Plant and Soil

, Volume 415, Issue 1–2, pp 37–55 | Cite as

Plant-mediated rhizospheric interactions in maize-pigeon pea intercropping enhance soil aggregation and organic phosphorus storage

  • Gina GarlandEmail author
  • E. K. Bünemann
  • A. Oberson
  • E. Frossard
  • J. Six
Regular Article


Background and aims

In Malawi, strategies are being sought to boost maize production through improvements in soil fertility. This study assessed the impact of intercropping maize (Zea mays) with pigeon pea (Cajanus cajan) in Lixisols of Malawi on yield, biological N fixation, soil aggregation, and P forms within soil aggregates.


Maize and pigeon pea were grown intercropped in pots, with varying degrees of root interaction in order to understand the relative importance of biochemical versus physical rhizospheric interactions. Following harvest, soils were separated into aggregate fractions using wet-sieving, and the nutrient content of all fractions was assessed.


The proportion of macroaggregates and microaggregates increased by 52 and 111%, respectively, in the intercropping treatment compared to sole maize, which significantly increased organic P storage in the microaggregates of intercropped compared to sole maize (84 versus 29 mg P kg−1, respectively). Biologically fixed N increased from 89% in the sole pigeon pea to 96% in the intercropped system.


Intercropping maize with pigeon pea can have a significant and positive impact on soil structure as well as nutrient storage in these high P-sorbing soils. This is caused primarily by physical root contact and to a lesser degree by biochemical activities.


Phosphorus Soil aggregation Zea mays Cajanus cajan Intercropping Lixisol 



We would like to thank Dr. Sieglinde Snapp, Dr. Regis Chikowo and Betserai Isaac Nyoka for help with obtaining the soil for the greenhouse trial, Dr. Federica Tamburini for help with the mass spectrometer measurements, as well as Silvan Strebel and Dr. Ping Huang for help with laboratory analyses.

Supplementary material

11104_2016_3145_MOESM1_ESM.docx (42 kb)
Appendix Table 1 Description of nutrient solution added to greenhouse pots modified from Hoagland and Arnon (1950). The element added is the total amount added over course of the trial, which was split into four applications during the growing season (DOCX 41 kb)
11104_2016_3145_MOESM2_ESM.docx (120 kb)
Appendix Table 2 Recovery for all C, N, and P pools from the soil aggregate fractions relative to bulk soil measurements. Values presented are the average (n = 3) with standard deviation in parentheses (DOCX 119 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Environmental Systems Science, Group of Sustainable Agroecosystems, Swiss Federal Institute of TechnologyETH ZurichZurichSwitzerland
  2. 2.Department of Environmental Systems Science, Group of Plant Nutrition, Swiss Federal Institute of TechnologyETH ZurichLindauSwitzerland
  3. 3.Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL)FrickSwitzerland

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