Plant and Soil

, Volume 419, Issue 1–2, pp 53–70 | Cite as

Soil amendments alter plant biomass and soil microbial activity in a semi-desert grassland

  • Martha GebhardtEmail author
  • Jeffrey S. Fehmi
  • Craig Rasmussen
  • Rachel E. Gallery
Regular Article



We tested the effects of soil biotic disturbance and biochar or woodchip amendments on plant growth, soil microbial biomass and activity, and soil physiochemical parameters in response to disturbance in a semi-desert grassland.


In a 78-day growth chamber experiment using six grass species native to the Southwest U.S., we compared the effects of autoclave heatshock, which mimics soil stockpiling in hot drylands, and amendments on plant and microbial biomass, potential extracellular enzyme activity, and soil moisture and nutrient availability.


Plant biomass was lowest in woodchip-amended soils, and highest in autoclaved and biochar-amended soils (p < 0.05). Root:shoot ratios were higher in the autoclaved and woodchip-amended soils (p < 0.05). Biochar addition improved soil water-holding capacity resulting in higher dissolved organic carbon (p < 0.001) and nitrogen (p < 0.001). Soil microbial activity and plant biomass were not correlated. Amendment-induced changes in activity could be partially explained by nutrient availability. Neither microbial biomass nor activity recovered to pre-disturbance values.


In this study, biochar and woodchip amendment and autoclave-induced changes to moisture and nutrient availability influenced plant biomass allocation and soil microbial activity. Amendments increased carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus mineralizing enzyme activities with no significant change in microbial biomass, indicating that soil recovery in drylands is a long-term process. Understanding plant-soil feedbacks in drylands is critically important to mitigating climate and anthropogenic-driven changes and retaining or reestablishing native plant communities.


Autoclave heat-shock Biochar Drylands Extracellular enzyme activity Plant-soil feedbacks Woodchips 



This study was carried out with financial support from Rosemont Copper Company. JSF, REG, and CR received partial support from the University of Arizona Agricultural Experiment Station. REG acknowledges support from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA ARZT-1360540-H12-199). We thank Jean McLain and Yusheng Qian for technical support and use of the PikoReal™ Real-Time PCR System, and two anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments and suggestions.

Supplementary material

11104_2017_3327_MOESM1_ESM.xlsx (33 kb)
ESM 1 (XLSX 32 kb)


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© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Natural Resources and the Environment, Environment and Natural Resources 2The University of ArizonaTucsonUSA
  2. 2.Department of Soil, Water, and Environmental ScienceThe University of ArizonaTucsonUSA
  3. 3.Department of Ecology and Evolutionary BiologyThe University of ArizonaTucsonUSA

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