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Will Elliott’s Outdoors: How to maximize your home harvest

Planting for food or for food plots can be at once pleasing and perplexing. A lush growth of vegetables and fruitful trees and vines pleases palates; arranging food plots for wildlife helps hunters and wildlife watchers provide food for deer, turkeys, other game animals and birds. But doing both can be daunting before becoming a delight.

Soil preparation is key. Loosening soils since John Deere designed the “modern” plow in 1837 continues as a puzzling prospect. Ground turned at just the right time (moisture content) and temperature (different for all seeds, shrubs, vines and trees) varies. The old “plant your corn early” tip is useless if planted in early ground. A planting after soils reach 50 degrees might produce a healthier crop than a too-early planting.

Same can be said for every vegetable set out for humans, birds and animals. Modern food-plot planters are taking cues from commercial farmers and planting more no-till fields than plowed plots. A successful no-till plot calls for good cover crop planting the fall before and a weed-killing program, starting just when weeds begin to show on a crop site.

Opinions vary as to fertilization, but the chemical 5-10-5 mix has been generally replaced with mixes that cut down on phosphorus (the middle number), which leeches into waterways, and upped the nitrogen (the first number) to grow better greens and flowers. Food-plot plantings need a good dose of nitrogen, and corn and can take a good shot of potassium (the third number in the mix).

Cornell Cooperative Extension recommends, “As your winter stove produces ashes, they can be scattered around plants that are lime lovers.” For plot planters, ashes provide that mix of potash and lime on which corn thrives.

For garden plots, organic gardeners and those who supplement with prepared fertilizers consider compost a must. Many wait until warming weather to set up compost bins outside, letting nonfat, meatless scraps grind in the disposal all winter. Instead, try the two-bucket approach to compost preparation.

Throughout the year, gardener/planters can save vegetable trimmings, coffee grounds, and some newspaper scraps in a bucket with an inch or two of water, a shot of bleach and some balled-up newspaper immersed in the base of the bleach water. Two buckets, each with a sealable lid, can be stacked next to the cutting board for the collection of worthwhile compost scraps.

We have used this compost-collection method for decades to later add to an outside compost bin. The resulting loam-like renderings help loosen soil and fertilize all crops, especially root crops such as carrots and beets. For food plots, brassicas (turnip-like root crops once used as cattle feed) also benefit in well-composted soils.

A balancing act exists between crops planted for people and those crops for wildlife (deer, turkey, rabbits, etc.). Corn, especially sweet corn, in small plots has to be either fenced or surrounded with a hot electric wire system. Most wildlife repellents last until a rainfall or a heavy morning dew.

Fruit-tree planting has become dominated by dwarf stock. Standard apple trees that went to 40-foot heights or more are being replaced with dwarf-sized stock reaching heights of less than 12 feet to please growers and backyard gardeners.

Commercial farmers plant hundreds of trees to get those nice Gala, Delicious, Honeycrisp and other sweet apples; they can get trees up to growing height and minimal deer damage in three years. But for the food-plot grower interested in a few apple trees for deer, even with protection from antler rubbings on the trunk base and circular fencing to protect budding branches it might take a few more years to produce stock high enough to feed both deer and humans.

One handy tip for trimming apple trees: After removing vertical suckers and overextended top branches, look to see how wide the base branches are set. An old timer once suggested as a spacing to “leave it wide enough to throw a basket through.”

Cornell Cooperative Master Gardener Mary Lu Wells also recommends taking stock of what has grown well in past seasons and, without a cure for poor crop results, changing to more productive crop selection. “With the bare-bones of the garden on leafless display, now is the time to take a hard look at your overall design,” Wells writes. High crops in the back allows for greater sunlight penetration, yet a leaf crop might do better, regardless of nearby plantings, in fertile but crusty soil that didn’t produce good beets, turnips, salsify and carrots last year.

“Patches” are a thing of the past. A tomato, corn or even carrot patch looses its productivity when repeatedly planted year after year. With the early and late blight and recent arrivals of bacterial spec, tomato roots should be planted in new soil sites each growing season.

Wildlife eat plantings for humans, gardener/planters often enjoy bumper crops before the beasts begin biting. But early planning now and good soil preparation in weeks to come could improve 2016 harvests, no matter who gets to eat the ripe crops.