One of the best wildlife habitat improvements within, or adjacent to large tracts of woodland is the establishment and maintenance of openings with herbaceous growth. Herbaceous plants are those that are nonwoody and usually die back following each growing season. These include grasses and forbs; the latter being the broad-leaved herbaceous plants including wildflowers and "weeds". Theses naturally occurring herbaceous plants are a valuable source of food and cover for wildlife.
The addition or maintenance of herbaceous plants is most important where extensive acreage of mature timber or rapidly growing young forests have largely eliminated this type of cover. Herbaceous openings add a diversity of plants that meet the needs of wildlife that other cover types do not provide. Deer often use herbaceous plants such as grasses, or clovers for food. Rabbits use these for food and nesting. Turkeys, quail and grouse utilize herbaceous openings, or nearby edges for nesting, brood rearing, and feeding. Herbaceous plants attract an abundance of insects, an important food item for young game birds.
Herbaceous openings within woodlands can be in the form of clearings in various sizes and shapes or in strips. First consider areas where forest openings already exist or can be most readily created. Clear-cuts, log landings, old house sites and abandoned fields surrounded by woodland are good choices for creating some herbaceous cover. Existing fire lines, old wood's roads, or haul or skid roads are excellent locations for the establishment of herbaceous strips. Herbaceous cover maintained in the form of strips is most accessible to wildlife and will continue to serve as access for logging, recreation, or fire breaks for controlled burning.
To establish or maintain herbaceous cover on woodland roads, or other strip openings, "daylighting" (the removal of all trees to a width that will permit full sunlight to reach the ground) may be necessary. The entire width of a daylighted strip need not be herbaceous. Having herbaceous cover in the center of a strip, or the travel portion of a road, and allowing the daylighted edges to grow back naturally in a shrubby or brushy stage is ideal. This adds greater plant diversity making it more attractive to wildlife.
In some instances, particularly in mature timber stands, clearings rather than strips may be more practical. The commercial harvest of timber, cutting firewood, or removing trees from locations where their timber value is poor, are options for creating new wildlife clearings. Such clearings should be at least an acre in size, irregular in shape and well distributed (about one per 20 acres of woodland). As with daylighted strips, clearings need not be herbaceous throughout.
Herbaceous openings should be cleared of stumps, rocks and other debris so that they can be managed properly. There are several management options: annual disking and seeding; periodic disking (every 3-4 years) only frequently enough to keep down woody plants; or seeding with a perennial herbaceous mixture and maintaining by mowing or burning. A combination of these will also work well. Annual or periodic disking provides the added feature of leaving some soil exposed beneath the new growth. This feature is extremely important to some ground dwelling wildlife like bobwhite quail.
The list of recommended seeds for annual plantings varies among localities, soil types, time of planting and other factors. A partial list of annuals includes soybeans, buckwheat, crimson clover, browntop millet, vetch, or one of the small grains, particularly if you're ready to seed in the fall. Among the perennial, seedings of a mixture of orchardgrass and ladino clover are attractive to deer and most game birds. Korean or kobe lespedeza, though annuals will usually last for a number of years by reseeding. Or use several of the warm season grasses in a mixture. Small grain or annual rye can also be used initially when making permanent seedings to better insure a quick cover. Fescue or any other seed that will form a dense sod should not be used.
Permanently established herbaceous openings, when not intended strictly for their seed production, should be mowed soon after the first of July and no later than August 1. This timing should allow woodland game birds to complete nesting. In addition, mowing will encourage a flush of succulent new growth and accompanying insect production. Fresh "greens", in addition to insects, are major food items for most young game birds. Mowing also makes these foods more accessible, and can provide wildlife with an escape from rain dampened woods and underbrush. Cease mowing after mid-August to allow time for regrowth that will provide food and cover for winter and nesting cover the following spring.