at the start. Many parts of the country do not experience the opening and closing conditions typical of spring thawing in Northern climes. Frost seeding is a surefire way to breathe new life into a tired food plot. A good clover plot should be able to produce tons of forage per acre. A tired or worn-out plot might produce only a few hundred pounds. A frost seeding can bring it back to producing tons of fresh clover forage per acre per season. Sometimes, we spread seed over the entire plot. Other times, we just hit the bare spots. It depends on how things looked the previous year. We mark our bare spots the previous year so we will know where the seed is needed next spring when everything looks the same. We use a hand-held spreader for most of the seeding, but we sometimes throw out a few handfuls. We always have a bag of clover handy when we are hunting sheds or celebrating spring with a walk around or ATV trip around the hunting property. We mostly use Imperial Whitetail clover seed, but you can also use other hard seeds, such as chicory. Frost seeding will not work with soft seeds as they might rot waiting for ideal growing conditions. You can spread seed over an acre in a few minutes. When you look at the cost and time it takes to construct a food plot from scratch, a few pounds of clover seed is pretty cheap. It can take you an entire day to build a new plot from scratch—and a lot more money.

A freshened plot can mean the difference between feeding a few deer and feeding a dozen deer all summer. You shouldn’t restrict your thinking to food plots when considering frost seeding. We also use frost seeding in out-of-the-way places such as logging roads, woodland openings and any place we find bare soil on our property We do a lot of frost seeding on log landings. They are common on most hunting properties and shouldn’t be left to turn into mud and weeds. No one can turn a clearing into a pile of mud and ruts like a log crew. A little frost seeding can make it right in a few minutes. Frost seedings don’t germinate as well as planting on seedbeds prepared with traditional cultivation tools and procedures. Nothing beats a well-prepared seedbed for germination and initial stand development. Limitations aside, frost seeding has its place in food plotting. You work too hard on your food plots to be planting new ones every year or two. Some frost seeding and loving care can keep your plots feeding deer for years.