Invasibility of a nutrient-poor pasture through resident and non-resident herbs is controlled by litter, gap size and propagule pressure.
Since inference concerning the relative effects of propagule pressure, biotic interactions, site conditions and species traits on the invasibility of plant communities is limited, we carried out a field experiment to study the role of these factors for absolute and relative seedling emergence in three resident and three non-resident confamilial herb species on a nutrient-poor temperate pasture. We set up a factorial field experiment with two levels each of the factors litter cover (0 and 400 g m-2), gap size (0.01 and 0.1 m2) and propagule pressure (5 and 50 seeds) and documented soil temperature, soil water content and relative light availability. Recruitment was recorded in spring and autumn 2010 and in spring 2011 to cover initial seedling emergence, establishment after summer drought and final establishment after the first winter. Litter alleviated temperature and moisture conditions and had positive effects on proportional and absolute seedling emergence during all phases of recruitment. Large gaps presented competition-free space with high light availability but showed higher temperature amplitudes and lower soil moisture. Proportional and absolute seedling recruitment was significantly higher in large than in small gaps. In contrast, propagule pressure facilitated absolute seedling emergence but had no effects on proportional emergence or the chance for successful colonisation. Despite significantly higher initial seedling emergence of resident than non-resident species, seed mass and other species-specific traits may be better predictors for idiosyncratic variation in seedling establishment than status. Our data support the fluctuating resource hypothesis and demonstrate that the reserve effect of seeds may facilitate seedling emergence. The direct comparison of propagule pressure with other environmental factors showed that propagule pressure affects absolute seedling abundance, which may be crucial for species that depend on other individuals for sexual reproduction. However, propagule batch size did not significantly affect the chance for successful colonisation of disturbed plots.