In addition to the traditional interest in longleaf timber production, many landowners have come to appreciate the value in managing forests that supports plant and animal diversity as well as the overall health of the ecosystem.
Not all landowners are fortunate enough to possess a mature, fully-functioning longleaf forest. If you are one of the lucky few, thank you for being good stewards of the land and doing your part to maintain it for generations to come. If lost, groundcover is definitely the hardest part to restore. For others, who may be establishing longleaf on formerly cultivated lands or converting forested lands back to longleaf, it is a significant undertaking to achieve both the short and long term goals of restoration. Whether you are managing for recreation, timber, hunting, non-game wildlife, or aesthetics, the building blocks for a functional forest system include not only an open canopy of longleaf, but also a healthy herbaceous groundcover layer. This document will provide you with some tips on how to restore and maintain appropriate groundcover species that will help you achieve your management objectives.
Groundcover performs many roles in the longleaf forest. One of the most important qualities of herbaceous groundcover is its ability to support the frequent fires that are central to managing longleaf. The numerous grass species that dominate the landscape, provide essential fine fuels that feed these fires. If fire is part of your management scenario, then your stands must have some form of consistent herbaceous groundcover.
Before embarking on a restoration project, learn all you can about the land to be restored. What is the current condition? Is it former agricultural land or was/is it forested? If it is forested, what is the dominant canopy species? What groundcover species do you already have? Are there invasive species present? What is the community type? What is the soil type? Where is it located geographically? These are just a few of the questions that should be answered in order to develop realistic objectives and expectations for restoration. Your starting condition will dictate the level of restoration required to meet your objectives.
To set reasonable objectives, the desired future condition for the site must be determined. The answer is based upon your site assessment questions, historical knowledge of the site, and/or condition of similar properties that can serve as reference sites. An accurate determination is very important since your restoration success can be assessed against these reference conditions.
Factors that Help Determine the Desired Future Condition
Soil Type - Moisture Content
Plant Composition - Geography - Land Use
Having a good understanding of your site based on past land uses and the current condition of the land is very important in determining the actions taken to control the competition on a site. A variety of control methods can be used including fire, herbicide, and mechanical treatments. The method used will be determined by not only the species you are trying to eliminate or minimize, but also the species you are trying to keep. Whether it is non-native cogon grass or naturally occurring scrub oaks, undesirable vegetation must be brought under control in order to enhance or establish native groundcover species. Many of our most desired groundcover species develop gradually at first, and aggressive competitors will grow faster and quickly overtake the species you are trying to establish.
Care must be taken to preserve any quality groundcover species on the site. The intensity level of site preparation needed for a restoration project will be determined by a number of factors: site type (cutover vs. oldfield sites), amount of competing vegetation on the site, and the presence of aggressive invasive plant species (e.g. cogongrass). If using herbicides as part of your site prep treatment, the choice of chemicals will determine the impacts on the beneficial species that you already have and want to retain.
In some cases fire alone may increase biodiversity. This is generally the case in cutover and forested sites that have been unburned for extended periods. However, in areas without existing native groundcover, the desired species diversity must be created. This can be done through seeding or planting seedlings. Species composition will be determined based on habitat and landowner objectives. No matter the species, it’s important to consider using ecotype plant material that is adapted to your specific geographic area.
When establishing new seed or plant material, a challenge many landowners face is finding a good source for the material. It can be obtained through commercial seed producers, nurseries, or donor sites. There are several commercial seed producers and nurseries that supply native ecotype material for the southeastern US. The Longleaf Alliance keeps an updated list of recommended suppliers and also experienced contractors on our website: https://longleafalliance.org/what-we-do/restoration-management/resources.
Another source that our agency and non-profit partners have used extensively is seeds collected from donor sites that have high quality groundcover. This allows for better site matching since the seed collected is used on adjacent restoration sites, and also a broader suite of species that can be restored at once.
The planting process can be done using a variety of methods. Either plugs or seeds can be used. Typically seed planting is done with a no-till grain drill (e.g. Tru-Ax drill or Grasslander) on oldfield sites with a minimal amount of large debris or stumps. On cutover sites, broadcasting the seed may be a better option. Plugs can be planted by hand or with a mechanical planter if planting on open sites.
Burn, burn, burn! The longleaf forest is dependent on fire to maintain ecosystem health and its high biodiversity. The groundcover makes this happen. Burning on short rotations and in varying seasons will allow herbaceous species to grow and flourish through encouragement of flowering, seed set, and seedling recruitment.
Fire is the most natural form of forest management that we employ. The groundcover species that occur in longleaf habitats have evolved with fire, and many require fire to flower and set seed for reproduction. Species such as wiregrass will only produce viable seed if burned during the "lightning season" which is April-June. This would have been the time when natural wildfires would have been ignited by lightning strikes.