Abstract Although there is no one correct technique for sampling vegetation, the sampling design chosen may greatly influence the conclusions researchers can draw from restoration treatments. Considerations when designing vegetation sampling protocol include determining what sampling attributes to measure, the size and shape of the sampling plot, the number of replicates and their location within the study area, and the frequency of sampling. We installed 20 point-intercept transects (50-m long), 8 belt transects (10 × 50 m), 10 adapted Daubenmire transects (four 0.5 × 2-m plots), and 4 modified-Whittaker plots (20 × 50 m with smaller nested plots) in treatment and control units to measure understory herbaceous response in a forest restoration experiment that tested different treatments. Point-intercept transects on average recorded at least twice as much plant cover as did adapted Daubenmire transects and modified-Whittaker plots taken at the same location for all control and treatment units. Point-intercept transects and adapted Daubenmire plots on average captured fewer rare and exotic species in the control and treatment units in comparison with the belt transects and modified-Whittaker plots. Modified-Whittaker plots captured the highest species richness in all units. Early successional understory response to restoration treatments was likely masked by the response of the herbaceous community to yearly climatic variation (dry vs. wet years). Species richness and abundance were higher in wet years than dry years for all control and treatment units. Our results illustrate that sampling techniques can greatly influence perceptions of understory plant trajectories and therefore the interpretation of whether restoration goals have been achieved. In addition, our results suggest that restoration monitoring needs to be conducted for a sufficient length of time so that restoration treatment responses can be detected.