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Soil surface treatments and precipitation timing determine seedling development across southwestern US restoration sites

March 2, 2023

Restoration in dryland ecosystems often has poor success due to low and variable water availability, degraded soil conditions, and slow plant community recovery rates. Restoration treatments can mitigate these constraints but, because treatments and subsequent monitoring are typically limited in space and time, our understanding of their applicability across broader environmental gradients remains limited. To address this limitation, we implemented and monitored a standardized set of seeding and soil surface treatments (pits, mulch, and ConMod artificial nurse plants) designed to enhance soil moisture and seedling establishment across RestoreNet, a growing network of 21 diverse dryland restoration sites in the southwestern USA over 3 years. Generally, we found that the timing of precipitation relative to seeding and the use of soil surface treatments were more important in determining seeded species emergence, survival, and growth than site-specific characteristics. Using soil surface treatments in tandem with seeding promoted up to 3× greater seedling emergence densities compared with seeding alone. The positive effect of soil surface treatments became more prominent with increased cumulative precipitation since seeding. The seed mix type with species currently found within or near a site and adapted to the historical climate promoted greater seedling emergence densities compared with the seed mix type with species from warmer, drier conditions expected to perform well under climate change. Seed mix and soil surface treatments had a diminishing effect as plants developed beyond the first season of establishment. However, we found strong effects of the initial period seeded and of the precipitation leading up to each monitoring date on seedling survival over time, especially for annual and perennial forbs. The presence of exotic species exerted a negative influence on seedling survival and growth, but not initial emergence. Our findings suggest that seeded species recruitment across drylands can generally be promoted, regardless of location, by (1) incorporation of soil surface treatments, (2) employment of near-term seasonal climate forecasts, (3) suppression of exotic species, and (4) seeding at multiple times. Taken together, these results point to a multifaceted approach to ameliorate harsh environmental conditions for improved seeding success in drylands, both now and under expected aridification.

Publication Year 2023
Title Soil surface treatments and precipitation timing determine seedling development across southwestern US restoration sites
DOI 10.1002/eap.2834
Authors Hannah Lucia Farrell, Seth M. Munson, Bradley J. Butterfield, Michael C. Duniway, Aksasha M Faist, Elise S Gornish, Caroline Havrilla, Loralee Larios, Sasha C. Reed, Helen I Rowe, Katherine M. Laushman, Molly L. McCormick
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Ecological Applications
Index ID 70242850
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Southwest Biological Science Center