NC State Extension Publications


Herbaceous plants are typically sunloving, non-woody plants that occupy fields, road-sides and clearings. While common in large openings, they may be a limiting factor to woodland wildlife, particularly wild turkey and ruffed grouse. This publication describes methods for maintaining and establishing these valuable sources of food and cover for wildlife.

Herbaceous plants include a wide variety of grasses and forbs. Forbs are broad-leaf plants often referred to as wildflowers or weeds. Natural and cultivated herbaceous plants are valuable sources of food (plant and insect) and cover for many wildlife species. Herbaceous plants include both annuals and perennials. Annuals must reseed each year while perennials persist 2 or more years. The frequency, timing, and extent of vegetation management will largely determine the mix of plants within a clearing.

Wildlife users:

  • Quail
  • Rabbits
  • Deer
  • Ruffled grouse
  • Ground nesting birds
  • Wild turkey

Maintain Existing Openings

Establishing clearings and fields can be costly. Maintain openings on log decks, old home sites, abandoned fields and other unused areas adjacent to woodlands before creating new clearings. The following methods provide cost-effective maintenance for clearings:

Mowing and Brush Chopping

Periodic mowing controls woody vegetation that naturally overtakes abandoned fields and pastures. Best results are achieved using a rotary mower pulled by a tractor on a 1-5 year interval.


Disking tends to promote more annuals than mowing because bare soil is exposed and more weed seeds can become established. Unlike farming operations, disking for wildlife is not aimed at uprooting and turning under all existing plant matter. Vary the disking intensity to rejuvenate existing stems and expose bare soil for plant germination. Plant response to disking will vary by season.

Herbaceous plants encouraged by seasonal disking.
Plant Spring Summer Fall Winter
Blackberries X X
Patridge pea X
Beggarweed X X
Pokeweed X
Ragweed X X
Modified from J.L. Landers and B.S. Mueller.

Experiment with disking times to achieve a desirable plant mix for your site.

Disking and mowing are ideal for partial treatment of clearings and fields. Strip mowing or disking promotes cover adjacent to tender herbaceous regrowth (Figure 1). Habitat components like food and cover in close proximity promote the health and survival of young quail and other early successional wildlife. The figure below illustrates a typical three year rotation system that provides succulent forbs and grasses adjacent to older protective cover.

Selective Herbicide Treatment

Herbicides are one of the most effective and labor saving methods of controlling woody growth. Selective spraying, wicking or injecting of individual trees and shrubs can maintain desired herbaceous plants. Consult with your local extension agent, wildlife biologist or pesticide supplier for recommendations on the appropriate herbicide for your situation and local conditions. Always follow label directions.


Herbaceous strips are best created along existing fire lines, old woods roads, utility rights-of-way, and haul or skid roads. On woodland roads or similar strip openings, “daylight” or remove trees to a width that permits full sunlight to reach the ground. The objective is to have herbaceous cover in the center strip or the travel portion of a road, and allow the daylighted edges to resprout to a shrubby or brushy stage (Figure 2). Daylighting promotes protective cover and plant diversity for wildlife.

Prescribed Burning

Prescribed burning is the least costly, most versatile wildlife management tool. In open fields and mature, sparse pine stands prescribed fire increases the yield and quality of herbaceous plants, especially legumes. Prescribed fire conducted on a one-to-two year interval favors herbaceous plants by exposing soil for germination, releasing nutrients and reducing shade from young trees and shrubs.

Figure 1. Simplified layout of strip mowing / disking plan.

Figure 1. Simplified layout of strip mowing / disking plan.

Figure 2. Daylighted road.

Figure 2. Daylighted road.

Establishing Herbaceous Plants

Herbaceous, Early - Successional and Cultivated Plants That Benefit Wildlife

Legumes Clovers
Kobe lespedeza Alsike clover
Bobwhite soybean Red (crimson) clover
Korean lespedeza Ladino clover
Patridge pea
Grasses Buckwheat
Big bluestem Soybeans
Indiangrass Wheat
Orchardgrass Millet
Switchgrass Corn
Atlantic coastal panicgrass Oats
Ryegrass Rye

When selecting the proper plant for wildlife, consider target species, location, soil types, and planting season. Always soil test and prepare the seedbed before establishment. Most forest sites are acidic and will require lime and, phosphorus. In the absence of a soil test, apply 50 - 100 lbs. of lime per 1000 square feet. Apply 10 lbs. of 10-10-10 fertilizer per 1000 square feet in spring and fall for best results.

The table below provides information on perennial mixtures and general planting seasons. Planting dates vary by region and site - always consult your local extension agent, soil conservationist or wildlife biologist for establishment procedures and planting dates.

Planting rates and dates for herbaceous plant mixtures.
Perennial Mixtures Rate/ 1,000 sq Season
White clover
1.8 - 2.6 oz.
.75 oz.
spring or fall
Lathco flatpea
Italian ryegrass
11 oz.
7.5 oz.
spring or fall
Ladino or red clover
5.5 oz.
.75 oz.
spring or fall
Korean Lespedeza
5.5 oz.
2.9 oz.
5.5 oz.
spring or fall
2.2 oz.
3.7 oz.
spring or fall


Bobwhite Quail Management: A Habitat Approach. J.L Landers and B.S. Mueller. Tall Timbers Research Sta. and Quail Unlimited.

Wildlife and Prescribed Burning. D. Hayes, R. Richards, and E. J. Jones. 1994. North Carolina Cooperative Extension. AG-457.


Associate Director and State Program Leader, ANR and CRD
Extension Forestry Specialist
Forestry & Environmental Resources

Publication date: Jan. 1, 1994

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