Total newb, hand tools only, sandy soil, need help


New Member
Hello all, I've been searching around a bit and have only come up with a few vague answers to some of the problems I forsee encountering with a plot or two I'm planning on putting in on our land up north.

This is going to be with hand tools only or, at most, a budget tiller(or so the plan goes now unless you guys set me straight in another direction). We are looking at doing about 1/4acre to start, maybe a bit more, just to see how it goes. Our deer numbers are VERY low so that should help with a limited size plot. We are sitting on 40acres of mostly overgrown, stunted 3-5" at the base trees. It's a hodgepodge of pine, spruce, maple etc. Our oaks all died from oak wilt.

There is absolutely no agriculture in the area. We are in WI Central Forest in the middle of Juneau county. Our soil is very sandy and does not hold water well at all. According to the NWS we get about 33-34 inches of precipitation per year.

We plan on going up sometime in early spring to get some soil samples. From that we will decide on a location and apply our lime/fertilizer as prescribed.

Here are my questions at this point in time. Given the information I listed, what are some possible choices for plants? How much of an area are we going to have to clear if we put this in a forested area(are we really going to have to open it up for sunlight or just clear trees out to the edge of the plot)? We are doing it by hand so the stumps won't be a big issue for us but is it necessary to remove the stumps for any other reason? What are some methods to clear and seed(I was thinking kill of with some sort of spray, rake or till, lime/fert as prescribed, rake, seed, rake seeds in)?

These are only the questions I can think of. Being brand new at this any further advice is more than welcome! Thanks in advance for any help.
We used a lawn mower and hand tiller for small plots for years before anyone had access to a tractor or ATV implements. A few guys working on the same 1/4 acre plot can get one done relatively quick. One man will have a long day. Do you have an ATV you can use to help? Right now is a good time to be looking on Craigslist for cheap stuff. We also used a 1 gallon sprayer with roundup. For the lawn mower we put bigger wheels on it. That helped a lot.
I don't know about sandy soil because you don't find that here. I really like chicory because it has an extremely long tap root which will help with an moisture issues. Your local government agents can help you with what to plant in your small settings.

The size of your plot the first year can be expanded in year two - so don't think you have to make all gains your first spring.

Go to midwestwhitetail on internet - Bill Winkle has great video on what he calls "poor man plots". Search his website for poor man plot and you will get the show part of "show and tell."

The more sunlight you bring the process - the better your plots will turn out. Good food plots without heavy equipment are a product of planning, good decisions and good all fashion work. Rickey gave you good advice - get at least one hard working friend involved. You can accomplish a great deal without $1,000 invested in tractors and such.

Everyone looks photos - document what you do with photos - that will get you more input from the experienced users on this forum. ;)

Good luck on your efforts.

I don't know the laws up were you are, but i did the hand tool small food plots and they would last a couple weeks the wildlife would eat everything i planted or worse it wouldn't rain or i would get too much rain. Anyways this last year i focus on running feeders and mineral blocks, they would drop corn twice a day and i ran my cameras all year as well. I saw tons more deer on camera and in the stand. Last year we killed 2 deer, this year we killed 6 and could have killed more. One of the mistakes i made was the areas i cleared were easy to clear by hand but weren't getting enough sun. This off season i going to work on fixing that. Lots of people talk about fertilizing natural food sources that's another thought to keep in mind. Please don't let my fails stop you from clearing and planting just make sure you are clearing the right/best area on your place.

From pine straw

To this looks good to me but with in weeks its all gone.

Too much rain

And from this

To planted

Look at the photos in Sam's post. He learned thru experience he needed more sunlight. His deer density hammered what he grew - but he wants to help the deer.

Get as much sunlight as you can. You want to plant as many different things as you can - some will do great and some will not. Weather will have different influences on the various stuff you plant - as will the deer.

I spoke of first year and second year - Sam learned from the first year to the second year. This is what happens to most all of us.

We are in nature's classroom and we are the learner. You will get better as you go - work with the locals that deal with food plots and growing conditions in your area.

I have a logging road on my section of the club that grows zero grass on any part of it. Why? It runs almost perfectly east to west and very little sunlight hits that soil. Plan your sky clearing accordingly with the sun's travel in mind.

We have really sandy soil here on the coastal plain. Crimson clover does just fine here. I would try that for a spring or early fall forage for my first effort. It may die off early in the fall but it will grow in the worst soils.

I have heard farming is tough in your area of Wisconsin. I just read a book about Ed Gein, who lived and perpetrated his crimes in Waushara County. His family could barely grow enough to subsist upon.
To be honest - a chainsaw may provide you a browse foodplot all by itself. I realize that may not sound as impressive, but it's true. Cutting the hardwoods to stumps and getting the light to the ground could provide many different plants to explode and draw deer. The stumps will sprout and the deer may simply hammer the browse and love the cover it creates. The lack of ag in your area may result in any food source being a welcome sign. Just an idea that may mean even less work on your part.

If you have your heart set on an actual plot - clover is going to be your best bet in low light conditions in my opinion. I would suggest planting a mix of annual and perennial clovers and maybe even some rye. Rye will almost grow on dry concrete. As for the plot layout, the aspect of the sun and how the surrounding trees will affect how the light hits the ground will grossly impact the size of the area you need to clear. Simply consider how the shade will impact your plot over the course of the entire day and try to have a decent area that gets 6 hours or more of full sun if possible. If you have to remove trees to address the sun aspect issue - I suggest not killing the hardwood trees and simply cut them at 2 or 3 feet off the ground and allow them to provide some browse and cover for your plot as well. Don't go too crazy cutting the spruce or pine as they make great stand trees as well (provide great cover for the hunter to hide in).

An early mistake I made in plotting was I put plots where it was easy for me......that may or may not be good for the deer to use them. Plots near thick cover or in areas where deer already want to be will see more daylight activity than those that may cause the deer to have to seek out the plot. Folks often plant plots and THEN try to figure out how to hunt them - I am guilty of this. This leads to frustration as you have a great plot that is difficult to hunt because you can't access it without spooking deer. Consider your hunting access FIRST and THEN locate the plot accordingly - it will save you some frustration later.

All just my 2 cents worth - Good luck.
When you get plot area figured out it sounds like you might want to do a throw and mow plot with very little soil disturbance because of sandy soil, this can be done with a backpack sprayer and a mower or weed whacker. You will probably want to start out with something like rye or buckwheat that is pretty easy to grow on your sandier soil and start building OM, each time you run through a crop you can cut it and leave it lay without disturbing the soil and the mulch will help you hold moisture on the sandy soil. Here's a link to a good thread of what guys do with this throw and mow method. Good luck!
Thanks all for the advice. ATV is a no-go by us. Just isn't financially in the works at the moment(plus there is no where to store it up there). Trees by us that you could get a stand in are very few and very far between. There is one spot I'm considering that does have a couple. It's along the western edge of the property that boarders what used to be a clearcut. It's now growing in some but still won't be very tall for many, many years and should let in a lot of afternoon light.

I want to cut down as few trees as possible but we could definitely thin out around the edges of the plot. It would probably do us some good to thin some trees out anyways. Our canopy is MAYBE 20ft up, if that, due to poor soil and trees growing too close together.

There is a nice grassy area on the east but it's very close to the highway and neighboring houses.

Thanks for the tip on not cutting all the stumps too short. If they are there might as well leave enough for them to grow some shoots for the deer to nibble on.

Here is what our property looks like. The purple dots are known locations of trees that I could get a stand in. The mature pines are probably a good 50ft tall, if not more. Those are not getting touched.FoodPlotPlanning.jpg
Is there a water hole on your land?

No agriculture around is what I read. So what do your deer eat?

Do you know where the deer bed?

If no ag is around then food will centralize deer for you. If no water, a few small water holes will help. People are buying small tubes and bury them in the ground. Some people take a steel 55 gallon drum and cut it half and put them end to end as a water hole. This is not expensive but can certainly help.

The process is providing what they are missing is what pays off.

There is a river but it's a good couple miles away. I did build a water guzzler on our land. It has brought some activity but it's sporadic. I went a little overboard with the design to ensure it would keep water during long periods with no rain. You can see it in the background of this picture.


As far as what they eat by us, I honestly don't know. A little bit of everything but almost all of their diet by us has to be browse aside from the acorns. I do know that one of our neighbors has a feeder going so we are in competition with that. It's a no-no where we live though so I'm not going to put any bait out myself. That picture above also shows what most of our property looks like. This is one of a few small clearings(and boy do I mean small).

So honestly aside from the corn feeder across the street somewhere we are in competition with nothing special.
That throw n mow technique has piqued my interest! My understanding is you spray initially, then come back later and mow it down and spread your seed.

If you want to add something more later you mow it down again and spread the new seed.

What is the purpose of mowing it down again? Or does this depend on what you are planting and when? I get mowing it down at the start of the season to get some more mulch going with what you have already in the field before spreading new seed but I'm reading about guys mowing it down again as late as august 28th. Our season starts mid September. Isn't that cutting it a bit close(no pun intended)?
Others are experts on thrown N mow techniques so I will allow them to speak to that.

You need to get a chain saw working and widen the size of your openings. You don't want one large plot because a buck only has to cruise to check it and he is done. Without sunlight you will not grow a productive plot. The sun is the power plant.

You want two or three little plots that he can't see any of them while standing in another one. You want that buck to move from A to B to C.

Additionally if you have a mean matriarch doe she can't rule but one plot at a time. Have you ever seen one doe get on her hind legs and cold cock another doe. I have and they can be extremely aggressive. Two or three plots helps reduce the mean doe situation.

1. Don't go cheap on sunlight. That's about your most important nutrient. Always be looking to the sky to see if sun is hitting your plot edge.
2. You really only need a chainsaw, $20 sprayer, a steel rake, and a weed whacker would be a plus.
3. Get roundup powermax for burndown. The chemistry is a little different and I've seen it perform better on ferns vs generic.

4. Wait for spring greenup to get a good kill on your weeds.
5. I'd plant a cheap mix of high carbon stuff for spring like barley (easy to germinate), BO sunflower (the bird seed bag), and buckwheat if you can find it easy enough. These guys will send you as little as a pound:
6. Let this grow until August 1st.

7. Broadcast all your fall fertilizer and seed into it at that time and mow it down with your weed whacker. I'd plant winter rye only your first fall. Let it fully mature the following year and repeat from step 6 and start again. But this time you'll have enough duff and thatch you can grow different stuff like brassicas. Half the battle with sand is just keeping the sun from baking your soil. If you get to tilling it, you'll like get taken out by the first dry spell.

One last big thing. Don't overlook clover. That is the one thing that doesn't need sun to grow. And that does very well with just a spray and pray around labor day next year, coupled with some rye. My best clover grows in shade all day. But it takes good soil pH, nutrient balance, and good levels of P, K, and sulfur to really do it's thing. That saved our bacon this year because the rest of our plots were a dud due to poor seed selection, among other things.

Did you say you have or were getting a soil test?
You're not too far from our place. We are west a few miles in the lemonweir bottoms. I do throw and mow plots but we have a foot or so of decent topsoil. Still need timely rains. You'll find more Juneau county info at habitat-talk but there's tons of knowledge here as well, maybe not quite as site specific.
I did a spray and pray this year on new ground. Not quite a pure sand situation, but not too far off either. I'm lucky to have about 8" of topsoil above it.

This is two weeks after spraying. I thought the burndown was a complete bust.

Seeded it at this time anyway. 3 way brassica blend and a 5 gallon pail of ammonium sulfate (the hard way). pH was 5.6. No time or tools for lime just yet.

A little while later, the kill turned out to be 100% effective, but it took about a month to see it.

This is the brassica pushing up through the thatch nice and green. It got to about a foot tall, but I can't get at my October picture of this.

I ended up hitting it again around labor day with oats and rye to try to fill in where the brassica didn't come. By this time, the deer had wiped out the tops and were working over the grains and turnip bulbs.

Here's a rye only plot I did just like I described above. This is November in zone 3. The brown stalks coming up within it are volunteer sorghums and millet from a bird seed blend i used for a cam survey.
Upper Midwest sand, with our shorter growing seasons, presents unique challenges to growing food plots at all; even more so when attempting to manage them with a TnM approach (which I support). Our land is in Michigan, but otherwise pretty similar to what you're seeing, in central WI. It can be hard to explain to anyone outside of the region (unless they're in FL or along the coastal plain) just what we mean when we say our soil is "sandy". There isn't 8" of topsoil, or 6" many places, even most, there is essentially NO topsoil. It's sand, with small amounts of OM mixed in, if it's wet. Clover...won't grow well, if at all. Chicory will be very sparse, but can grow if it gets established.

The OP has a fair amount of food growing on his property, but it's 20' off the ground. An unwillingness to bring it down to deer level is missing out on the best way for him to create large volumes of browse that not only will increase the number of deer he sees on his property, but will help them during the most critical time of year for northern whitetails. A chainsaw, safety equipment, and a demonstration on how to create effective hinge-cut areas would serve him very well.

To create a food plot out of woods, on a budget, means a lot of back-breaking work, but it can be done. The thing is, you have to realize what is in abundance on your property (small trees) and sacrifice them to create what is short supply (food for wildlife). There are two primary ways of doing that; clearing for plots and hinge-cutting for habitat. Both are effective, and you should probably do both, but you have to be willing to see the forest for the trees...and cut quite a few of them. If that isn't going to happen, you're not really going to improve your property for wildlife.

If you'd like some specific guidance on the size, shape and details of how to create a forest opening, along with what to plant on VERY sandy soils, both initially and as your soil is built up a little, I'm glad to share what I've learned over the years. At the same time, if you're not comfortable with burning a lot of gas in your chainsaw, there isn't much you can do but join your cheating neighbor in baiting them in.

(If it were me, and that bait is visible from your property line, the DNR would be out there tomorrow. CWD is nothing to mess around with.)
Maybe its just not an option for you, but best bet for anything is to wear out a chainsaw. With light hitting ground you will get natural browse without spending a penny. Check out Triple's thread on here as he has thinned similar pine stands and shows his results. With your sand, I would try to not disturb that soil much if any, and perhaps you can do a late summer throw of a WR/crimson mix. Good luck.
Take all my plotting/habitat tools from me......but don't take my saw! A chainsaw is the only tool I know where you can make long lasting food AND cover with minimal effort over the long term. The initial work isn't easy, and obviously operating a chainsaw comes with some risk, but once you are done the amount of follow up work is minimal. With sunlight, mother nature will do the rest.
That throw n mow technique has piqued my interest! My understanding is you spray initially, then come back later and mow it down and spread your seed.

If you want to add something more later you mow it down again and spread the new seed.

What is the purpose of mowing it down again? Or does this depend on what you are planting and when? I get mowing it down at the start of the season to get some more mulch going with what you have already in the field before spreading new seed but I'm reading about guys mowing it down again as late as august 28th. Our season starts mid September. Isn't that cutting it a bit close(no pun intended)?

I'm not an expect in throw n mow, but your a little out of order. Spray, seed and then mow...(the throw is before the mow). I believe you are mowing that thatch on top of your seed to help retain moisture.