May 03, 2022
Over the years, Field Editor Bill Winke has covered the topic of the “Poor Man’s Food Plot” on several occasions, noting that creating a small deer smorgasbord, especially if it’s in the woods or other cover, can often lead to some sensational bowhunting. The best part? It doesn’t take a ton of money and high-end farming equipment to make it happen. In fact, investing only a few hundred dollars and a few hours of work are all that are needed. If you’ve thought about creating your own food plots, but aren’t sure where to get started, this is for you:
Pick Your Spot
The first step is finding a quality location for the plot, preferably near thick cover deer might use for bedding. That way, you can capitalize on deer movement later in the morning, earlier in the afternoon and possibly even midday in a place where deer feel more secure traveling or getting up and browsing for food. Another solid location for small food plots is the edge between fields — whether native grasses or crops — and the woods.
If you’re thinking about installing a plot or two, keep in mind the site can be as small as a quarter-acre, which is roughly the equivalent of about 25x50 or 30x40 yards. This is ideal for bowhunters, since you can cover most of the area from a strategically placed stand. In an ideal world, the plot would be established where there’s a natural opening in the woods or cover, minimizing the amount of clearing you’ll need to do, but the reality is it may not always be that easy.
One important thing to keep in mind when selecting a location is that you need to be able to get in and out of the food plot without the deer smelling or seeing you. So, pay careful attention to things such as the prevailing wind direction, entry and exit routes and any natural terrain features that might help conceal you as you approach and leave the plot.
Clear the Site
A chainsaw is your best friend when starting a food plot, since the first task is cutting and removing all the trees and brush (remember to cut as close to the ground as possible). Once this is complete, kill any grass, weeds and thin undergrowth using a weed killer, a job that can be done fairly quickly and easily with a sprayer. Winke, who has created a number of these plots over the years, recommends backpack sprayers as they are inexpensive and can also be used for other tasks such as plot maintenance.
After applying the weed killer, you’ll need to wait about two weeks to ensure all the vegetation is dead. While you can probably clear the grass and debris with a large garden rake, it’s not the most efficient option, especially if you have to deal with pulling through roots, twigs and other debris. Where legal, Winke said you may instead want to conduct a controlled burn to rid the spot of debris. Obviously, watching the fire carefully and having a safety plan in place are essential. Depending on where you live, you may also need to obtain a burn permit.
Prep the Soil
If you want to up your odds for growing success, you’ll likely need to add both agricultural lime and fertilizer to the soil. The first step is conducting a soil test to determine pH and nutrient levels (the most important nutrients are nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium), helping you develop a game plan for amending the soil. In general, forest soil has lower pH (acidic). So, you’ll want to raise the pH by adding lime, as a pH between 6 and 7.5 provides most plants with the best opportunity to maximize nutrients in the soil. A soil test can be done by the local county extension or farm bureau. Mossy Oak’s Biologic and Whitetail Institute also conduct soil tests, while Antler King sells an at-home pH test if you don’t want to wait for your test results.
When it comes to liming, if you own or have access to a small tractor/ATV and spreader, and a way to get them into the plot site, that’s the best option. If not, you can get the job done with a walk-behind spreader you purchase from your local hardware store. As for applying fertilizer, there are a number of granular and liquid options available. ATV-mounted, walk-behind or handheld spreaders and sprayers can all get the job done. Biologic is a great starting point for this equipment, since it offers all three options ($24.99-$209.99).
Till and Sow
When you begin your first food plot, the variety of seed options might seem endless, but don’t fret. A solid starting point is clover and/or a clover mix, as they are easy to establish and most are perennials. In most cases, the best time to plant clover is the spring or early summer, when rain and soil moisture are usually more than adequate.
Once you get a couple of years of planting food plots under your belt and your experience and comfort level grow, you may want to try other crops such as brassica blends (turnips, radishes, kale, rape) or beets, especially if you’re looking for hardier, late-season varieties.
Unless you have access to a no-till seed drill — unlikely if installing a micro plot on a budget — tilling before planting is important because it breaks up the soil and helps turn the fertilizer into the earth. Having an ATV-mounted disc or even a walk-behind rototiller for this task is ideal, but if you don’t have access to one, using a garden rake can also get the job done. Just keep in mind that hand raking can be time consuming and frustrating, since you’ll likely encounter roots and rocks.
Once done with this part of the process, sowing the seed can be accomplished by using a hand-operated bag seeder or a broadcast seeder that straps onto your torso. Of course, other more expensive options are also available, depending how much you want to invest in the overall project.
Once your food plot takes hold, you’ll need to maintain it. In the case of clover, periodic mowing will greatly reduce the invasion of grasses and other weeds. In some cases, you can even use specialized herbicides to kill the weeds without destroying the plot itself. If you take this task seriously, you should be able to keep your perennial food plot productive for several years.
Remember, if your goal this year is to see more deer on your property and up your odds of harvesting a buck, one of the best ways to accomplish this is by establishing one or more micro plots. Through a rather minimal investment of time, money and sweat equity, who knows — you might even end up shooting the buck of your dreams!