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Keywords:

  • forb enhancement;
  • gap;
  • mowing;
  • prairie reconstruction;
  • recruitment;
  • seedling establishment;
  • species-poor grassland;
  • species richness;
  • tallgrass prairie

Abstract

Many early attempts at tallgrass prairie reconstruction failed to achieve the high species diversity of remnant prairies, and instead consist primarily of C4 grasses. We hypothesized that frequent mowing of established prairie grasses could create sufficient gaps in the aboveground and belowground environment to allow for the establishment of native forbs from seed. We studied forb seedling establishment in a 25-year-old prairie planting in northern Iowa that was dominated by native warm-season grasses. In winter 1999, 23 species of native forbs were broadcast into the recently burned sod at a rate of 350 viable seeds/m2. Treatment plots were mowed weekly for either one or two growing seasons, and control plots were unmowed. Mowed plots had greater light availability than controls, especially when warm-season grasses began to flower. Overwinter seedling mortality was 3% in mowed treatments compared to 29% in the controls. Forbs in mowed plots had significantly greater root and shoot mass than those in control plots in the first and second growing seasons but were not significantly more abundant. By the fourth growing season, however, forbs were twice as abundant in the mowed treatments. No lasting negative impacts of frequent mowing on the grass population were observed. Mowing a second year influenced species composition but did not change total seedling establishment. Experimental evidence is consistent with the idea that mowing reduced competition for light from large established grasses, allowing forb seedlings the opportunity to reach sufficient size to establish, survive, and flower in the second and subsequent years.