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Interannual variation in precipitation and other planting conditions impacts seedling establishment in sown plant communities

Groves, Anna M., Brudvig, Lars A.
Restoration ecology 2019 v.27 no.1 pp. 128-137
biodiversity, ecological restoration, growing season, plant communities, plant establishment, planting date, rain, weeds
Ecological restoration can reverse biodiversity loss worldwide, yet restoration goals and outcomes vary widely, which limits this potential. Divergent restoration outcomes may stem from variation in conditions at the outset of restoration, but empirical evidence is lacking and typically confounded with site differences. Additionally, precipitation is usually cited as the source of this variation, although a wide range of conditions can vary annually. We tested for effects of planting year on seedling establishment by installing identical restorations in three different years. Within those years, we manipulated rainfall with rain‐out shelters to disentangle the effects of precipitation from other annually variable conditions. Additionally, we tested whether increasing seed mix richness buffers against adverse planting conditions. For the first growing season after planting, we followed emergence and survival of sown prairie species and nonsown weed species to determine how planting year conditions influence an establishing plant community, if at all. We found that seedling establishment differed across planting years and precipitation treatments, and that varying emergence patterns by species led to differences in the composition of the first‐year community. We also found significant variation in sown species establishment across years when precipitation was held constant, illustrating the previously overlooked role of nonprecipitation drivers on planting year effects. Higher seed mix richness did not consistently improve establishment of sown species under different planting conditions. This research provides important experimental evidence for effects of interannual variation in planting conditions on first‐year establishment. Future work will examine how these initial changes affect longer‐term assembly dynamics.