Late summer and early fall bring a respite from farm habitat work, as last spring’s plantings bask in the heat.
Diverse woody cover delivers wildlife benefits year round providing travel corridors, escape cover, food, summer shade and winter sunning areas. Tree and shrub rows are great linking cover, tying seasonal habitats together — like roosting cover, food resources and loafing cover in winter. Most wildlife properties could use more shrubby cover.
Where best to plant woody corridors requires a plan, with fieldwork that occurs long before your trees arrive. Visualizing where added shrub rows will enhance survival for pheasants or link quail covey headquarters to other habitats. Use aerial photos if you can and follow up on an ATV or afoot to ground-truth your plans.
Assuming you plant correctly, the principal enemy of woody plantings is competing vegetation that steals water, nutrients and sunlight — and provides cover for small rodents that feed on seedlings. Eliminating site vegetation the prior fall will help sandwich your tight planting window into random spring weather. There are two general control options, mechanical and chemical, and often the best approach combines both.
If the slope allows, kill vegetation on the entire planting site in late summer or early fall, aiming for 3-5 feet of bare soil area around all planned seedlings. Cultivation with a tractor-drawn disk or tiller breaks up growing vegetation, but also activates weeds in the soil seed bank. Existing grass and broadleaves will fight back from broken root systems, so inspect prepped sites during fall and disk again to achieve good control if needed. A second disking just prior to freeze-up will likely finish the job (leveling the site then will assure smooth machine planting next spring).
Chemical site prep may be less expensive and time consuming than typical mechanical means. Success in controlling vegetation with herbicides depends on selecting the right product, cooperation from the weather, and correct application. For fall prep, mow the site in early fall and allow grasses to green up as temperatures start to cool. Once you have several inches of active regrowth, spray the vegetation with a burn-down herbicide. If weeds stage a comeback, hit the site again with glyphosate on a warm, sunny day in late fall. Herbicides can also be used to control grass competition over several years to ensure stand establishment.
Lastly, simple mowing won’t accomplish much on its own toward fall preparations for next spring’s tree and shrub planting. Mowing provides only minimal weed control, as the roots remain to compete with young seedlings, and tops regenerate. Mowing is most beneficial in paving the way for disking or chemical operations to suppress vegetation. It can also be employed on a periodic schedule to set back competing vegetation in later years, as can methods like mulching or fabric barriers.
Story by James Wooley, Pheasants Forever Senior Wildlife Biologist (Emeritus)