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Improve Your Hunting Property With Soft-Mast Trees

By Brian GrossmanApril 1, 2022

When it comes to managing a property for white-tailed deer, hunters tend to focus on projects like planting food plots, forest stand improvement, and prescribed fire. Those are all worthy efforts that should be part of your overall habitat improvement efforts.

But don’t overlook the opportunity to provide another important food source by planting soft mast trees and shrubs. Soft mast is a catch-all term that covers various fruits and berries used by wildlife. It includes fruit like persimmons, crabapples, apples, pears, grapes, blackberries, and raspberries, as well as small berries like those of the flowering dogwood tree or the American beautyberry bush.

Soft mast trees and shrubs make a great addition to most any hunting property and can provide food during critical periods of the year when summer forage has passed its peak nutritional benefit and hard mast — white and red oak acorns — may not be available.

Improve Your Hunting Property With Soft Mast Trees
Persimmons are like candy for deer in the fall. Do you have these trees on the property you hunt?

Choosing the Right Soft Mast Trees

There are lots of options when it comes to soft mast trees and shrubs, and there’s no way to cover them all in detail in one short article. A good starting point would be to plant a mix of pears, apples, and crabapples, and if you’re in the native range of common persimmon trees, I would include some of those as well.

It’s good to plant a variety of soft-mast trees to give the deer options throughout the season. Some other soft mast species worthy of consideration are plum trees, which can not only provide a great food source but also excellent cover, along with blackberries, raspberries and mulberries.

Unfortunately, choosing what to plant is not as simple as just picking out which soft mast you want to provide. Within each of these soft mast species, there are different varieties and, in some cases, different rootstock. This is especially true with apple and pear trees. The rootstock used will determine the overall size the tree will grow, how quickly it will grow and produce fruit, and overall longevity of the tree. The variety will determine the size and quality of the fruit, and when the fruit will ripen and fall.

By planting multiple trees of different varieties, you can have fruit dropping at different times during the season, which not only provides the deer with a great food source for a longer period of time, but it also increases your opportunities to ambush one while hunting over your soft mast trees.

To find the best varieties for your area, check with local nurseries or growers in your area. Some varieties will be better suited to colder climates, some to more moderate climates, and some will be ideal for the warmer climates of the Deep South. 

Improve Your Hunting Property With Soft Mast Trees
Muscadine grapes can be a great early season food source in the South.

Considerations When Planting Soft Mast Trees

Once you’ve decided which trees to plant, the next step  will be to figure out where to plant them. In most cases, you’re going to need an open area where the trees will receive plenty of sunlight, with minimal competition from other trees. Most fruit trees will perform best in loamy, well-drained soils, although persimmon trees can tolerate clay soils as well. 

Another consideration when planting soft mast trees is whether to plant seedlings or larger potted plants. Which you should choose depends on how many trees you’re planting and your budget. Seedlings will be much cheaper to purchase and easier to plant. Of course, the downside is you may have to wait a little longer for the tree to bear fruit.

On my 15-acre property here in Georgia, I’m only planting a few trees each year in a relatively small area, so I’m choosing to go with larger potted trees. If I were planting acres of trees at one time, I would definitely go with seedlings and would try to borrow a tractor and mechanical tree planter to expedite the process.

Improve Your Hunting Property With Soft Mast Trees
The author with a crabapple tree for his small Georgia property.

If you do decide to go the seedling route, check with your state forestry agency, as many have  programs where they sell various wildlife-oriented seedlings to the public at very reasonable prices. In my home state of Georgia, due to demand for these discounted tree seedlings, you have to place your order in late summer before they sell out, and then the trees are delivered in the winter.

A third consideration with fruit trees is pollination. Many fruit trees need to be planted in groups to allow for cross-pollination. This is often true with crabapples, apples, and pears. With some trees, like persimmons, there are male and female trees, with only the females producing fruit. If you buy native seedlings, they will be an undetermined sex, so you should plant three to 10 in a block to ensure you end up with both males and females.

If you buy a larger, named variety tree, it will likely be a grafted tree that is female or one that can self pollinate, so it won’t need a separate male tree to produce fruit. Be sure to check with whoever you purchase your trees from so you know whether a separate pollinator is necessary, but regardless, I would recommend planting multiple trees of each species you decide to use.

Maintaining Soft Mast Trees

Depending on how many trees you plant and the size and types of those trees, planting soft mast trees can be labor intensive on the front end. However, once you have them established and growing, you don’t have to replant every year like a food plot, and the maintenance is fairly minimal.

The first year or two of a new tree planting is critical. First and foremost, you need to make sure the trees receive adequate water. This may require watering your trees during periods of low rainfall, particularly if you plant larger potted trees.

You’ll also want to protect your trees from mice, rabbits, and the very deer you are trying to attract. That means putting some type of protective cover around the tree, or fencing the tree off with chicken wire or some type of wire fencing with small enough holes to at keep rabbits and deer away. A hungry rabbit or lovestruck buck can wreak havoc on a young tree.

Improve Your Hunting Property With Soft Mast Trees
Some trees require more maintenance than others. Be sure you know what's required for a healthy tree before you plant.

Another important key to keeping your new trees healthy is maintaining the area around them to keep weeds and other saplings from taking over. This may mean mowing, weadeating, or a herbicide application at times.

Once established, some fruit trees like apples and pears will need occasional pruning to maintain peak performance. Pruning is more art than science and the subject could fill an article of its own, so I would recommend reading up on the process before you head out with pruning shears in hand.

At the very least, you can focus on removing any dead, diseased or broken branches. You also want to remove any low-hanging branches or new shoots that cross each other or crowd other branches. The better your trees are maintained, the healthier they will be, and the more fruit they will produce. 

Wrap Up

When laying out a plan for improving your hunting property, don’t put so much focus on food plots that you overlook the benefits of soft mast trees and shrubs. A small fruit orchard can provide an excellent, long-term food source with minimal annual maintenance, as well as a great spot for you to ambush a wary buck.

Brian Grossman
Communications Manager at The Quality Deer Management Association
Brian Grossman is an avid bowhunter and competitive archer residing in west-central Georgia. He currently serves as the communications manager for The Quality Deer Management Association and as a freelance outdoor writer. Grossman's background is in wildlife management, where he spent over 15 years working on both public and private hunting lands in Kentucky and Georgia.
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