Perhaps you purchased hunting land through Realtree United Country. Maybe you have permission to improve the habitat on someone else's ground. Regardless of the circumstancs, trees play a vital role in a whitetail’s diet. It doesn’t matter where you go in their range — trees play a role. Both soft and hard mast trees provide food for deer. Even trees that don’t produce a viable fruit or nut are oftentimes targeted for the leafy and woody browse they provide. So, if planting trees is in your future, here are 10 steps to successfully bring that task to fruition — literally.
Tip No. 1: Begin by analyzing what tree species you do and don’t have on the property. Having all of one thing can provide deer with a lot of food at once, but results in a biological wasteland the rest of the year. You don’t want a bunch of one species that dominates the landscape. A variety is better. A combination of hard and soft mast (70:30) is best. This provides a more uniform buffet of food sources throughout the year.
Tip No. 2: When planting oaks, include species from both the red and white oak families. Different species have different mast cycles. Including numerous kinds will help ensure you have hard mast each year — even when there are mast crop failures in some of them. Also, think about the sex of the tree. Some species, such as persimmon trees, have male and female trees. Females produce fruit while male ones do not. Keep this in mind when purchasing seedlings.
Tip No. 3: Plant Dunstan chestnut trees as the focal species. The chestnut was the primary hard mast food source for deer up until about a century ago when a blight wiped them out. The Dunstan variety is resistant to that disease. Recent studies showed that deer prefer chestnuts to white oak acorns 99:1. That’s reason enough to plant them.
Tip No. 4: Purchase tree seedlings from a local nursery. This is a very important step as the available varieties will be optimized to the soil and climate near you. Also, there are pros and cons when choosing between bare-root and containerized seedlings. Bare-root seedlings have higher odds of survival — but they’re more expensive. Weigh the pros and cons and choose what is right for you.
Tip No. 5: Plant native tree species when given the option. Invasive species such as Sawtooth oaks and autumn olive provide quality food sources, but as some might say, they aren’t from around here. Choose a native alternative such as white oak or plum trees to plant instead.
Tip No. 6: Really think about what you’re doing when you plan out your property design. In a perfect world, don’t plant them at the very top of ridges or in the lowest-lying areas. Somewhere in-between on gently sloping ground is best. Put soft mast trees in locations where you’ll want to draw deer during the summer and early fall. Likewise, plant your hard mast trees in locations where you’ll primarily want to hold deer from September to November. Furthermore, keep in mind good stand locations, wind directions, and entry and exit routes when designing the planting of a given property. Think about all other food sources in the area and how deer travel will flow throughout the property based on your plantings. Try to place them between bedding areas and major food sources so you can ambush deer in these staging areas.
Tip No. 7: For most species, plant between December and March while trees are dormant. This is the best window for tree seedling survival. And plant them as soon as you can. Keeping the roots moist and cool is important for seedling survival prior to planting.
Tip No. 8: There are several things you can do to help your young trees. First, plant them in areas that receive plenty of sunlight and minimal competition. Dig a hole just large enough for the roots to fit in. Next, place tree cages or a home-made layer of hard plastic/rubber around the trunk to prevent deer from browsing or rubbing on it.
Tip No. 9: Keep trees at least 5 to 7 yards apart. Approximately 8 to 10 yards is a little better for tree species that have sprawling root systems, large canopies and require a lot of water. Instead of planting in rows, make placement a little more “random” and give it a natural feel and look.
Tip No. 10: Don’t ignore your trees once they are planted. Continue to monitor them, eliminate nearby plant competition and do whatever maintenance is required to keep them alive for the first several years. This is the most critical time in a tree’s life. And finally, don’t fertilizing seedlings. This can actually do more harm than good when it comes to growth early on in their life cycle.