We tested simulated effects of herb competition on the performance of planted seedlings of Quercus faginea ssp. faginea in Mediterranean abandoned cropland. We produced three types of environment with respect to herb competition: absence of competition (AC), below-ground competition (BGC), and total competition (TC). We assessed the performance of Q. faginea seedlings in each treatment in five ways: (1) seedling mortality, (2) leaf length and total plant leaf area, (3) water potential, (4) total biomass and biomass allocation, and (5) non-structural carbohydrate storage in different plant organs. We also measured (6) soil moisture at different depths and (7) biomass production of herbs. The TC treatment reduced water availability more than the BGC treatment, in agreement with the most pronounced water stress in seedlings under TC conditions. BGC and TC treatments showed a high and similar seedling mortality, which was one order of magnitude higher than that in the AC treatment. Competition treatments affected glucose concentration in both shoots and roots, and followed the rank TC > BGC > AC. Q. faginea seedlings might compensate a lower water availability through glucose accumulation in leaves to reduce the osmotic potential. There was a maximum starch concentration in the BGC treatment that hints that a moderate resource limitation would limit tissue growth but not carbon assimilation. We conclude that the negative effects of herbs on Q. faginea seedlings are mostly a result of competition for water, and that this competition is noticeable since the earliest stages of the establishment. Complete weed removal is a technique that would strongly improve seedling survivorship.
Abbreviations: AC = Absence of competition; BGC = Below-ground herb competition; TC = Total herb competition.