You can have your dream of a luxuriant food planting for deer, turkey or other game in the isolated heart of your hunting grounds.
"But," you say, "I don’t own a bulldozer or tractor, much less a trailer to haul them on."
Even if you don’t have farm machinery, or you are in an area with no road access, you can grow a foodpatch much more easily than you think.
On my own land where I live in Oglethorpe County, I’ve been experimenting with a do-it-yourself food planting that needs a minimum of time and equipment. The strategy has four steps. First, brown the vegetation with herbicides on the site you have selected. Second, burn to clear the area. Third, sow your seed, and fourth, fertilize and lime your crop.
Obviously, the site you select for your wilderness foodpatch must be open so that full sunlight reaches the ground for at least half the day. If you don’t have a forest clearing or other open place ready, then this project might take a little longer, because step one is to get rid of the trees. Killing the trees in some cases is unappealing or unwise, but it does have benefits if you have the right site. I have used sites containing small sweetgum and poplar that remained after the previous landowners had removed the valuable timber. I avoid making food planting on sites with valuable mast-producing trees as well as sites with rare and interesting minor vegetation or other unique natural features. In my opinion, these sites are already valuable as they are. These plans are for your own private land. If you are a lessee, get food patch plans approved in writing before you begin.
Choose a site that is flat and fertile, not subject to erosion, and not too dry and not too wet for the crop you have in mind. You can remove trees by injection or by using soil-active pellets or sprays. I injected my trees with a solution of Garlon 4 herbicide in diesel fuel with a penetrant (This and other herbicides mentioned here can be found at the local farm or forestry supply shop). Using a machete or hatchet, hack a "frill" through the bark encircling the trunk. Then use a squirt bottle to fill the crack with herbicide. I repeat the process twice a year until the job is done. For small saplings simply spraying the bark at the base of the tree is enough. Don’t bother to fell the trees; it isn’t necessary. They will just clutter your site.
If the site is covered with hardwood sprouts, small saplings and woody brush, you can mow everything down with a clearing saw-a high powered weed-eater with a circular saw blade.
You can also kill small and large trees with a soil-active herbicide like picloram. Scatter the pellets or spray as per the label. The trees will take up the chemical through the roots then defoliate and die later. Soil-active herbicides will also make the soil inhospitable for the wildlife and plants for some time. As the trees shed their leaves, grasses and broad-leaved weeds will grow and prosper. These plants are desirable as they will provide fuel for your fire. If you can see that you don’t have enough weeds to provide for a fire, fertilize them to make them grow faster.
Your trees will die; branches and then trunks will fall. Let them lie and turn into fertilizer. With this plan, tree trunks and branches are not an obstacle, because you are not using a tractor.
To kill the weeds, you will need a sprayer. Small hand-carried sprayers are cheapest, but I prefer a backpack sprayer. My own is manufactured by Solo and holds five gallons. Fill the sprayer with an appropriate herbicide. Mix as per label instructions. Pure water from a tap or well is best, as organic matter in stream or pond water may render some herbicides useless. What kind of chemical should you use? Roundup, a common brand of glyphosate, is good for grass. There are a variety of good herbicides for broad-leaved weeds. If you don’t know what the plants are, take specimens of the most common kinds to your county agent, who can then recommend an herbicide.
After the vegetation dies and turns brown and dry, it will burn easily. Get a burning permit number from the Georgia Forestry Commission (1-800-GATREES) before you start. Read bulletins (available from your extension service, forestry commission or the state Wildlife Resources Division) on how to conduct a prescribed fire.
There are two strategies to contain your fire in an isolated area. Plan A is to rake, dig or otherwise create a firebreak entirely around your plot. Plan B is to let the remaining green vegetation be the barrier.
I recommend Plan A for beginners, but increasingly I use Plan B when I’m working on my own land where I have good stream and road boundaries. When everything is ready I wait for a heavy rain. This is to wet the surrounding land. After the weather clears, the dead plants in the clearing will dry faster than the surrounding forest. When the clearing is dry enough to burn I test the adjoining vegetation for flammability. I do this by making a break around a section of green vegetation. If the test area does not burn I set the clearing on fire. This is for a hardwood area. Pine needles, or other very flammable fuels present a greater fire hazard. Avoid burning when the humidity falls below 35 percent.
I prefer to burn with a slight wind, starting on the downwind side. Once the downwind side is burned clear of the edge, I move the fire up the sides a little at a time. The sides of the fire will rush toward the middle. If the upwind side remains unburned I get that later. After the fire I put out smoldering logs or stumps as necessary. Your sprayer loaded with water will help do this job as will a rake and shovel. Have a plan in place to fight fire in case the fire gets out. This plan should include someone to run and call for professional fire fighting backup. For the seeding I use a hand-crank cyclone seeder.
What should you plant? Only a relatively few kinds of seeds will thrive when scattered on untilled ground. Here are some winners that have worked for me. For warm season plantings in early summer I sow browntop millet or dove proso. These have the added advantage that they will make good fire fuel when you get ready to plant cool season greens at summer’s end or in early fall.
This time of year, in late summer or early fall I plant clovers, including crimson clover, red clover and white clover, as well as ryegrass and small grains like wheat, oats and rye. I prefer to hold off on seeding until weather reports tell me that a large rainstorm is moving in. Large seeds like the small grains are harder to start by this method than the tiny seeds of clovers, ryegrass and browntop millet. Top sowing requires more seed than drilling seed into tilled soil, so I suggest doubling recommended amounts. This costs more, but seed is very cheap as compared to the costs of operating heavy equipment.
For advice on fertilizing and liming, take a soil sample to your local county agent. Hauling lime and fertilizer on your back and scattering it is a major chore. If you have young, vigorous men in your hunting club, this is a fine job for them, or you may be able to reach your site with a four-wheeler or all-terrain vehicle. Most soils in the Southeast need lime, and it would be hard to get in too much lime. So if you want to skip the soil test, scatter evenly 50-lbs. of lime per 1,000 square feet. This rate is about a ton of lime to the acre.
If you get a good seed catch on your first try, you are on your way. If not, seed again during the next rainy spell.
Editor’s Note: Jeff Jackson is an extension wildlife specialist with the University of Georgia’s Cooperative Extension Service.