Native Plants For Better Summer Plots
Warm-season food plots can be enhanced.
Food plotting has come a long way in the last 10 years in the South and has evolved into a broader discussion about habitat. A number of informative studies have yielded tons of useful information on this subject but the volume of facts can be somewhat exhausting. Sometimes it pays to take a step back and look at the big picture to help us understand the microscopic. I hope to share some background on the subject of habitat restoration and then some specific steps to take that will directly and positively affect your hunting success.
“Live and learn,” the wise old saying goes. Someone once turned this proverb around to convey another truth: “Learn and live.”
There may not be a more agreed upon statement on earth. Society operates on this principle, but there is rarely a consensus about how to implement change for the better. Unfortunately, a lot of really important issues end up being political fodder, restricting our learning because of the “spin” put on the facts. There is also the divisive political labeling game…. “if you believe in ‘that’ then you are one of ‘them.’”
Over time, as the dust settles people usually figure out the “real deal,” as my dad would put it. It’s a shame that we have allowed conservation issues to be used in political games. The good news is that, due in large part to sportsmen, things are changing.
The truth of the matter is that hunters, being the very first conservationists, are now walking away in droves from the fruitless political fracas and are choosing rather to be engaged in educating themselves about good stewardship practices.
When it comes to conservation issues, I find that many landowners and sportsmen are choosing to ignore the nuts on both sides and are pressing forward and doing the right thing. We’ve always known that it is beneficial to everyone (not to mention the animals we hunt) to protect our water and air, but along the way we somehow allowed radical groups to hijack the discussion and lay claim to the entire conservation message.
On the flip side, because we agreed on things like free markets and small government, we let other special interests convince us we were in with the crazy people if we went very far down the conservation road. We saw the “experts” dividing into camps, and we read stories of fraudulent skewing of facts. So we found it easy to be skeptical about some of this fanatical environmentalism. I still am, but I’m much more discerning in what I dismiss and what I pay attention to. I’ve heard countless stories from landowner clients who say they have been jerked around in the past by overzealous “government hounds,” as a landlord of mine called them, many times with bad science and manners. This caused some hard feelings and mistrust, but I have noticed that many of these landowners and sportsmen are refusing to allow those experiences to discourage them from their commitment to conservation. At the same time they smell plenty of bull coming from all directions, and not only from the folks who think guns are bad, hunting is murder and people are just two-legged animals. It’s also from a few who let their bottom line shape their views on conservation. Sportsmen have evolved into savvy fact-checkers and are not falling for junk science very easily. Thankfully, these days there is plenty of good, clean science out there, and we have seen measurable results with implementing various new practices.
A hot topic in the southern hunting world is habitat restoration. In the industrial Northeast, because of the impact of a high population density and polluting factories, they witnessed the effects of wetland and habitat destruction earlier than in the South and were forced to begin taking steps to mitigate these damages. Over the last 30 years in the South, we have seen some ill-effects of our own. Now we are implementing various practices in order to enhance our southern habitats, keeping our forest systems diverse and productive, and sensibly protecting our water.
A combination of culprits such as fire exclusion, misuse of herbicides, the advent of modern agriculture and silviculture have caused many of our southern native plant species to be drastically reduced. As a result, some plants very important to wildlife and common only 40 years ago have all but disappeared from many areas from the increased wildlife pressure. The re-establishment of regionally native plants is playing a major role in today’s conservation effort regarding everything from water quality to pollinators, and there are clear benefits to our game animals as well. These animals have adapted to native plants over many eons, and they rely on them for survival. There are a handful of native plants here in the South that, when re-established, make an amazing difference in the hunting of the area, and it may surprise you to know that they are all warm-season plants. Let me explain.
The Southeastern United States has long been the envy of the rest of the country for our warm temperatures and sunshine. Winter temperatures may drop even into single digits occasionally in some areas of the South, but typically only for a very short time before it is back near 70. I like to say we have cold snaps but not much cold weather. It is not unusual for us to have temperatures in the 80s at times during the winter, and farmers are usually breaking land for summer crops in February. The abundance of warm weather in the South makes for a long growing season and a lot of vegetation in the heat of summer. In more northern climates, cool-season plants dominate the landscape over a longer period of the calendar year, so the warm-season plants are not as aggressive during summer months as they are in the South.
During the summer, bucks are growing new antlers, yearlings are growing frame and muscle, and does are birthing and producing milk for fawns. All of these processes require large quantities of protein and minerals, much more so than in fall and winter months, when they are primarily seeking energy-producing fats and carbohydrates in the form of hard mast like acorns. Since the South is so full of dense warm-season vegetation in the summertime one would assume that deer have everything they need in terms of summer browse. The problem is that because of the situation mentioned above, a lot of the available native browse is not what deer prefer or really need, but they make use of it. Rather than the preferred perennial native forbs and legumes it is primarily woody browse and as these plants mature, their protein levels decrease while lignin or fiber content increases. It’s worse during dry periods of summer, which are a common result of rapid evaporation caused by our high temperatures and even more so in sandy soils. So how do we mitigate this situation? One way that is growing more popular every year is the establishment of summer food plots.
Today I think the majority of serious deer hunters have already heard this message and recognize the importance of summer food plots but still have not worked out a practical system to get it done consistently. Legumes, which is a catch all name for peas and beans, are the most popular choices for summer plots. The most commonly used ones are non-native annuals. When they are present, they make very good replacements for the scarce native forbs and legumes that deer crave in the summer, but there are a few problems that are common. Hunters don’t always get to plant them at the right time because many times they live hours away from their hunting land and work for a living. Then when they have scheduled a planting day, it’s often either too wet or too dry, wasting a weekend. These crops often require soil amendments and weed control for successful establishment. If a successful stand is established, it is common for deer to eat it all to the ground in a week’s time, which usually requires the process be started over. This poses a number of challenges and invariably leads to gaps during the year wherein there is nothing of value growing in the plot.
Other than nutrition, another good thing about summer food plots is that they enhance your ambush site. The deer use the food plots all year, making them part of their normal route. Deer are much more likely to continue to do so during hunting season, but if the food plot goes barren, it reduces this effect.
While the annuals we plant can be hit and miss, there is something that can be done to help fill in those gaps during the summer with a little up front effort, and that is planting perennial native plants. Native trees such as persimmon, plum and crabapple are popular, and excellent, choices for southern sites, but certain herbaceous forbs and legumes provide what is really needed in summer—protein. Many of them are perennial and will come back from the roots every year.
Native Lespedezas, also known as Bush Clovers, are excellent wildlife plants. They are legumes that provide great deer browse, and the little beans this plant makes are great quail and turkey food. Lespedezas are known as the most important plant to the bobwhite quail.
Desmodiums, also known as Ticktrefoils, are other native perennial legumes that make tiny beans that are highly preferred by quail and turkeys, and the plant is also commonly browsed by deer.
Another forb that has very high wildlife value is a native Sida, known as Sweet Tea. It thrives in the Southeastern Coastal Plain and is highly tolerant of drought and shade. It is irresistible to deer and also very high in protein and minerals.
Certain Asters are also highly preferred deer browse.
Any of these plants can be established by live plugs or seed and are great at providing consistent browse when the inevitable food gaps occur in our summer plots. It is important to note that there are non-native versions of all of these plants, and some of them can be very invasive. This is not to say that all non-natives are invasive, as many of them have naturalized to the South and are very useful forages, but there are a few that spread rampantly and displace native vegetation. Bicolor and Sericea Lespedeza are examples of such plants.
For quail and turkey habitat improvement, I usually recommend planting colonies of Bush Clovers and Ticktrefoils throughout the property within a native grass base and burning the area in spring. These plants are fire-adapted and will regenerate vigorously after the burn. Small random areas can be excluded from the fire by disking circles or “ring-around” firebreaks around areas where brush is allowed to grow thick for escape-cover thickets. Various low, dense shrubs like plum, wild indigo, rusty haw and blueberry can be established in these areas. The firebreaks make good brood habitat by allowing rank weedy growth to occur, which attracts insects for chicks.
For food plots, in addition to the Bush Clovers and Ticktrefoilsm, I highly recommend Sweet Tea and Buck Aster along the edges and in belts across the plot. They don’t tolerate disking, so they should be avoided when planting annuals. Grass herbicides, both pre- and post-emergement, are safe to use on all of the native forbs and legumes mentioned, and the legumes are also tolerant of imazapic.
Finally, I also promote the use of switchgrass, a tall perennial native warm-season grass for what I call “channeling screens.” These are basically rows of switchgrass leading from the edge of a food plot out into the middle and in line with the direction of the shooter so not to obstruct his view. These do a great job of adding vertical structure and result in more daytime usage of food plots.
Adding natives to our summer food plots is something southern hunters can do to improve the hunting experience in many ways. Putting things back that were there in the first place is a concept we can all relate to and be confident in.
It is a great time for hunting in the South as such an effort is being made to enhance and restore wildlife habitat. I am very grateful to have the opportunity to work with landowners, non-profit organizations and agencies that are making this such a priority. It is a great example of reasonable people filtering through the information, picking out the things that are actually doable and then working together to make them happen. Hopefully this trend will continue, and our children and grandchildren will reap from our efforts; not only in terms of their hunting grounds but also in refusing to allow anyone’s political agenda to stop them from being good stewards of the earth God has entrusted them with.
Editor’s Note: The author, Joe S. Reams III, is an expert in habitat restoration and a native seed and plant producer. For more info, visit his company website at www.southernhabitats.com.
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