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Right mix of trees can keep deer around

April 29, 2010 by Dave Spratt

Much has been made in recent years about the value of food plots in attracting deer, and the practice has drawn extra attention in places like Michigan, where baiting and feeding deer have recently been banned due to disease concerns, and Minnesota, where baiting has never been legal.

There is little doubt that food plots can provide nutrients that keep deer healthy, and perhaps more importantly for deer hunters, keep them around. But have you listened closely to any instructions on developing food plots? The first red flag for many of us is mention of the word "tractor." You need one. By the time they get to the hundreds of pounds of lime, industrial quantities of Roundup and seed by the semi-truckload, a one-acre food plot seems almost insurmountable.

Crabapples.But there's another way to manipulate a property in a way that can put deer where you want them with a little elbow grease and lots of patience: trees. It has been said that the best time to plant a tree was 25 years ago, and the second best time is today. It's no secret that deer love acorns, apples, pears and a number of other tree-borne foods known as mast. And if you plan right, you can fix it so your trees rain nourishment on those deer from late summer into the middle of winter -- year after year.

Patience is crucial, but waiting for your trees to bear fruit - soft mast (fruits) or hard mast (nuts) -- might not be the long-term prospect you think. Where a white oak seedling might not produce acorns for 25 years, a hybridized white oak may do it in 8-10. Modern growing techniques mean an apple tree that may have once taken 10 years to bear fruit can now do it in three.

Obviously, the sooner you get the trees in the ground, the sooner they can get to work. But you have to be smart about what you plant and where. Here are some tips from experts on planting your property with trees that will feed deer:

Diversity rules

Lindsey Thomas Jr. of the Quality Deer Management Association grew up on a farm and started planting trees shortly after he knew what they were. His No. 1 piece of advice is don't put all your acorns in one basket.

"Don't go out and decide what is the single best tree and load your place up with that tree," he said. "You want to plant what you don't have. If you've got plenty of white oaks, you don't need to plant white oaks or anything in the white oak family."

Most deer hunters know that white oak acorns are preferred by deer because they're less bitter than red oak acorns, Thomas said. That bitterness in red oak acorns comes from higher tannin levels, and higher tannins keep red oak acorns viable on the ground for much longer. Having a good mix of both means deer food for a much longer period.

"Long after the white oak season is over, you can count on deer coming back and eating red oak acorns off the ground," Thomas said. "And that happens well into winter, when the nutrition is more important to them."

The same concept applies to fruit trees, according to Charlie Morse, whose Morse Nursery of Battle Creek, Mich., specializes in trees specifically grown to feed wildlife.

Morse recommends a variety of fruit trees including apples, pears and crabapples. Because apples and pears blossom at different times, having both means a surprise frost likely won't kill the entire mast crop. And crabapples blossom longer than either, so they're more consistent and less weather dependent.

"There are certain years where apple trees have blossomed and you get a late frost, but the pears will still be there," he said. "Or if the pears get frosted out the apples will still come. The crabs are almost the guarantee. And on a good year they'll all have fruit."

Morse Nursery also sells a package of apple trees called Three Times A Charm, which includes three varieties of apple trees. One drops in late summer to get the deer coming to your property, another drops in mid-season and the third drops later. All three varieties pollinate one another, Morse said.

"Deer are creatures of habit," he said. "You get them coming to your property early, and then the mids start dropping and then the lates start dropping, you don't give that animal a chance to change its pattern. And it's better nutrition for the deer because you're not just feeding them for a month."

Choose wisely

Since soil and climate conditions vary widely, Thomas suggests you begin by talking with state or county foresters to find out what types of trees are best suited to your habitat. Many public agencies offer trees and shrubs for sale in the spring, and most are either native varieties or those known to thrive and benefit wildlife in the area.

"Look and see what the natives are first, and check with the state forest agency about what kinds of trees do best on your area," Thomas said. "It's not only the asthetically better thing to do, but they are going to be the ones best suited to your habitat and soils and have the best chance of doing well. And a lot of times I can get a lot of high quality seedlings from nurseries for less than I can get a single high-grade grafted apple tree."

But Morse said it's not that difficult to find an apple type that will thrive in any soil type with little maintenance. For instance, much is made of spraying fruit trees for pests, but spraying trees simply makes them more acceptable to humans. Deer don't care if apples have scabby skin or worms, so tree meant to feed them can be left alone.

More important is the size of the tree, he said. Many fruit trees are engineered to grow smaller so their fruit is easier to pick, but wildlife trees don't need picking so larger trees are more desirable.

"You want a big tree, because the bigger the canopy you have, the more apples it will produce and the more hundreds of pounds of fruit will be on the ground," he said. "A big buck can rub a big tree every year and skin it up, but it's not going to kill it, where a dwarf tree might get killed by that."

Location, location, location

Once you've settled on your varieties, you have to decide where they'll go. And of there's a single rule of thumb for determining a tree's location, it is this: Put it where the sun shines. That alone can greatly reduce the amount of time before your tree bears fruit.

"A lot of the literature and common knowledge about how long it takes to grow this stuff is from trees in a forest situation," Thomas said. "If you plant a white oak in a forest, it's going to take a long time to get up through the canopy. What we've found is that if you take a tree and plant it in good soil, in full sunlight, you're going to blow that right out of the water."

An oak that may take 25 years to produce acorns in the forest may do so in 8-10 years in a sunny spot with little competition, Thomas said.

"The more sun you give it, the better it's going to grow," he added. "Mast production is relative to the shape and size of the tree's crown. So when you put that tree in full sunlight and give it space to grow, it can grow this full crown."

Fruit trees also need to be placed in an area that's not only sunny, but also open to a steady breeze. Because fruit trees are high in sugar they can be susceptible to fungal diseases, but a steady breeze can combat that, Morse said. And it's not just shade that stunts a tree's growth. Nearby plants compete for nutrients in the soil too, he said.

"People haul off these plants and plant them in the middle of the woods under the canopy and they're never going to fruit," he said. "Or the pH is too high, or there's lots of grass and weeds that steal nutrients. They've made the decision to buy the right plant material, now let's find the right spot, plant it correctly and remove some of these factors that can retard results."

Nurseries recommend a 30-20-10 spacing rule for trees and shrubs, Thomas said: Give oak trees 30 feet of space to grow, fruit trees 20 feet and shrubs 10 feet.

Thomas noted a couple other considerations for location. Many landowners, upon hearing that a tree needs full sun, will plant right in the middle of a food plot where cultivation practices can damage roots. A tree's root system generally conforms to the size of its crown, Thomas said. When discing the soil around your tree, be careful not to go inside the crown.

"Disc harrows are poison on trees," he said. "You can see the visible part of the tree and think ‘I'm not cutting that tree down. But when you disc you're just chopping up the roots. That will create a sick tree and over time it's going to die."

Thomas also said it's a good idea to stay away from power lines, because just as your tree starts reaching a respectable size, you may show up one day and find that the local power company has trimmed it back or cut it down.

Other considerations

Thomas offered several other general guidelines to consider when planting:

  • Don't just randomly put trees where you have open space. Consider spaces where you can plant several trees of the same species and create a mini-orchard. By having a group of fruit trees together, you create a greater food source that will become a destination for deer rather than a quick stop on the way to someplace else.
  • Beat back the competition. If there are other trees that may shade your desirable tree, cut them down. If grasses and weeds are heavy, use a backpack sprayer to kill them. They're competing with your tree for nutrients. "Every tree out there is trying to get ahead of the others and get to a place where it can capture sunlight. Keep your trees competitive."
  • Before you plant, take a close look at what you already have. You may find that you already have a crabapple tree, for example, that is getting crowded by its neighbors. "A lot of people already have the trees," he said. "They just need to release them."
  • Put plastic tubes on your trees. Without a tube a tree will branch out at ground level where deer and other animals can browse it. Tubes force the tree to put its energy into vertical growth. That forces the tree to develop some height before it can branch out and form a crown.



This article is exactly what I have been looking for to help me get start with apple trees on my hunting property. Thanks!
March 26, 2011 9:29 AM

Will Orne

this really helped me out! and was a great resource. one question:what if i already planted our apple trees into a food plot, and our oak trees around other grasses, but still with plenty of sunlight? would spraying the grasses and plants in food plot around the planted trees damage the trees?
November 1, 2011 10:12 PM

Will Orne

This was very helpful and had all the details i needed
November 1, 2011 10:17 PM

Kevin McAllister

I have planted some apple and pear trees in a half acre food plot that is in the middle of my timber. I have them on the edge of the plots. They have been there for 5 year. They seem like they are growing well, they are about ten feet tall, but they have beared any fruit since I planted them. They are all spaced about ten feet, and have yellow and red delicous planted every other tree. Just curious if you might have an idea why my trees aren't bearing any fruit? All so, when and what should I sp
December 5, 2011 10:25 PM


What variety of apple trees hold thier fruit the longest? Will it grow and bear fruit in KY?
December 4, 2012 9:31 PM