Forest Groundcover Restoration1

Holly K. Ober and Jennifer L. Trusty 2

Restoration is the process of assisting the recovery of an area that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed because of human activities. Groundcover restoration involves working to reestablish the herbaceous (nonwoody) species that occurred at a site before it was damaged. People may start groundcover restoration projects for a wide variety of motivations. Some common reasons are to enhance habitat for wildlife, to increase biodiversity, to restore ecosystem services (processes that take place in the natural world that provide benefits to humans), to increase natural beauty, or simply to take personal enjoyment in recreating the natural conditions that occurred historically.

Traditionally, restoration in forested areas focused on the trees, while groundcover received little attention. Recently, however, interest in restoring groundcover plants in the Southeast has increased as appreciation of their beauty and understanding of their importance to the health of ecosystems has grown. Due to the newness of the interest in this topic, no handbook yet exists to guide someone new to the field through the restoration process. Here we provide some suggestions for individuals interested in restoring groundcover.

Planning a Restoration Project

Ultimately, the goal of most vegetation restoration projects is to recreate the community of species that were previously present at the site. The following seven steps will get you on a path towards success in a groundcover restoration project.

  1. Identify the factors that caused degradation of the site.

Before investing time and money in activities that could rebuild the groundcover at a site, determine what degraded the groundcover in the first place. Common problems include fire suppression, changes to the water table, or invasive species. Once you have pinpointed the causes of the damage, determine whether or not you can remove or at least mitigate the harmful conditions. If not, your restoration efforts are unlikely to succeed. For example, if fire suppression has changed the groundcover at the site and prescribed burning will never be possible there, simply reintroducing the missing species is unlikely to keep the site restored over time. In cases where factors that caused degradation can't be changed, restoration activities should not be started; effort should instead be shifted to a different location. In areas where the sources of degradation can be changed, restoration should begin only after these factors have been addressed. For example, in an area where bedding was used to change the water table to favor the growth of pine trees, many native groundcover plant species would not grow well because of the changes in water availability. Restorationists would need to remove the bedding and restore the hydrology (the water cycle) before attempting to reintroduce the native groundcover.

2. Define your goals and objectives in very specific terms.

No single groundcover restoration plan would work at all sites. This is because restoration efforts must be tailored to address the unique problems that exist at each site. Before beginning to plan a timeline of activities for restoring groundcover, it is important to identify the target conditions you are aiming for. The goals of a restoration project should be broad statements of what you hope to achieve. For example, the restoration goal of your site may be to establish native groundcover species in an area that was converted to a pasture of nonnative grasses. Within this goal should be more specific objectives, which are more detailed statements describing the results you want to achieve. An example of an objective for restoring a pasture might include reducing the cover of non-native species to 10% within the next 5 years. By deciding in the beginning exactly what you are trying to achieve, you'll have a much clearer idea of when you've achieved it!

3. Carefully consider how realistic your goals and objectives are.

Finances should be one of your most important considerations when planning for groundcover restoration. It's important to realize that the costs of the long-term maintenance may be more than the costs of the initial restoration activities. Many restoration efforts fail in the long run because not all expenses were included during planning.

Before starting any restoration activities, ensure reliable, continuing access to funding, labor, equipment, and seeds or transplants of the species you want to reintroduce. If any of these resources are limited or uncertain, it is best to delay the start of the project.

The costs that should be budgeted for a groundcover restoration project are:

  • Assessment of both the site to be restored and the reference sites (discussed below)

  • Purchase or rental of mechanical equipment

  • Mechanical preparation and maintenance of the site (disking, mowing, roller-chopping, etc.)

  • Chemical preparation and maintenance of the site (spraying herbicides)

  • Pyric preparation and maintenance of the site (prescribed burning)

  • Purchasing or growing plants and/or seeds to reintroduce to the site

  • Seeding and planting of desired groundcover

  • Monitoring

If labor is limited, try contacting county agricultural Extension agents, local plant societies, botanical gardens, high schools, and colleges. These organizations may have volunteers willing to donate their time and effort to assist with restoration.

4. Identify the reference community for your site.

The goal of most restoration projects is to restore the ecosystem that existed at that site before it was damaged. Unfortunately, a description of the conditions at the site to be restored is often unavailable. When historical descriptions cannot be found and there is no intact habitat on your site to compare to, you can use off-site locations (known as "reference sites") as models. Carefully matched reference sites can help you define your restoration objectives by giving you a standard to imitate. Agency biologists or extension agents working in your area may be able to help you find a suitable reference site for your restoration project.

5. Determine which restoration activities will be needed to reach the restoration goals you set for your site.

Conduct a "site assessment" at your reference sites and at the site you want to restore to inventory the characteristics of each site. This will allow you to compare the sites and develop a list of problems that need to be addressed to make your site more like the reference sites.

The specific activities that will be needed to restore the groundcover at your site can be determined using information in the references listed at the end of this document or by contacting specialists who have been restoring similar habitats in your region. Specific restoration activities you may want to consider are listed in Table 1.

Each of these techniques can be used alone or in combination with others.

6. Develop a detailed project schedule, but be prepared to change it.

Successful restoration requires planning for both the short and long term. Restoration is a long, complicated process that should involve planning, site assessment, selection of reference sites, careful consideration of potential restoration activities, and monitoring. A detailed timeline of what you will do each season of each year will help keep you on track.

However, it is also important to be willing to change your carefully laid plans. "Adaptive management" is an approach to restoration that involves monitoring the effects of your activities as you go so you can change tactics if your actions are not bringing about the results you want. This flexibility increases your chances of success in the long run. It allows you to learn from your mistakes and not repeat them again.

7. Monitor.

The best way to determine if your groundcover restoration project is successful is through periodic sampling of the groundcover. Measure such characteristics as percent cover (the amount of area covered by plants) and species richness (the number of species of plants present) and compare them to the same characteristics at your reference sites. This will help determine how effective your restoration efforts have been. Monitoring is the only way you can identify which restoration activities are producing the results you want and which are not.

Keeping a photographic record is a good way to guage your progress. Set up photostations so that you can take pictures at the same locations looking in the same directions at regular intervals over time. Making use of photostations is an efficient and simple method to observe changes in vegetation. Along with photographs, conduct regular plant sampling to determine which groundcover species are thriving, and how close you are to restoration success.

Important Considerations for Groundcover Establishment

The number of decisions that must be made in a groundcover restoration project can be overwhelming. You need to decide which site conditions to change, select techniques to make these changes, determine if invasive species need to be controlled and if so which techniques would be best for this, decide whether to rely on nature to bring in desired species or to use direct seeding or outplanting of seedlings/tubelings, decide where and how to obtain seeds or seedlings/tubelings, determine what equipment you will need to do the planting, and decide whether prescribed burning would be appropriate, and if so, how often. Furthermore, the time of year that each of these activities takes place and the ordering of activities will affect your restoration success. There is a lot to consider!

Due to the newness of the interest in groundcover restoration, many of the restorationists who have conducted successful projects have not yet written descriptions of their successes. Much of the valuable information they have learned is impossible for others to access.

To help people interested in groundcover restoration to learn from one another, we have created a map of recent groundcover restoration projects. Figure 1 shows the location of over 150 groundcover restoration sites throughout Florida. We recommend contacting individuals working on groundcover restoration in your area for additional assistance. For more information on who is conducting groundcover restoration, see the groundcover restoration manual at

Figure 1. Map of restoration sites.
Figure 1.  Map of restoration sites.

Additional information

Brockway, D. G., K. W. Outcalt, D. J. Tomczak, and E. E. Johnson. 2005. Restoration of longleaf pine ecosystems. USDA Forest Service GTR-SRS-083. Asheville, NC: Southern Research Station.

Gordon, D. 1994. "Translocation of species into conservation areas: a key for natural resource managers." Natural Areas Journal 14: 31–37.

Main, M., G. W. Tanner. 1990. Effects of Fire on Florida's Wildlife and Wildlife Habitat. UW132. Gainesville: University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. (February 2019)

Trusty, J. L., and H. K. Ober. 2009. Groundcover restoration in forests of the Southeastern United States. Available at

USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. 2008. Range planting: Conservation practice standard 550 guidance. Field office technical guide, section 4. (February 2019)

Walker, J. L. and A. M. Silletti (2006). Restoring the ground layer of longleaf pine ecosystems. Pp. 297-333 in S. Jose, E. J. Jokela, and D. L. Miller (editors). The Longleaf Pine Ecosystem. New York, NY: Springer.


Table 1. 

Activities that can help establish native groundcover.

Restoration activities

What they will accomplish

Harvesting or thinning canopy trees

  • increase sunlight at the ground level

  • reduce competition between trees and groundcover

Mechanical treatment of shrubs (i.e., disking, roller-chopping, mowing)

  • increase sunlight at the ground level

  • reduce competition between shrubs and groundcover

Chemical treatment of invasive species (i.e., spraying herbicides)

  • reduce competition between invasive and native groundcover

Pyric treatment (i.e., prescribed burning)

  • promote desired groundcover

Outplanting or direct seeding

  • reintroduce desired groundcover


1. This document is WEC269, one of a series of the Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, UF/IFAS Extension. Original publication date November 2009. Revised February 2019. Visit the EDIS website at for the currently supported version of this publication.
2. Holly K. Ober, associate professor and Extension specialist, Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation; and Jennifer L. Trusty, research assistant; UF/IFAS North Florida Research and Education Center, Quincy, FL 32351.