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The Basics of Planting Food Plots: It’s All in the Dirt


It seems like everyone is planting food plots these days; and for good reason. Wildlife benefits from them and they make for great hunting. Food plotters spend endless hours pouring over seed catalogs in hopes of finding the perfect food plot forage. Unfortunately they don’t spend nearly as much time thinking about the soil they are going to plant in.

A week ago I blogged about the importance of doing a soil analysis before planting, but that’s only the half of it. First, you have to find good dirt to work with. If you are going to hunt the plot, it has to be built correctly.

The higher quality the dirt, the better your plot will grow. Trouble is, most of the good dirt is tied up growing agricultural crops and most food plotters are forced to work with what the farmers don’t want. So how do you find good dirt for your food plots?

Pick Your Spot
Start with old fields. Open spaces may have been farmed before and they just may contain some good dirt. Then, look for areas of dense existing vegetation. If a spot can grow good weeds, chances are it can grow good food plots. Beginners tend to choose areas with sparse vegetation under the assumption that they will be easier to clear and plant. Stay away from open places with sparse ground cover. These areas are sparse for a reason, and who needs a sparse food plot? It could be a dry spot, or maybe a spot that is too wet for most plants to grow. Whatever the reason, if it is not populated with plants now, chances are it will not support them going forward.

Once you locate a possible planting spot, take a good hard look at the surrounding habitat. Is there a nice dark pine or two nearby to hide a tree stand in? Will the site work well with the prevailing winds during hunting season? Will deer move to the plot naturally or will they have to go out of their way to use the plot? The answer to all of these questions should be yes.

You’ll also need some sunshine (a minimum of 4 hours direct sun per day) and some moisture for your food plots. But, if there are already lush plants growing there, we can assume that is taken care of. Bottom line, don’t plant in the shade and stay away from super dry locations like sands, rock outcroppings, and areas that get hit with scorching temperatures or high winds. Of course, stay away from excessively wet locations as well. Your best indicator is always the native vegetation growing there. If the area is growing bog plants, it is too wet. No plants at all, it’s too dry, or too dark.

Now you have to check your dirt. Dig down a few inches below the surface and take a few samples from around the plot. Mix them in a clean plastic bucket and dump some in a plastic sandwich bag. Take it to your local feed and seed store, ag extension office, or send it to the Whitetail Institute for analysis. See below for special pricing and directions. You will get the analysis in a few days and find if you need to amend your soil with lime and what mixture of fertilizer to use.

You add lime to adjust the soil pH. Most of the time you are trying to “sweeten” up acidic soil. A reading of 7 is a perfect pH for most food plot forages, but most will do fine in anything over 6 on the scale. Anything below 6 (acidic) should get a healthy dose of lime to begin raising the pH. Use quick acting lime if you will be planting this year.

Raising the pH of soil will allow nutrients to be released to the plants as acidic soil “binds” nutrients and makes them inaccessible to plants. Spread a bag of fertilizer on acidic (4.5-5.9) soil and very little of the fertilizer will be taken up by the plants. Spread the same bag on “sweet” (6.0-7) soil and most, if not all, of the fertilizer will be used by the plants. The results are truly astounding. Lush green fast growing plants vs. scraggly undernourished weed infested fields.

If you have had a soil test done, the lab should also give you a fertilizer recommendation. Follow the recommendation as closely as possible when purchasing fertilizer, but don’t get all worked up if you can’t find the exact fertilizer they call for. Fertilizers are comprised of 3 critical elements: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (or N,P,K). Those are the three numbers you find on fertilizer bags “10-10-10,” “0-20-15,” or some other numerical combination indicate the proportion of each element found in the bag. Most food plot seed bags come with fertilizer recommendations, which should be followed as closely as possible.

Get Down and Dirty
Once you have your location all set, you need to go about preparing a seed bed. Sorry, you can’t throw some seeds on the ground, walk away and come back in 3 months to a lush food plot. Seeds have to make contact with dirt in order to grow. If you are doing a hidden, postage-stamp-sized plot, you can grab your old garden rake and stir up some dirt. If you are working on an acre, you will probably need an ATV pulling some type of cultivation tool. Anything more than an acre is pretty much tractor territory with real farm implements.

Herbicides come in real handy when you are looking to get down and dirty. Roundup, or Arrest, by the Whitetail Institute, applied to growing plants will generally kill them in a week or so and allow you to work up a nice seed bed in the spaces vacated by the dead plants. Two early-season and mid-season applications of a herbicide applied about a month apart will generally kill most of the weeds and grasses growing in a weed field or old food plot. It is much easier to “find dirt” under dead plants than chop your way through living material. A good hand sprayer is one of the best tools a food plotter can own.

Sewing Seeds
Once you have gotten your dirt prepared for seed (relatively smooth and satiny with few clogs and no living material) it is time to plant. Food plot seeds like clover and chicory are tiny and vulnerable if buried too deeply. An 1/8 inch deep is plenty deep enough. That means you spread the seed evenly before a rain and walk away confident that the rain will help ensure that the seed makes contact with the ground or you spread the seed evenly and roll it down or use a cultipacker to guarantee good seed to soil contact. Seed laying on top of a grass matt will not grow. Neither will seed buried 3 inches in the ground or seeds suspended in rough cracks or crevices with poor soil contact. Smooth satiny seed beds make for good seed to soil contact.

The wrong way to spread seed is the way it is done in the movies; one handful at a time cast with the wind. It may look good on the screen, but it wastes seed and never results in a good even stand. For about $8 you can by a hand held “whirligig” designed for grass seed that will do just fine. Always follow manufacturer’s recommendations when spreading seed. If they say one bag per acre that’s it; one bag per acre. Too many plants crammed into too small of a space is a formula for failure. The crowded plants look good for a while, but crowded plants are the first to fail when the growing gets tough. Also, they seldom grow to maturity.

What to Plant
Choosing plants used to be pretty easy. Clover or clover. Not any more. With the proliferation of food plot seed companies, everyone has their own magic bean so to speak. Our day in day out favorite perennial (comes back every year) mix is a clover chicory blend from the Whitetail Institute. When it comes to annuals (replant every year) we like a combo of brassacus and a grain like oats or rye.

Don’t try to mix up your own. Chances are you will be working with cattle forages and you won’t have the skill or background to mix your own. Neither will your local dairy farmer. Leave the blending to the pros and buy only name brands.

A good food plot is a thing of beauty and a boon to all types of wildlife. Food plots provide outstanding nutrition to whitetails, and are great places to view and hunt deer. Hunters everywhere have discovered this and if you haven’t given them a try, this just may be the year to take the plunge.

Contact me at with your food plot questions or write them down in the comments section. To order food plot products (including seed and herbicides and planting equipment) or find my food plot book “Grow ‘Em Right” call 315-331-6959.