photo of mourning doves
cheap food plot
One: Treat vegetation with Roundup. Two: Clear away leaf litter. John Rice
cheap food plot
Three: Spread fertilizer. Four: Broadcast the seed blend. John Rice
cheap food plot
Five: Return to hunt the plot in a few weeks. John Rice

The idea of making big, elaborate food plots that require heavy equipment and hours of labor tends to intimidate landowners. But there’s a much simpler and cheaper way to join the food plot craze. Grant Woods, one of America’s top whitetail biologists and head of a deer management consulting firm, creates and hunts over what he calls hidey holes. “They’re just small woods openings where I sweeten the deal in a place where deer already like to go—like putting ketchup and mustard on a hot dog.”

These micro food plots require few tools: a small sprayer with Roundup herbicide, one bag each of lime and fertilizer, a rake or a leaf blower, and some seed. Building the plot is simple, and you can backpack in everything you need in a trip or two.

THE PERFECT SPOT Think small. A quarter acre is as big as you’ll want to go. “An excellent place is around the trunk of a big, old tree that’s been lightning-struck or killed by gypsy moths,” Woods says. “Suddenly there’s an opening in the canopy where sun hits the ground for a good part of the day.” Log landings (cleared areas where loggers have piled timber), woods roads, and natural openings also work.

Woods preps the seedbed by spraying grass or weeds with Roundup. “Woody brush will have to be girdled [the bark scarred with a knife or hatchet] first,” he says. “But don’t go through the headache of clearing out dead trees–just work around them. You’re not creating a field here.”

If leaf litter is all that covers the ground, Woods uses a gas-powered blower to remove leaves and sticks for maximum soil-to-seed contact. “A leaf blower is one of the handiest tools a food-plotter can have. Not only does it do a beautiful job of clearing out the plot itself, but it’s also great for creating an entry and exit trail to your stand.” If you don’t have one, use a steel-tined garden rake instead.

With the debris gone, Woods applies pelletized lime and fertilizer (which breaks down more quickly than the powdered variety) with a handheld spreader. “This is an essential step,” he stresses. “Nearly all woodland soils are so acidic that even if plants grow, they’ll taste bitter to deer. So I spread as much lime and fertilizer as I can haul in a couple of trips.”

TASTY TREATS Finally, broadcast the seed on top of the lime and fertilizer. Deciding what–and when–to plant is critical. “You have a very specific mission: having that plot at peak palatability to deer when conditions are right for you,” Woods says. “Seed it too early, and deer can wipe out a plot before you hunt it.”

In most areas you’ll be planting about three weeks before the opening of bow season, then hunting the site a limited number of times, depending on the crop. You need to consider both its attractiveness and its durability. Deer love peas, for example, but can eat an entire plot in about a week. Clover also draws whitetails and will buy you several more days, depending on the population density. Brassica blends are another favorite, but they mature at different times and give you maybe a month to six weeks.

It takes about four hours to establish a micro plot, according to Woods. “Some folks say that given the little time you can hunt one, you’d be better off just scouting more. That’s true if you have exclusive access to a large tract. But if you’re hunting only a small acreage or sharing land with other hunters, hidey holes provide an edge that’s worth the time.”

IMPROVING FORAGE To improve whitetail food without planting a thing, all you need to do is spray existing forage with liquid fertilizer. You can test the effectiveness of this technique by marking a patch of native vegetation with ribbons staked 20 feet apart, then fertilizing between the ribbons. “I’ll guarantee that in a few days the fertilized vegetation will receive more use by whitetails than the area outside it,” says Grant Woods.

Fertilizers, which you can buy at most hardware stores, help release nutrients in plants–such as witch hazel, honeysuckle, and catbrier, all foods that whitetails already prefer–and make them even more attractive. Woods recommends pHFertilizer by BioLogic.