There are many benefits to tree food plots making orchards a popular choice for many deer hunters and landowners. Unlike beans, clover and other popular annual food plots, perennial, mast-producing trees require less care. Once established, fruit and nut trees can produce a steady supply of nutrition for wildlife for 15, 20 and even up to 30 years in some cases.
Staging Tree Species for Steady Food Supply
A landowner can stagger tree varieties in a way that creates a steady supply of either soft mast (fruits) and hard mast (nuts) from early April in southern states through Thanksgiving and even Christmas in some regions of the country.
When you consider this nutritional continuity, the life expectancy of the trees and the minimal amount of work hours required from the landowner, the benefits of planting orchards begin to stack up.
“You can extend the harvest season by planting a range of different (tree) species, so you’ll have a continual supply of fruit and nuts on your land that deer won’t have to move and find elsewhere,” says Bob Wallace of Chestnut Hill, a tree nursery specializing in fruit and flowering trees. They’re also known for the Dunstan Chestnut, a blight-resistant hybrid chestnut variety.
Wallace says you can start a long fruit-bearing season with berries, which ripen in the spring and early summer. For most growing zones, spring and summer fruit includes mulberries, plums, blueberries and blackberries. Peach varieties begin to ripen as early as mid-May in the South and can extend through September. These fruit trees carry you into fall, when persimmon trees can tag in to contribute soft-mast fruit that ripens in September and throughout the fall. Yields can continue through the end of the year, if not longer in some zones.
“Bucks need a lot of energy during the rut and they get that from sugar and carbohydrates,” says Wallace. “The best sources for that are persimmons, fall-ripening pears and chestnuts.”
The popularity of the chestnut tree among landowners and deer hunters hinges on a number of factors including its high concentration of protein and carbohydrates. Photo: Chestnut Hill Nursery
Chestnut trees continue to grow in popularity among deer and deer hunters, and Chestnut Hill’s Dunstan Chestnut is available to those managing properties in a large portion of the country. This blight-resistant, hybrid chestnut has grown successfully from Maine and New York, west to Illinois and Wisconsin, and south to east Texas and Florida.
The popularity of the chestnut tree among landowners and deer hunters, hinges on a number of other factors that make chestnuts so appealing. First, the chestnut offers twice the protein and up to four times the carbohydrates available in an acorn, making it an excellent source of nutrition for deer heading into winter when fat stores are critical to survival. Nutritionally, the chestnut’s composition — 10% protein, 50% carbohydrates and about 40% water — is very similar to brown rice. The harvest is timely, too. Chestnut trees begin dropping their hard mast in mid-September to late October, just as bowhunting season is opening in many parts of the country.
There is another factor: Not only are chestnuts nutritionally rich, they’re also highly palatable to deer. While acorns produced by trees in the white oak family are more palatable than acorns produced by trees in the red oak family, the chestnut outdoes them both. The factor at play in all three hard-mast types is tannins. An acorn's bitter taste is due to its tannis, while the chestnut has none. Chestnut trees also produce annually, a differentiator among other hard-mast-producing trees that only produce a crop every other year.
Tips for Planting Your Fruit and Nut Trees
You can set your trees up for failure by neglecting a few small things, or you can set them up for success by giving a little attention here and there to a few areas that can aid a tree’s growth. But even if you do all you can to create an ideal growing situation, caring for a newly-planted tree is low maintenance and demands very little of landowners.
Where to Plant
The more sun the better. So that’s the first rule of thumb. On occasion, you’ll find someone who plants a mast-bearing tree in the woods “with the other trees.” That’s not so good. The canopy of mature trees blocks the sunlight and stunts growth. Another important factor in choosing your plant site is soil quality. Clay is OK. Sandy soil is fine too. And air drainage is a plus, but soil pH levels are critical.
Loam soils absorb water at an even pace without heavy puddling or runoff. Photo: Chestnut Hill Nursery
Soil pH: According to Chestnut Hill Nursery, the best pH for growing most nut and fruit trees is between 5.0 and 7.0. If your pH levels are in this range, you can be assured your trees will get the nutrients they need. If you’d like to read profiles of the typical traits associated with each soil type (clay, sand, loam), Chestnut Hill’s Learning Center provides a section dedicated to soil.
pH Testing: There are a variety of kits available for landowners to use for soil tests. Testing levels will help determine what the soil is lacking and aid in choosing what supplements to add to your soil. Read our blog to learn where to find soil kits, gain a deeper understanding of pH levels and how to interpret results.
Good Air Flow
Along with plentiful sun, nutrient-rich soil and proper rainfall, a site that provides good air flow is also important. You’ll want to avoid a site with low-lying areas where frost pockets can settle, causing young trees to be more susceptible to frost or freezing temperatures. Ideally, planting on a ridge or slope works best. Plant trees on top or on the side of elevated terrain so air flows down, away from trees.
You’ll want to protect your young, mast-bearing trees against weeds at the root level and rodents and wildlife at ground level. The former will compete against the tree for water and fertilizer, while the latter can cause damage to the tree’s exterior. To ensure weeds don’t pose a threat, you can purchase a weed mat that allows water in, but shades the weeds out. The weed mats that are available through Chestnut Hill will last 4 to 5 years, at which point the tree is well-established.
To protect the tree against rodents, deer rubs and other wildlife intrusion, use a grow tube, which you’ll see in use on almost any tree farm ranging from newly-planted pine forests to commercial peach and apple farms. The tubes cover down to the trunk. They should be perforated — a good tree tube acts like a greenhouse.
Chestnut Hill Nursery Learning Center
Why You Should Plant Fruit Trees as Food Plots
Chilling Hours: Required Period of Dormancy for Fruit Trees
Planting Fruit Trees for Deer Food Plots
USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map
General Pruning Tips