If you own private property, a food plot is the single most effective way of attracting deer to your land. But while many of the normal guidelines of gardening don’t apply here, it’s also not as simple as throwing a bunch of seeds into the dirt and waiting for plants and deer to appear. So let’s talk about what to plant, how to plant it and, just as importantly, where to place your plot.
A food plot, of course, is not something that you just throw into your suburban backyard. You should be planting over at least half an acre, and ideally at least two acres. Otherwise, deer will simply devour your nascent plants, say thanks for the snack, and move on to a new food source before your plot has had a chance to establish itself. A good size will also provide genuine nutrition while making the deer feel safe, two key factors in attracting repeat customers. But you don’t want to make your plot too big either, because it’s difficult to get a clean look at a deer that’s hidden behind fields and fields of swaying plants.
And while we’re sure every inch of your property is very nice in its own way, not every acre is equal when it comes to food plots. Land in Montana, Alaska, and Florida is all going to be wildly different, but there are some universal guidelines to keep in mind. If the wind tends to blow through in a certain direction, make sure you’re not planting where the deer will be able to smell you coming. What the deer should instead be dealing with is the sun—if they have to look into it as they approach their meal, that’s to your advantage.
Remember, a food plot isn’t a show garden, so you don’t need a perfect square. Follow the natural contours of the land, and avoid putting plots near roads or trails, because the noise and human activity will scare deer away no matter how yummy the food looks. Instead, keep your plots near natural features, like thickets and wooded areas. Deer want to feel comfortable, and the more cover there is for them to hop into at a moment’s notice the less wary they’ll be about grazing. Deer aren’t stupid—a plot of delicious clover in an otherwise empty field might as well be surrounded by hungry coyotes for all the attention most deer would give it. You want your plot to feel natural, and that means giving the deer multiple escape routes. A nearby water source will also be a big help, because having food and water in one convenient location is the deer equivalent of luxury dining. Just make sure that you have at least one good sightline into all of that cover.
Once you’ve found a good location, what exactly do you put there? You’ll have to take both your climate and you soil quality into consideration here, but clover is a classic staple. It’s easy to grow, it spreads well, and it packs a lot of tasty nutritional value. Chicory and sorghum are also reliable. Alfalfa is trickier—you’ll need to pay close attention to your soil’s pH levels—but if you can get it going the deer will love it.
You can, and often should, mix these crops. For example, alfalfa and clover go well together, and then a border of sorghum provides some height, like a natural fence that deer will feel safe approaching. The more dangerous a plot looks, the more likely the deer will be to sneak in at night. As a bonus all of those plants are perennials, so after a year of getting them started you’ll only need to perform basic maintenance instead of starting from scratch annually with, well, annuals. There are some perennials you should avoid though, like corn, as it’s a pain to grow and lousy for the health of deer anyway. Rye is much easier to grow, but deer get about as much nutrition from it as we get from munching on Styrofoam, so give that a pass too.
Regardless of what you decide on, your plants won’t do any good if you don’t plant them right. Soil quality is crucial; you don’t have to start sending your soil to a lab for complex analysis, but you should at least consult a county soil survey or pick up a cheap home soil testing kit before you dump tons of seeds into the ground. The closer you can get to a neutral 7.0 pH the better, because that’s where plants thrive and provide lots of nutrition to deer. You don’t have to get it perfect, but you’ll save yourself a lot of hassle if you start by avoiding patches of soil where all natural life seems to shun the land.
Planting doesn’t need to be a hugely complicated process involving tractor rentals and enough chemicals to stock a lab. Just clear out any existing foliage, till the soil, apply any necessary fertilizer or limestone to balance the pH, scatter the seeds at the appropriate density (for example, 12 to 15 pounds of alfalfa seeds will cover an acre nicely), cover the seeds with dirt at the appropriate depth, water them, and let nature take its course. And make sure you’re planting at the right time of year—this again varies from region to region, but August and September are generally ideal for the crops we suggested.
The ideal food plot is a low maintenance one, but you’ll likely still have to step in occasionally. If there’s a long dry spell, add some water. If there are too many weeds, spray RoundUp. Deer aren’t picky eaters, so don’t feel the need to buy tons of fancy products to eradicate every last stray leaf, but you should look for weeds that are threatening to overtake your garden completely.
In general, food plot maintenance revolves around addressing problems as they pop up. Rather than rushing out to buy expensive seed drills or worrying about dozens of possible scenarios, what’s important is to get your plants in the ground and growing. Seeds are resilient, and you can always make adjustments when needed. Just try to keep your maintenance efficient, because the more deer see you out there the less likely they’ll be to wander in themselves.
Finally, be sure to check any local laws pertaining to food plots, ideally before you’ve run out and bought enough alfalfa seeds to feed a deer army. Plots are generally regulated quite loosely, but there may be requirements regarding weed control and the prevention of wind and water erosion.
All of this set-up can be a fair bit of work, but it’s worth it when you see the end result. Food plots are a hugely satisfying way to work your own land, provide ethical nutrition to deer, and observe the behavior of these fascinating animals. If you have the time and space, it’s an incredibly valuable skill to have in your hunting repertoire.