Habitat needs for a variety of wildlife are generally comprised of some source of food, water and cover. How those essentials are arranged and their amount of seasonal availability can vary widely across properties depending on the management objectives. Herbaceous plant communities are vascular plants that do not develop consistent woody tissue above ground or simply, non-woody vegetation. These non-woody plant families consist of grasses, forbs, sedges and others. Herbaceous communities are incredibly beneficial to ground-nesting birds, wild turkeys, white-tailed deer, rodents and invertebrates.
Grasses and forbs are typically in high abundance after newly disturbed areas are formed and provide excellent food and cover. A common denominator in creating these openings is a decrease in overstory canopy that increases sunlight and space. A response following the disturbance will be in the form of native grasses that include foxtail (Setaria spp.), fall panicum (Panicum spp.), broomsedge bluestem (Andropogon virginicus), low panicum (Dicanthelium spp.) and many others depending on site indices, such as upland or bottomland. Native forbs include boneset (Eupatorium spp.), partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata), croton (Croton capitatus), goldenrod (Solidago spp.) and many others. These areas of disturbances that have the ability to create herbaceous plant communities could be initiated along field edges, logging sets, roadsides and spots where basal area is greatly reduced.
Responses from the seedbank to disturbance and increased sunlight are not always straight forward and sometimes involve intensive management. Negative responses would include an increase in non-native grasses and invasive woody encroachment from shrubs and trees following manipulation to a site. Examples of non-native grasses are bahiagrass (Paspalum notatum), vaseygrass (Paspalum urvillei), dallisgrass (Paspalum dilatatum), bermudagrass (Cynodon dactylon) and others. An example of site colonization from shrubs would be eastern baccharis (Baccharis halimifolia). When negative responses occur, a need for mitigation is necessary in order to improve the native species arrangement and abundance of your early successional opening. Fortunately, there are a multitude of habitat management practices to be incorporated to improve and maintain herbaceous plant communities.
Selective herbicide applications are a great place to start with management of your openings. Identification of the problematic species and then matching your management strategy to the appropriate selective herbicide can yield great improvements. Whether it's non-native grass removal while maintaining forbs or eliminating woody encroachment, herbicides offer a broad-spectrum option to reach your vegetation management objectives.
Mechanical interference by way of disking is a proven approach. Soil disturbance throughout the growing season, with different moisture events, can continuously change your species composition to your desired arrangement. Mowing is another mechanical approach to reclaim sites or to prep before other methods are implemented, although mowing is the least recommended activity in this type of habitat management approach. Over time, mowing will create perennial plant communities that reduce forb coverage and restrict animal movement.
If you are considering creating some vegetative diversity across your property, early successional plant communities are a great way to accomplish that goal while providing critical wildlife habitat that has shown in research to be lacking in abundance.
Luke Stamper is a regional wildlife and forestry agent for the Northeast.
Rough-stemmed goldenrod (Solidago rugosa) is a native herbaceous perennial that can be found in moist sites. It is attractive to birds, native bees, honeybees and other pollinator species. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
Originally from South America, vaseygrass (Paspalum urvillei) was introduced for forage. It occurs in pastures, new forest plantations, open forests and along streams and pond margins. Photo from Forest Starr and Kim Starr.