By Gerald Almy
As we approach hunting season, many people are still hoping to get in a food plot, but haven't begun yet. Don't worry. It's still not too late. In fact, this is the perfect time to put in many plant species. These fall into two broad categories -- cereal grains and brassicas.
Let's look first at cereal grains. These include many seed types but the three of most interest to food plot managers are wheat, oats and rye. All three of these can be put in from August through November, but late August and September are the prime times. They will provide green forage from now all the way through winter.
Food plot experts will argue the merits of each of these three grains. I've had good luck with all of them. You can buy them at farm co-ops and sporting goods stores or through mail order outlets. Rye is especially easy to grow and deer love it. It's a little lower in protein than the other two, but it grows a deep taproot that helps aerate the soil where it's planted.
Oats are high in protein, but they can sometimes suffer in winter if the weather gets extremely cold. Wheat is inexpensive, easy to grow and fairly high in protein. Although I plant all three of these products, by far wheat gets the nod most often. Besides providing forage, it also helps prevent erosion and if you let it go to seed in spring, turkeys and deer will eat the seed head. Alternately, you can mow it down and re-plant the plot in spring with a forage such as clover.
Every type of plant for food plots has a "best" season to plant it. In the case of brassicas, that season is right now. From August through September is the prime time to get these plants in the ground. Brassicas include plants such as kale, turnips, rape, radishes and others. They have become extremely popular among food plot mangers because they are easy to grow, provide tremendous amounts of protein and are fed on well by deer. Protein levels can exceed 30 percent in many cases.
In some areas it takes a season or two before deer become interested in eating brassicas. But once they do, they'll hit them hard. They seem to particularly favor these plants once there has been a frost or two. That increases the sugar content of the plants and makes them especially palatable.
Once the leaves have been eaten down, many of these plants still have a root or bulb left in the ground. Deer often dig those up with their hooves and dine on them during winter when other foods are scarce.
I've tried many mixtures from different wildlife seed companies and had good results with most of them. I've been particularly impressed with Winter Greens from the Whitetail Institute of North America, as well as their Tall Tine Tubers. But you can also do well with offerings from other major companies or by making up your own mixtures.
You can over-seed these into existing plots or, my preference, kill the present vegetation, till the soil repeatedly, and then broadcast the seed. Barely cover the seeds with 1/4 to 1/8 inch of soil, and pack lightly for best results. They'll sprout up within days. You can also mix them with wheat, oats or rye as well as crimson clover for a buffet that deer will relish as cold weather sets in.
Another plus of certain brassicas is that they can improve your soil. Several varieties, including turnips and especially radishes, can improve the ground for future plantings.
Many plots suffer from compacted soil with little aeration. Plant roots can't penetrate deeply enough to obtain sufficient moisture and nutrients to thrive. They are basically living off the first few inches of ground and struggling to spread their roots through that extremely hard dirt. The usual cause is too many years of shallow tilling or disking with ATVs or small tractors and no deep plowing with a big tractor to aerate and loosen the soil below the top 4-6 inches.
Planting Daikon or Groundhog radishes can help improve this situation. These grow an extremely deep taproot (up to 32 inches) and break up and aerate the soil when the root decays. Deer also relish the roots and will dig down and eat the radishes during winter when food is scarce. An acre can produce up to 5,000 pounds of dry leaf forage and 2,000 pounds of roots with 20-43 percent protein. Five pounds of radish seeds will plant 1/2-3/4 acre.
If these weren't enough reasons to plant brassicas in the next few weeks, here's another one. They grow thick leaf cover, choking out any problem weeds in the plot site. If you've ever done much work with food plots, you know that weed-encroachment is your number one enemy. Brassicas will help with that ongoing battle.
Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.