Big-game season is upon us and thoughts of food-plot plantings may not take root this time of the year. But a summation of the last growing season and well-laid plans for coming seasons could increase the odds of at least maintaining good food sources, even if that trophy buck does not show up and hang out on your hunting land.
For nearly a decade we have plowed and planted food plots at the “new digs” in southeast Genesee County, and the results are both rewarding and surprising.
The soil is spectacular. Just about every crop that blooms and fruits has shown up in abundance on our plant-worthy acreage surrounded by hundreds of acres of commercial farming that is basically corn and soybeans.
The results are amusing. For example, when we first started planting brassica, a beet-family forage/food plot popular with growers and sales folk, deer in our area didn’t touch the beet-like greens or the turnip-like bulbs under ground the first year.
The second year, a few brassica plants were “disturbed”, but the crop remained after the fall and exposed after snow melted the next spring. Then, some guru in the deer herd must have announced the virtues/merit of brassica. For the last seven to eight years that crop disappears either in late fall or earliest in the spring, as soon as leaves and roots appear.
Chicory, alfalfa, clover and other greens get some attention out back, but selected patches of corn, beans, pumpkins and squash get all kinds of attention, in varied feeding patterns, each year.
Last year we harvested hundreds of pumpkins and had corn patches chewed to the ground as soon as they sprouted. This year we may have picked a dozen pumpkins. Deer ate a half acre of them before they could reach the size of a softball. But this year’s crop of sweet corn was knee-high before it should have been and the crop was a corn cornucopia.
Yearly food-plot green plantings vary here and everywhere, and food-plot trees can be an even more extensive food-plot planning perplexity. Mention trees and the apples get first thought and mention. For decades, hunters could hang around an apple tree on a hillside or along a plowed field and deer, if not trophy stock, appeared. Most of that stock was standard trees that grew to heights of 25 to 40 feet.
Today close-cropping of dwarf and semi-dwarf stock makes it easier for back-yard gardeners to raise fruit trees. But it also provides stock that deer can damage, not only early crop damage but branch and stem damage often beyond repair.
Apples, or any other fruit trees set out for both harvesting and feeding wildlife, should be circled with fencing for a few years to allow the tree to grow sturdy branches and trunks.
One year we decided to pull the 5-foot circles and just surround the 20 Honeycrisp, Gala and Red Delicious apples with 3-foot fences to bar rabbits and rubbing deer access to the trees’ trunks. That was a bad idea. Deer came around day and night, pulling not just green apples but whole branches down tree trunks in ways similar to baboon damage seen in a South Africa orange grove.
Nonetheless, we continued with the higher “cages” and the tree stock is growing solidly. Some day they will be a freestanding source for deer as well as human consumption.
In this quest to establish fruit tree growth around the house and out on back fields we planted several kinds of fruits with mixed results for survival – from weather and diseases as well as deer, rabbits, raccoons and other wildlife.
Deer will eat just about anything with leaves and fruits, but one exceptionally durable and sustainable fruit crop turned out to be the Chojuro pear, an Asian pear originated in Kawasaki, Japan in 1895.
Chojuros have a high resistance to fire blight. Its butterscotch-flavored fruit is tasty. As a wildlife crop it holds longer than most apple trees, on the branch or in home storage.
For deer purposes, these pears are there long after the apple varieties have fruit hanging or dropped onto the ground.
Among hardwoods, the American chestnut, discussed in an Oct. 11 column, and The European white oak are two good options Rich Wells recommends for long-term tree planting for food plots and wildlife feeding in general.
Both trees take about 10 years to produce wildlife food, but once established they produce food far better than quick-growing red oaks and a good number of other nut trees.
For now, hunting season is in progress, most fruit trees plant better in the spring. Some fruit trees can get a start in the fall, and American chestnuts take off well with a late-fall planting. But make sure your ground is suitable for food-plot fruit and hardwood trees.
Some season soon those food plots will be surrounded, or at least bordered on a side or two, with healthy stands of food-rendering tree growth.