15-Acre Fixer-Upper: What I Learned the First Year

Author Brian Grossman with a nice 9-point buck taken on his 15-acre property.

It’s hard to believe a year has already come and gone since my wife and I closed on our new home and 15-acre property in west-central Georgia. We’ve accomplished a lot in those first 12 months, but the majority of those accomplishments occurred inside the house rather than on the accompanying property. The cost of staying happily married, I suppose. While I didn’t get nearly as much done as I had hoped on our 15 acres, the time I enjoyed on the property and what I learned during that time didn’t leave me disappointed. In fact, it’s given me renewed excitement to see what I can accomplish in 2022. 

Equipment Needs

One of the primary struggles in my first year as a landowner was just coming up with the tools and resources needed to accomplish the things I wanted to do. I had a chainsaw, which was key to many of my first-year goals, but little else. Over the course of the last 12 months, I’ve been able to add a Tracker OX400 utility vehicle for getting around the property, an electric sprayer to haul in the utility vehicle for spraying food plots and eradicating other undesirable plants and trees, and a small, pull-behind spreader for seed, lime and fertilizer. High on my list for 2022 are a leaf blower for clearing firebreaks in the hardwoods, a drip torch for starting my prescribed burns, and the herbicide I need to finish my forest stand improvement (FSI) work. I currently have a garden tiller that I need to get back in running condition to help with food plot and firebreak work as well. 

FSI Work

Though my list of habitat accomplishments was small for this first year, there were a few highlights worth noting. As you may remember from the previous article, the back half of my property is mostly open hardwoods that are desperately in need of FSI work to open the canopy and promote understory growth. In early 2021, I was able to knock out a small FSI project on top of the main finger-ridge of my property. It was probably just a half-acre or so in total, but it was enough to give me a feel for how to best proceed with the project and also let me experiment some with the girdle-and-squirt method of FSI. While moving forward I plan to use the “Craig Harper cocktail” herbicide mix for my FSI work (imazapyr, triclopyr and water), all I had on hand this past year was glyphosate. So I tried the girdle-and-squirt method using a 50:50 mix of glyphosate and water on a few good-sized sweetgum and poplar trees. Although it took well into summer to see the results, girdling the trees and applying glyphosate was 100 percent effective at killing them. So why change to a more expensive herbicide mixture? Because in the coming months, I’ll be taking out a lot of trees, some much more hardy than sweet gum and poplar, including numerous hickory, beech, and oak trees.

My FSI goal for 2022 is to finish up work on the roughly seven acres of hardwoods this winter with the help of some friends, and follow it up with a dormant-season burn to remove years of leaf litter and stimulate a flush of understory growth. 

A Trail Network

A good part of my time working on the property this year was spent clearing young pine trees for access and a food plot (more on the food plot in a minute). My wife and I bought a utility vehicle to use on the property, and to make that possible we had to clear some paths through the thick, young loblolly pines on the front half of the property. While a dozer or a skid steer with mulching head would have made short work of this process, I opted to remove the trees the old-fashioned way: by hand with a chainsaw. It was very cheap but very time-consuming. But now I can access most of the property with the utility vehicle, which makes it much easier to work on the property and haul out the occasional deer!

The Food Plot

Another first year goal I had for the property was to establish a small food plot on the front half of the property to attract deer. Because that part of the property was dominated by thick young loblolly pines, there was a lot of chainsaw work involved to clear out a space large enough to plant. And since the clearing process left a lot of scattered stumps, my only means of planting the plot the first year was to kill off the ground cover with glyphosate and broadcast the seed before a good rain. Disking or tilling wasn’t an option, and I didn’t have access to a no-till drill.

Photo of the 15-acre fixer-upper food plot.
The food plot is a work in progress as the author has had to carve out an opening in thick, young loblolly pines using only a chainsaw.

I planted the plot in mid-September with a mix of crimson clover and wheat. And while the clover and wheat came up and is getting browsed by deer, it hasn’t done nearly as well as I hoped. Judging by the poor growth, I think I’m dealing with soil that has become compacted over the years from the area’s previous use as a cow pasture. I took a soil sample, and while the plot does need some lime and fertilizer, it wasn’t bad enough to account for the poor results. For 2022, I hope to expand my food plot opening, work the area up with my garden tiller, lime and fertilize per the soil sample recommendations and possibly plant a summer plot to serve both as a deer attractant as well as a means to build up organic matter in the soil. 

 

Tree Plantings

When I shared my original plans for the property, I had designated a small area for a soft-mast tree orchard. During 2021, I was able to plant my first few trees in that area — two southern crabapples and two grafted American persimmons. One of my persimmons didn’t make it, but further exploration of the property revealed I have several American persimmon trees already growing on the property, although it’s impossible to say whether those are male or female trees at this point. In 2022, I hope to plant a few more soft mast trees, and clean up and maintain the existing trees I found. If I have time, I would love to try grafting some persimmon trees with known female branches to ensure future fruit production.

Hunting Success

Despite not accomplishing all I had hoped in the first year of land ownership, I was able to cross an important goal off the list — kill my first deer off the property. In fact, I was able to kill two! The first was a pretty 7-pointer that had been a regular visitor all summer into early fall. My initial hunts were an attempt just to lay eyes on him, with the expectation to give him a pass this year. However, every time I hunted the area, he was a no-show. The following evening, he’d be right back in there on my trail-camera taunting me. After doing this a few times, it started to feel a little personal! 

I believed he had to be seeing me either walking in or climbing the tree. I knew he was bedding just across the line on my neighbor’s property due to his frequent daytime trail-camera appearances and his direction of approach, but I felt like my route to the stand should have concealed me from his view. My fifth time in, I decided to slip in as quietly as possible and sit on the ground behind some of the stumps and sucker sprouts left from my small FSI project. That was all it took. At 6:45 p.m. on October 9, he made his way through the gap in my fence and onto the ridge above me at 20 yards. The Mathews bow did its job, and he only went 100 yards before piling up. I had successfully taken my first deer — and first buck — from the new property.

A little over a month later, as I sat working in my office one afternoon, I decided I was going to slip out of the house around 4 p.m. and sit the last two hours of daylight in the same general area where I shot the first buck. My cameras had revealed very little recent daylight deer activity, but it was the rut in west-central Georgia, so I knew anything was possible. Most importantly, I just wanted to relax and enjoy a couple of hours of fresh air in the deer stand. 

An hour into my sit, I heard the distinct footsteps of an approaching deer and turned to my left to see a buck cruising along a bench on the ridge just 50 to 60 yards below me. At first glance, the buck didn’t jump out at me as one I wanted to shoot, so I grabbed my cell phone to try to get some footage of him. As he passed straight below me and began easing away, it hit me I should probably at least look at him through the scope to see if it was a buck I was familiar with. As soon as I saw that small point near the end of his left main beam, I realized it was the “Big 9” I had been watching since summer. 

Unlike the 7-pointer I killed a month prior, the Big 9 was very inconsistent on my Moultrie cameras, and daylight appearances had become rare since he shed his velvet in early September. His name didn’t come from an overly impressive rack, but from his exceptionally large body compared to all the other deer I had on camera. I knew he was at least 4½ years old, which was plenty old enough to motivate me to flip the safety off my .270 and ease the crosshairs into position. With the squeeze of the trigger, I was able to fill my second and final buck tag for the 2021-2022 Georgia deer season (see photo on page 56). And being able to do that right behind my house on my own property made it one of my best deer seasons ever. 

What I Learned

The biggest accomplishment of this past year has really been all that I’ve learned along the way. I’ve enjoyed every minute of exploring the property in depth and learning as many of the plants growing here as possible. I’ve found a lot of great stuff — numerous white and red oaks, plenty of muscadine vines producing fruit, a small paw paw tree that produced fruit this year, lots of blackberry brambles, several persimmon trees, a mulberry tree, and plenty of other beneficial native plants. Of course, I’ve also found plenty of not-so-great things along the way too— Chinese privet, Chinese tallow trees, Chinaberry trees (notice a theme here?), Callery pear, fescue, and multiflora rose. I will be working hard in 2022 to rid my property of as many of these as possible while promoting the growth of more beneficial native plants. 

Another important lesson learned this year was about local deer behavior and how they currently use our 15 acres. This is important because it helps me to plan future habitat work in a way that takes advantage of these natural movement patterns. Some of the first things I learned are where these local deer seem to bed, how they enter the property, and how they use the terrain to navigate the property. I learned what trees the bucks like to rub, where they tend to make scrapes, and how their use of the property changes with time. 

One of the coolest things I got to witness this year through running two Moultrie trail-cams was the incredible number of different bucks that made their way through this small property at one point or another during the rut. I would have to go through all my trail-cam pics to get a definite number, but I think a dozen different 6-point or better bucks would be a conservative estimate. Probably at least half of those were 3½ years old or older, and two were exceptional bucks for this area. Not a bad showing on just 15 acres!

No, I didn’t get as much done to the 15-acre fixer-upper in 2021 as I would have liked, but that’s okay. I learned a lot this year, and, for the first time ever, I was able to put venison in the freezer that  came from right here on my own place. That’s a feeling I’ve waited 48 years to experience! And now with the 2021-2022 deer season winding down, I’m already chomping at the bit to break out the chainsaw and herbicide to start working toward an even better 2022-2023 deer season. Even on a small property, there’s always work to be done!


About Brian Grossman

Brian Grossman joined the NDA staff in August, 2015 as its Communications Manager. Brian is responsible for amplifying NDA’s educational message for hunters through social media, e-mail, the NDA website, and Quality Whitetails magazine. He has been a freelance writer, photographer, videographer and web designer since 2003. A trained wildlife biologist, Brian founded the Poor Boys Outdoors and Working Class Hunter web shows and associated media during his free time while working full time as a wildlife manager. He came to NDA from the Georgia DNR Wildlife Resources Division, where he was a field operations supervisor, overseeing management of 15 Wildlife Management Areas. Brian currently lives in Thomaston, Georgia with his wife, Tina, and his two children, Dakota and Brooke.