Journal article

Competitive effects of herbaceous vegetation on tree seedling emergence, growth and survival: does gap size matter?

Question: What is the effect of gap size on the seedling emergence, growth and survival of four common tree species in wooded pastures? Location: A pasture in the Jura mountains, Switzerland. Methods: Seeds were sown in a complete three-way factorial design with eight blocks in May 2003. Each block consisted of a competition treatment (four gap sizes including zero) and a mowing treatment (mown and unmown). Emergence, survival and total biomass of tree seedlings of three species (Picea abies, Acer pseudoplatanus and Fagus sylvatica) were measured. A fourth species (Abies alba) failed to germinate. Results: Gaps had a positive influence on the early stages of tree development for all species. Larger gaps favoured growth and survival more than small gaps. Seedling growth was higher when vegetation around the openings was mown. Mowing the vegetation at gap size zero enhanced both growth and survival compared to unmown vegetation. Mown gaps larger than zero had increased seedling desiccation but decreased seedling predation. Species showed similar trends in their emergence and growth responses to gap size and mowing treatments but for Picea emergence rate was higher and survivorship was lower than for Acer and Fagus. Conclusions: Gap size does matter for tree seedling success but even in more favourable large gaps only a small percentage of seedlings emerged and survived. The effects of gaps on tree seedling establishment are complex as a result of interactions between biotic and abiotic changes caused by gaps.

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