• community response;
  • competitive intensity;
  • environmental gradients;
  • facilitation;
  • indirect interactions;
  • interference;
  • productivity

1 We tested predictions about how the effect of vegetation and litter on seedling establishment varies among sites and herbaceous community types (sand barrens, prairies, fens). For both vegetation and litter, we also separated direct interactions from indirect interactions and interaction modifications along the gradient.

2 Although the intensity of the effects varied across sites, the direct effects of vegetation or litter alone were consistently facilitative along the productivity gradient. Predominance of facilitative effects may be due to the focus on the seedling establishment phase.

3 However, inclusion of indirect interactions and interaction modifications caused the net effects of both vegetation and litter to become largely negative. While one layer of biomass may be advantageous to ameliorate some moisture stress, the addition of another layer may be disadvantageous if this layer limits light proportionally more than it relieves moisture stress.

4 One exception to this pattern occurred at high productivity when the net effect of vegetation, even in the presence of litter, remained facilitative. The net effect of vegetation was competitive at low productivity and grew increasingly facilitative with productivity. Thus, indirect effects of litter may alter interaction patterns across this gradient.