Landowners who manage their property for hunting and wildlife are always looking for ways to improve habitat and increase hunting opportunities. Planting food plots to create cover and high-protein sources of forage has created a booming industry to provide seed, fertilizer and herbicides to hunters and landowners.
Finding and planting native species that deliver some of the same benefits of traditional food plots is of increasing interest.
Native species can provide advantages over traditional plantings of clovers and brassicas because they are genetically predisposed to thrive in your specific location. Native plant species often have deep root systems, making them drought resistant. Planting different mixes can provide not only a steady food source, but also year-round cover for deer and turkeys.
A “no-till” method is the best way to install native plants. After determining the size and location of the area you intend to plant, you apply herbicide to kill all vegetation on the plot. A second application may be necessary to guarantee all vegetation is eliminated. This helps ensure good contact with bare soil and decreased competition from weeds when you broadcast seed. Seed can be broadcast by hand for small areas or with a tractor-mounted seeder on larger plots.
Soil preparation and seeding are best done in late winter or early spring. Some seeds need to go through a period of freezing before germination, so planting may need to be done earlier in the fall. It’s best to check with your supplier for recommended planting times in your climate zone. With native plants, applications of lime, fertilizer or other soil amendments are not recommended, providing initial savings at planting.
Once established, native plants require little maintenance. Most plots take about three years to reach maturity. During that time, the area should be mowed to the supplier’s recommended height once or twice a year, depending on your location.
You may need to spot spray competing weeds or other invasive plants for the first year or two until the planting is well established. Native plants benefit from annual controlled burns to reduce the buildup of ground cover and allow seeds to reach open soil for germination. Burns can be conducted in sections, rotating from year to year, to provide a constant source of cover.
Native species are long lasting. An established plot can last up to 20 years without the need to re-plant. Their deep root systems reduce the need for water and they help filter runoff and deter erosion, making them ideal for use along streams or hillsides.
Native plots attract insects and a variety of pollinators, providing a high-protein food source for turkeys and other wildlife. They offer excellent cover for nesting and escape from predators. Some species also have generous levels of protein, especially beneficial for deer. Aster, at 23%, and switchgrass, 17%, are among the plants offering higher protein nutrition.
Many landowners plant a mix of traditional food plots, along with natives, to take advantage of seasonal food sources like brassicas, corn, legumes and clovers. Planting natives in strips or sections also provides edge cover that is important to many species.
The NWTF has several different seed offerings through its partnership with Mossy Oak BioLogic, including native plant offerings. The NWTF website contains articles and a list of other resources to help landowners make habitat improvements on their properties.
The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service makes grants available to help landowners plant native plots. The agency’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program provides funding to cover costs associated with installing native grasses and plants. Visit their website at www.nrcs.usda.gov for more information about the program and to see if you are eligible.
With proper planning and execution, landowners can provide a diverse habitat on their properties that will benefit all wildlife, while providing better hunting opportunities that can be passed down from generation to generation.