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Diverse plant communities improve soil structure and, therefore, ecosystem services

Plant diversity improves soil stability, the results of a greenhouse experiment and a long-term field study show. This study, which covered a range of different soil types, is one of the first to investigate the effects of plant diversity on soil structure, which is important for provision of ecosystem services, such as carbon storage and the mitigation of excessive run-off. The findings could help tackle the problem of soil degradation, the researchers suggest.

The long-term experiment, conducted over 10 years at Jena, central Germany, allowed the researchers to confirm whether the effects detected in the glasshouses were also occurring in the field across different soil types. The experiment comprised 82 plots with various numbers of grassland species in each, ranging from one to 60. Species included grasses, legumes and herbs common to European grasslands. The researchers measured various soil properties, including aggregate stability (the ability of soil particles to bind together and therefore resist disintegration) and organic matter content, and related them to plant diversity.

The results showed that the number of different plant species had a significant effect on stability. In both the mesocosm and field experiment — even though the soils had different physical and chemical properties — plant diversity had a strong, positive impact on all measures of aggregate stability. Diversity was also linked to an increase in the production of plant biomass above ground.

The researchers also suggest that growing a combination of the species identified could have complementary effects on soil structure and help to combat soil degradation, which is widespread across Europe and the world. Developing diverse plant communities could help to restore soil function, the researchers suggest, enabling the maintenance and restoration of soil ecosystem services that are essential for human wellbeing.

1. Botanic Gardens Conservation International. Major threats to plant diversity.

Source: Gould, I.J., Quinton, J.N., Weigelt, A., De Deyn, G.B. & Bardgett, R.D.(2016). Plant diversity and root traits benefit physical properties key to soil function in grasslands. Ecology Letters, 19(9): 1140–1149. DOI: 10.1111/ele.12652.