Clipping herbaceous vegetation improves early performance of planted seedlings of the Mediterranean shrub Quercus coccifera
Abstract. We tested how the conditions resulting from alternative management strategies addressed to mitigate abiotic and biotic limitations to plant establishment affect the performance of planted Quercus coccifera seedlings. This species is a xerophytic and heliophillous Mediterranean shrub, of interest for the restoration of abandoned farmland. We hypothesised that release from herb competition by clipping would allow Q. coccifera seedlings to cope more efficiently with water shortage by adjusting their mass allocation pattern. We established three environments of herb competition: absence of competition (AC), reduced competition by clipping (RC), and total competition (TC); and applied two irrigation treatments: low and high irrigation. We measured soil moisture at different depths, above- and below-ground herb biomass, and evaluated seedling responses, such as mortality, growth, biomass allocation, and morphological and physiological features. The TC treatment reduced water availability more than the RC treatment, in agreement with the highest water stress of seedlings under TC conditions. Irrigation increased above- and below-ground herb biomass, whereas clipping reduced herb production. Release of herb competition by clipping increased seedling survivorship by one order of magnitude and resulted in a growth rate comparable to the absence of competition. This growth was mostly related to carbon gain allocated to roots. The competition intensity imposed by treatments was related to a parallel reduction in total plant leaf area, biomass allocated to leaves and shoot:root ratio, and an increase in biomass allocated to roots and leaf mass area. The negative effects of herbs on Q. coccifera seedlings seem the result of competition for both water and light, in contrast with previous research with more mesic Quercus species, for which competition is primarily for water. Clipping of herbs is a feasible technique that greatly improved seedling performance, and thus a valuable alternative to herbicide application, common in native plantations aimed at restoring Mediterranean farmland.