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Carbon and nitrogen mineralization differ between incorporated shoots and roots of legume versus non-legume based cover crops



Cover crops (CC) have been widely used to improve soil quality and sustain agricultural productivity. However, the turnover of carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) from different species and parts of CCs incorporated into the soil under Northern European conditions remains unclear.


In this study, we examined mineralization of C and N from isolated shoots and roots of two leguminous and two non-leguminous CCs labeled with 15N tracers in a 100-day incubation experiment at 10 °C.


After 100 days incubation, the average net N mineralization was 33% from the leguminous CCs and 20% from the non-legumes. Net N mineralization from shoots was 1–15% (% of the N input) higher than that from the corresponding roots, and the net C mineralization accounted for 53–62% and 18–39% of the total C applied with CC shoots and roots, respectively. The C/N ratio of plant residues was a good predictor for net N mineralization, while the lignin concentration was a good predictor for C mineralization from both roots and shoots. Roots of both legume and non-legume CCs caused net immobilization of (unlabeled) soil N, whereas no significant soil N immobilization occurred from shoots with low C/N ratios.


Our results indicate that different CC characteristics (C/N ratio and lignin) control the turnover of residue N and C, respectively, in the soil. Our results further showed very limited interactions with soil N turnover (no priming effects) when materials with low C/N ratios were applied to soil.

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This work was supported by the HighCrop and RowCrop projects, which were part of the Organic RDD and RDD2 programs, coordinated by ICROFS and funded by the Ministry of Environment and Food. We would like to thank Karin Dyrberg and Mette Nielsen for skillful technical assistance. Further, the financial support of the China Scholarship Council for Fucui Li is acknowledged. The authors thank Miriam Gieske from the University of Minnesota for the assistance with the language of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Fucui Li.

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Responsible Editor: Zucong Cai.

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Li, F., Sørensen, P., Li, X. et al. Carbon and nitrogen mineralization differ between incorporated shoots and roots of legume versus non-legume based cover crops. Plant Soil 446, 243–257 (2020).

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  • Nitrogen mineralization
  • 15N
  • Residue decomposition
  • Cover crop
  • Root
  • Plant residue quality