Plant and Soil

, Volume 357, Issue 1–2, pp 147–159 | Cite as

Nitrogen fixation in annual and perennial legume-grass mixtures across a fertility gradient

  • Meagan E. SchipanskiEmail author
  • Laurie E. Drinkwater
Regular Article


Background and aims

The selection of legume species and species mixtures influences agroecosystem nitrogen (N) and carbon cycling. We utilized a fertility gradient to investigate the effects of plant species interactions on biological N fixation of an annual and perennial legume in response to shifting soil resource availability.


Legume N fixation of annual field pea (Pisum sativum) and perennial red clover (Trifolium pratense) grown in monoculture and mixtures with oats (Avena sativa) or orchardgrass (Dactylis glomerata) was estimated using the 15N natural abundance method across 15 farm fields and we measured six soil N pools ranging from labile to more recalcitrant.


Evidence of complementary and facilitative species interactions was stronger for the perennial red clover-orchardgrass mixture than for the annual field pea-oat mixture (N Land Equivalency Ratios were 1.6 and 1.2, respectively). We estimated that the transfer of fixed N from red clover to orchardgrass increased aboveground N fixation estimates by 15% from 33 to 38 kg N ha−1. Despite a more than 2-fold range in soil organic matter levels and more than 3-fold range in labile soil N pools across field sites, the N fertility gradient was not a strong predictor of N fixation. While grass N assimilation was positively correlated with soil N pools, we found only weak, inverse correlations between legume N fixation and soil N availability. In grass-legume mixtures, soil N availability indirectly influenced N fixation through plant competition.


These results suggest that increasing diversity of cropping systems, particularly through the incorporation of perennial mixtures into rotations, could improve overall agroecosystem N cycling efficiency.


Agroecosystem Cover crops Facilitation Functional diversity Intercrops Nutrient cycling 



We thank Michael Russelle for helpful comments; Ann Piombino for field assistance; collaborating farmers for their participation; and two anonymous reviewers for their constructive suggestions. Funding was provided by USDA CSREES-NRI-CGP (grant #2003- 35101–12932 to LED) and the Land Institute.

Supplementary material

11104_2012_1137_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (187 kb)
ESM 1 (PDF 186 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of HorticultureCornell UniversityIthacaUSA
  2. 2.Department of Crop and Soil SciencesThe Pennsylvania State UniversityUniversity ParkUSA

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