In years gone by, deer hunting was something of a seasonal affair. Hunters started getting ready in the final days of summer and first days of fall – preparing stand sites, sighting in their rifle or bow, and getting the camouflage out of storage.
But that was then, and this is now – a time when deer hunting seems like a year around activity. From shed hunting to dialing in a bow or a rifle to prepping hunting ground, the work from one whitetail season to the next never seems to end.
A lot of deer hunters know that to be true in the springtime as they get to work on land management chores through controlled burns, selective timbering, and the planting of warm season food plots on the edges of forests or in open pastures.
For some, such work includes the planting of mast trees that will eventually bring high calorie nutritional value to a local deer population. While many hunters think about red oaks and white oaks with such plantings, it can take many years – 10+ in most cases – to see acorns hitting the ground.
That’s why savvy land managers often turn to the chestnut trees from Chestnut Hill Outdoors, trees able to produce high energy nuts within three to five years of being planted.
A hard mast species that deer absolutely love, the American chestnut was all but wiped out by a blight in the early 1900s. The fungus-driven malady was nothing short of a nationwide natural disaster, one that the late Dr. Robert T. Dunstan, a renowned plant breeder, played a key role in resolving. Today, the Dunstan Chestnut hybrid tree that the good doctor helped produce is an American success story, a comeback that the Florida-based Chestnut Hill company continues to play a key role in to this very day.
Run for many years by Robert “Bob” Dunstan Wallace, the grandson of the late Dr. Dunstan, the family nursery business in Alachua, Fla. grows and sells tens of thousands of Dunstan Chestnuts each year to land managers and hunters across the country. That’s in addition to many other soft mast plant species like the Dr. Deer Pear trees, the Deer Candy Persimmon collection of trees, crab apples and apples, mulberries, blueberries, blackberries, Muscadine grapes, and more.
By planting a variety of hard mast and soft mast species, the result can be an important steady supply of high energy nutrition available to whitetails throughout much of the year.
Such work is often referred to as Deer Landscaping, a term coined by North American Whitetail’s Dr. James C. Kroll at his Whitetail Breeding and Nutrition Research Center right outside of Nacogdoches, Texas.
I saw this deer management strategy firsthand one year as my son, Will, and I participated in Kroll’s annual Whitetail Field Day. By the day’s end, Will and I had been introduced to Kroll’s concept of planting deer orchards, or vertical food plots as some like to call them.
“We always want to concentrate on nutrition for deer,” said Kroll. “That’s the number one thing that we can do for deer on our properties, to answer the question of ‘What can I do to improve nutrition?’ ”
When I visited with him, Bob Wallace had a few answers for that question.
“Acorn dropping oaks are certainly good, but the thing about oak trees is that they produce a crop of acorns in the fall for a month or so and then they are done,” he said. “We always recommend that land managers plant for diversity with a variety of things available as the year goes by. That way, you can have a nutritional deer attractant working for months. Plus, they work well in concert with annual food plots and many hunters and land managers have both going on (throughout the year).”
In addition to hard mast like chestnuts and acorn producing oak trees, what kind of soft mast fruits are we talking about here?
“Crab apples are native, and deer love them,” said Bob. “And they really like native plums too. There are mulberries, which start (appearing) earlier in the year, then apples and peaches, and don’t forget things like blackberries and blueberries. These fruits will all help extend food resources for deer through the various seasons of the year. And that can help hold deer in a spot so that they will not move off somewhere else (as seasons and nutritional needs change).”
That includes springtime, a time of year that Chestnut Hill experts point out brings increasing stress to does that are carrying, delivering and nursing newborn whitetail fawns. It also includes bucks that are starting to grow antlers. And don’t forget turkeys, grouse, pheasants, quail, rabbits, squirrels, and other wildlife that are scouring the countryside as they look to meet nutritional needs. To help meet those needs, early soft mast production by mulberries, blueberries, and even plums can help.
The middle and latter stages of summer also represent a time on the calendar that doesn’t offer wildlife as much food and nutrition as one might think. Why? The experts at Chestnut Hill say it’s because herbaceous vegetation is starting to mature and die away. That’s where summertime fruits like blackberries, raspberries, and grapes can all work to help get wildlife through this often-unrecognized nutritional gap on the calendar.
As leaves change colors and the first cool fronts usher in the fall months, deer and other wildlife are again seeking key nutrition as they prepare for the breeding season and fatten up for the coming of winter. Chestnut Hill’s staff notes that such needs can be met by late summer and early fall soft mast production from persimmons, apples, and pears, food resources that can help wildlife get through until beneficial hard mast like chestnuts and acorns begin to drop in the middle stages of the autumn season.
If you’re convinced that a year-round approach to providing nutrition and food for the deer on your hunting grounds is the route you should go, note that the products mentioned above are all grown by Chestnut Hill Nursery and Orchards, the leading food plot tree nursery in America.
The nursery’s hard and soft mast trees and plants are shipped to retailers like Walmart, Rural King, and co-op dealers in the spring, a time of year when most think of planting.
“Walmart buys from us in the springtime, and they are our largest distribution network,” said Iain Wallace, Bob’s son who has now taken over as the company’s CEO. “It is the easiest way for a customer to get the product. And, if they order from us directly, they’ll receive a smaller one-year-old tree because that’s basically the size plant that fits in a box. Whereas at Walmart in the spring, you can buy a three-gallon tree that is two years old or a seven-gallon tree that is three years old. And those bigger trees get you closer to actual mast production, which is what a lot of people like, trees that produce nuts as soon as possible.”
While Iain notes that springtime offers the most locations for purchasing Chestnut Hill trees, he also points out that the bigger trees are available from Rural King and co-op dealers in the autumn season. Add in the direct shipment of younger trees straight from the company itself, and fall is actually a great time to plant too.
“Yes, fall is a great time to plant and not as many people know that,” said Iain. “The (fall and) winter months have a little more rainfall than you’ll usually find in the summer months, so that can be ideal if you’re planting trees remotely where it will be difficult or impossible to water them. And since the trees go dormant as the leaves fall off, they actually need less water during the fall and winter months anyway.”
While the best stretches of fall weather can vary by latitude, planting Chestnut Hill’s container trees during fall’s milder weather conditions can help new trees root in effectively. If the ground isn’t frozen, the rooting in process continues until next spring, helping trees get established while avoiding the “transplant shock” that can sometimes happen in warmer months.
Finally, add in the fact that the disease and insect problems that can plague newly planted trees in the warmer months are typically winding down or even vacating the landscape entirely in the fall, and that can be a positive in helping trees take root and start the road towards becoming a mature fruit or nut producing specimen.
If you’re interested in making mast trees from Chestnut Hill a part of your deer management strategy, you can wait until next spring when the trees are shipped to Walmart locations. To find out when that will happen, just visit the company’s website link that updates shipping locations and dates.
If you’d rather not wait, look for Chestnut Hill products this autumn at your local Rural King or co-op dealer or simply go online to the company’s website. If you choose the latter route, simply place your order and wait for the deliveryman to ring your doorbell.
After the trees arrive, simply follow the planting guide information on the company’s website to help find the correct location on your property and to successfully get the trees planted into the ground. Then sit back the rest of the fall and winter months and eagerly anticipate the results you’ll see in the years to come.
Because with a varied approach to providing hard mast and soft mast alike, the deer on your hunting ground can have a leg up on other whitetails in the region, receiving energetic calories and nutrition throughout the year, especially during the times of the year when they need it most.
And that can bring plenty of satisfaction as you watch a group of does or a big buck silently ghost their way across your property, whether you’re enjoying a cup of steaming hot coffee on the back porch in spring or sitting high up in a treestand come fall.
Either way, you’ll be smiling big – as big as a Dunstan Chestnut!