Frost Seeding Perennials in Poor and Light Soils

In early 2001 there was an agreement between the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, MDNR and the Mid Michigan Branch, Quality Deer Management Association, QDMA for a no till frost seeding of perennials demonstration on public land in Gladwin County.

The plan called for a clear cut of timber of 50 feet on each side of a two-track or fire lane. We would then use that two-track or lane to be used as a travel lane for commercial farm type equipment to spray herbicide, broadcast lime, fertilizer and seed. The planting of the seed takes place in early spring while the soil is freezing and thawing (frost seeding). There is no tillage whatsoever, just remove the cut timber and leave the stumps. Correct the soil PH to 6.5 minimum with lime, correct the major minerals to a high level and kill the ground vegetation with herbicide sprayings. Then after what may take up to six years of soil correction broadcast the perennial seed.

Budget constraints prevented the original plan of several miles of seeding on a two track, so we agreed on a four acre plot that had a few scattered trees for a shading effect. We had a choice of better soil, but opted for the poorer location, with the thought, “If we can grow clover here we can grow it anywhere”. The MDNR and the QDMA cost shared this project. Let me say that we appreciate the cooperation and far sightedness of the MDNR.

This process works well in good loamy soil (especially with a high water table) and you can have success in only one year. It may take up to six years in light soil. Frost seeding in soil that is very light, bordering on blow sand will not be successful, even with soil correction. You need at least 2-3 inches of topsoil of loamy sand minimum to expect acceptable results.

Having lanes of 60-100 feet in width and in a north/south orientation will improve results. The shading of the trees lowers the full impact of the hot, drying sun, thus allowing the delicate seedlings a better chance to survive.

Here in the four acre plot we have a few scattered trees for a similar effect. The forage grew well in the shade of the trees, while in the open areas it grew spotty at best. Note: this perennial forage grew better on the east side shade versus the west side. This is due to the heat being highest in mid-afternoon from the blasting rays of the western sun, (thus the reason for a 60-100 feet wide north south orientation food plot lane in a forest). This would not be a problem in good heavy loam soil.

Another positive contributing factor is the undisturbed soil. The litter of leaves, small twigs, surface and near surface roots (which is called duff) shades the soil from the sun, thus helping to keep it cool and moist. The thicker the duff the better. I find a duff thickness of around one inch works well.

Correcting the soil pH encourages the appearance of earthworms, furthering the quality of the soil. Here we started with a pH of 4.5, with the latest soil test of October 2005 showing a pH of 6.6. With all of the mentioned shading of the soil, it is not imperative that the seed have contact with the soil. A thick duff condition can contain enough moisture, called water vapor to allow seeds to germinate and emerge while being suspended a short distance from the soil surface. I have inspected suspect areas with my pocket knife and observed this condition. This suspended seed sends a root down and a tender shoot up.

What we want to plant in these light soils are annuals and perennials that have a tolerance of light soils. Perennials are very delicate in their early stage and it's a good idea to include annuals as a nurse crop that grow vigorously and develop large shading leaves. The correct balance is important so that the annuals do not overcome the perennials. With the correct balance the protected perennials will have the opportunity to develop a deep and extensive root system for next year's lush growth.

In this field we planted in early April a blend created by the Mid Michigan Branch called "Michigan's Ultimate Blend". There are eight perennials and eight annuals. The perennials consist of five clovers, chicory, birdsfoot, trefoil, and grazing type alfalfa. The annuals are a variety of forage rape. An example of the seed variety selected is a Russian clover that has a documented record of living more than 100 years. This type of clover is very vigorous in that it will grow even in light soil and will compete with grass. It is naturally round up ready, meaning it can be sprayed with round-up herbicide and survives. It is very palatable and is 83 percent digestible, while most other clovers are about 65 percent digestible and live from two to five years. The choice of perennial seeds selected for seeding in light soils needs to have a tolerance of light soil, as does the nurse crop.

There are many private land owners that have poor light soils and have tried unsuccessfully to grow food plots. This process, which took many years of trial and error to develop, just may be your ticket. This process is described in detail in our new book, ‘Ultimate Deer Food Plots’. The book contains 182 pages with color photos and explains how to select and prepare sites for planting, the tools needed either by hand planting or power equipment, the proper use of herbicides, what types and amount of seed to plant, how to fertilize and lime your site, how to plant fruit trees and nut trees, how to maintain food plots for the long term, along with planting and managing small acreage's for keeping big bucks on your land.

Keep the fun in hunting!

To order the book "Ultimate Deer Food Plots ", click here.

Ed Spinazzola
Chairman of the Board, Mid Michigan Branch QDMA
Board of Directors, National QDMA

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