Edge feathering or softening is a technique used to create a smooth transition between the hard edges between forest or woodlot and crop or grass fields. By softening the woodland edge, habitat for rabbits, quail, ruffed grouse, and other shrubland wildlife can be created. By pushing back the edge 40 feet or more the crop field edge adjacent to the woodland is also improved. The removal of trees along the edge will help reduce competition with crops for sun light, water, and minerals. Several methods can be used to create this softening.
Shrub Planting Method
This involves planting a minimum of 8 to 30 rows of shrubs with a 5ft X 5ft spacing in the open area adjacent to woods. This method creates a smooth transition between the open field and the woods edge; however, it reduces the overall field size and may not be practical in some crop fields because cropping acres can not be sacrificed. The area that will be planted to shrubs should be sprayed at least once with glyphosate to control weed competition. If the area is dominated by fescue it should be sprayed twice at a rate of 1.5 to 2 quarts/acre of glyphosate. Recommended shrub species ideal for edge softening include: Chickasaw plum (Prunus angustifolia), American plum (Prunus americana), silky dogwood (Cornus amomum), Rough-leaf Dogwood (Cornus drummondii), black raspberry (Rhubus allegheniensis), pasture rose (Rosa carolina), false indigobush (Amorpha fruticosa), fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica), smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), coral berry (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus), and New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus).
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Natural Revegetation Method
A second method for creating a feathered or softened edge between a woodland and its adjoining habitat is to allow the area immediately adjacent to the woods to grow up in natural vegetation. This may be as simple as not mowing the open field within 40 to 150 ft of the woodland edge. However,if there is thick fescue sod or other invasive plants present these should be treated with glyphosate in the fall and spring to control the fescue or other exotics that might impede the establishment of desirable native vegetation.
Whether site preparation is required or not, natural revegetation along the edge can be encouraged in stages to produce even more of a gradual transition between habitats. After determining how wide of an area will be allowed to grow up, divide this total width into three sections or zones. The first zone, closest to the woods, should be allowed to grow up in weeds , shrubs, and spalings for three to five years. After this period of time the first zone would continue to grow and the second zone would be allowed to begin growing in weeds shrubs and saplings for approximately the same amount of time. Finally the last zone would be allowed to grow up.
This will then create three zones the one closest to the forest edge will have large shrubs and sapling (12-15 years old), the middle zone will have small saplings and briars (6 to 10 years old) and the zone closest to the open field will have small seedlings and shrubs (3 to 5 years old). To maintain the zone closest to the open field in shrubs you can mow it every three to 5 years to keep trees from maturing and rejuvenate the shrubs.
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Edge Feathering Method
A third method for softening an edge is to thin the adjacent woodland edge a minimum of 40 ft out to a maximum of 150ft from the open field. There are 3 zones in this edge feathering technique. Each zone makes up 33% of the distance. For instance for a 60ft edge feathering, each zone would be 20ft wide. In the first zone closest to the open field, 75% of the canopy is removed Shrubs and small trees are left, but overstory trees are cut. In the second zone 50% of the canopy is removed. In the third zone 25% of the canopy is removed. In all zones tree tops are left to create brush piles and stumps are treated with glyphosate or triclopyr to limit stump regrowth. Areas of fescue,other exotic sod forming grasses, or other invasive plants are also sprayed with glyphosate to reduce competition with native plants.
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Border Edge Cut Method
The fourth method for softening a woodland edge is to cut all trees within 40ft to 150ft. In the cut zone approximately 25% of the trees < 6 inches in diameter are half-cut to create living brush piles. All remaining trees are cut down. Tops of other trees should be left to create brush piles and stumps of trees that are completely cut off should be treated with glyphosate or triclopyr to limit stump regrowth. A few oaks and hickories should be left to provide additional food sources. Areas of fescue shouldbe sprayed with glyphosate to reduce competition with native plants. After cutting this area over time will grow up in shrubs and saplings creatinga softened edge.
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To maintain softened edges for quail and rabbits additional cutting or prescribed burning should be conducted on a regular basis. Cutting should occur every 10 to 15 years to maintain an open shrubby habitat and prevent the area from becoming a closed canopy forest again. Burning should occur on a rotation of 4 to 6 years.
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Video provided by Missouri Department of Conservation