Tips on establishing and maintaining perennials for maximum food plot performance.
Somewhere around 15 years ago I attempted to plant my first perennial food plot of clovers in the South. I guess I expected a big lush plot of clover to pop out of the ground in a couple weeks and be hunting over it shortly thereafter.
That is how it works, right?
I had disked the ground until it was super smooth, fertilized heavily, had a good pH to work with, and so I waited.
After a couple of good rains, I saw tiny seeds begin to emerge. But after a flush of ryegrass that had probably been planted in the plot for numerous years prior and left to go to seed, it didn’t seem that the clover ever did a whole lot more than germinate and make a little green carpet a quarter-inch high over the plot.
That was it. I saw plenty of deer on that plot that season. And I killed some does over it. I wasn’t completely disappointed. Still, I puzzled over where I had gone wrong with the clover.
To say that I was a little surprised when I returned to that plot the following spring is an understatement. A lush, thick stand of beautiful clover carpeted the field. This was the field I expected when I planted it the previous fall.
What had I done wrong? Nothing.
As the old saying goes, “If I only knew then what I know now.” I’ve heard this same story so many times from guys in the Midwest all the way down to the Deep South. In this article, we will look at some of the things you can expect when planting perennials in late summer or fall.
Planting Zones Matter
This will mostly apply to those who plant in the transitional and Southern planting zones. Guys in the North will be planting their perennials in the spring and early summer and won’t have the same timetable as those with a late summer or fall planting time.
Why the different planting times? Fall-planted perennials in the North are quickly met with hard freezes and do not have time to develop a root system strong enough to come back from a harsh winter. They are covered with snow for a couple months.
“The further South you go, the tougher it is to establish perennials in the spring.”
Conversely, in the South and some of the transitional planting zones, perennials planted in the spring and summer are often failures due to the lack of moisture. Severe heat also cripples the young plants before they ever develop a root system.
If weather conditions are just right, you may do okay with a spring planting of perennials in the South, but understand it’s a tough gamble.
I like to reduce your chance of failing. The further South you go, the tougher it is to establish perennials in the spring. Basically, it’s the opposite problem for people in the North and upper Midwest.
Develop a Strong Root System
We have a saying that goes, “Perennials sleep and then they leap.”
For a plant such as clover, chicory, or alfalfa to live up to its name and be a true perennial, it has to first grow and establish a root system that can sustain the plant through stressful periods.
This allows it to be viable for numerous growing seasons. In talking with countless land managers who have planted a perennial blend in the fall, I’ve heard their disappointment over what their plot looks like a month or so later.
“Be patient,” I say. In most places where there is even a moderate deer density, you will not see a fall-planted perennial get more than three to four inches high. Even though there is not as much forage above ground in newly-planted perennial fields as opposed to an annual plot, the growth that is there is extremely attractive.
This is another reason many food plotters never see their new perennial plots get above hip high that first growing season. Only in very large plots or areas of very low deer density will you see a first season, fall-planted perennial get a significant amount of above-ground growth before Old Man Winter comes along and slows the growing cycle down.
Clover or other perennials are great food plots to put a utilization cage in so you can really see how much browse pressure may be taking place on these new perennial plots. When I’m planning exactly what I want to plant—and where—every fall planting season, I’m actually looking a year down the road for my perennials.
I don’t count on my new perennial fields as being one of my number one hunting plots or a finished plot until the following spring when they begin to emerge from a winter of root building.
Weed Control Secrets
Now, don’t let the slow start from perennials like clover and chicory lead you to avoid adding them to your food plot program. There are way more pros than cons when it comes to perennials on your property.
“Anytime soil is disturbed, a fresh crop of weeds is sure to follow in most areas.”
One of the most satisfying aspects to serious food plots is managing a successful perennial field for multiple years. Plot management for perennials primarily revolves around controlling weeds that compete with your crops for valuable moisture and nutrients.
Anytime soil is disturbed, a fresh crop of weeds is sure to follow in most areas. These weeds can quickly overtake a plot and ruin hours of work. Selective herbicides like BioLogic’s new Weed Reaper line are a great way to control weeds and make sure your food plot has its best chance at success.
Weeds, including broadleaf and grasses, should be sprayed early in the spring while they are young and growing, ideally under four to five inches. Weeds left to mature before they are sprayed do not uptake the herbicides near as well. They usually continue to be a problem through the growing season.
Fertilizing and Soil Types
Soil samples should also be taken once a year in your perennial plots to make sure
nutrient levels and soil pH are in the range for optimal growth and plant health. Most soil types will grow their best crop in the 6.2 to 7.2 pH range.
Perennials like clover and alfalfa are a little more sensitive to acidic soils than most annuals. They perform best in the aforementioned range.
Also, remember when fertilizing perennial legumes that they produce their own nitrogen and do not benefit from added nitrogen. Nitrogen fertilizers applied to legumes really only benefit weeds when applied during the growing months.
Bagged fertilizers like 0-20-20 can be used once perennials are established. This provides phosphorous and potassium without nitrogen. Every couple of years an advanced soil test should be taken that tests for micronutrients as well. These are usually applied in very small amounts compared to macronutrients but are very important for ideal plant health and growth.
Mowing for Plant Growth
Mowing is also a good way to control weeds in perennials, especially broadleaf weeds. Many grasses will grow back easily and need an herbicide application to kill, but many broadleaf weeds don’t return after being cut.
Mowing also encourages new growth in perennials like clover, chicory, alfalfa, etc.. Take care to use a mower or Bush Hog with sharp blades that make a clean cut and don’t cut your plot too low.
Crops like clover only need the top couple of inches cut, I like to tell guys to mow in thirds to be on the safe side; if your clover is 12 inches tall just mow the top three or four inches. Mowing should only take place when the plot is growing well and has good moisture. Try not to mow during a drought or extreme heat when clover is stressed.