What if there was a simpler way? What if all you had to do was kill the grass, disk up a spot, throw out some seed and then harrow the site?
Landowners interested in creating good quail habitat should have 10 to 25 percent of each “quail unit” or field in shrubby cover. Shrubby cover can be created by edge feathering, creating downed tree structures, enhancing native shrub thickets and planting shrubs. When planting shrubs many people use bare root or container-grown plants. However, shrubs can also be established by seeding if you follow a few critical steps.
The first step to site preparation is choosing the correct location and size for the CHQ. Select at least a 30-by-50-foot area (1,500 square feet) adjacent to early successional vegetation, along a woodland edge, or a disturbed area such as a food plot. Do not select locations that are prone to erosion or show signs of active erosion as these sites often do not have sufficient nutrients to support a successful shrub planting.
Next, kill the existing vegetation and prepare a firm seedbed. The goal is to eliminate any existing vegetation that will compete with the shrub seeds for nutrients and sunlight. This includes both cool-season grasses and native warm-season grasses. First apply a herbicide, such as glyphosate, to kill any and all competing vegetation. For spring seedings, begin site preparation in the previous fall with a spring follow-up. For fall seedings, begin site preparation in mid-summer with an additional early fall follow-up. Then prepare a clean seedbed by disking the site with a disk or roto-tiller. Depending on the existing stand of vegetation, several passes with a disk may be required to create a clean site (see picture below). The most important step in a direct shrub seeding is to prepare a clean, firm seedbed. Before broadcasting the seed, firm the site by cultipacking (rolling) the seedbed.
Some of the preferred native species of shrubs to use in direct seedings are American plum, Prunus americana, false indigo, Amorpha fruticosa, choke cherry, Prunus virginiana, common elderberry, Sambucus Canadensis, common blackberry, Rubus allegheniensis, aromatic sumac, Rhus aromatica and shrub dogwood Cornus sp. Shrub dogwood should only be used as a component in a seeding and not as a single species planting. If deer predation is an issue, planting species such as false indigo, aromatic sumac and blackberry may be more successful. A seeding of at least three species is recommended to provide diversity.
If you collect your own seeds, harvest only ripe fruits. Depending on the species, this can be from mid-summer through early fall. Watch the fruits closely, as birds and other animals are also waiting for the fruits to ripen. I have found that wild plum is usually ripe in August and the shrub dogwoods (depending on the species) ripen in August and September. If possible try to clean the pulp from the seed. Clean seed is easier to spread and will not attract rodents. When collecting your own seed there is no way of estimating pure live seed or bulk seed weight, so experiment and find what rate works best. About a dozen big elderberry seed heads is enough seed to establish an elderberry covey headquarter, and a milk jug full of wild plums is enough to establish a good stand of plum (in my book that's about as scientific as I can get).
The following year, make sure to control annual grasses with a selective grass herbicide. Weed control cannot be stressed enough. Follow-up herbicide treatments are often needed the second and third years. Since most shrub seedlings will be less than 10 inches tall the first year, you might be able to high-mow the plot. To provide instant brushy cover, add a few downed trees to the middle of the covey headquarter. Be patient; a direct seeding will take several years to provide adequate shrubby cover for quail. The elderberry covey headquarter pictured above is five years old and looking great. I have wild plum seedings that are 4 years old and the plums are about 4 feet tall.
So if you are tired of planting bare root seedlings, become a "Johnny Plum Seed" and try planting a covey headquarter from seed. The low cost of hand-collecting or buying seed makes this a fun project to at least try during the summer.
Thank you to Chris Hamilton, Travis Dinsdale, Keith Jackson, Lisa Potter, Joe Tousignant and Tricia Radford for their contributions.