Increasing plant species richness generally enhances plant biomass production, which may enhance accumulation of carbon (C) in soil. However, the net change in soil C also depends on the effect of plant diversity on C loss through decomposition of organic matter. Plant diversity can affect organic matter decomposition via changes in litter species diversity and composition, and via alteration of abiotic and/or biotic attributes of the soil (soil legacy effect). Previous studies examined the two effects on decomposition rates separately, and do therefore not elucidate the relative importance of the two effects, and their potential interaction. Here we separated the effects of litter mixing and litter identity from the soil legacy effect by conducting a factorial laboratory experiment where two fresh single root litters and their mixture were mixed with soils previously cultivated with single plant species or mixtures of two or four species. We found no evidence for litter-mixing effects. In contrast, root litter-induced CO2 production was greater in soils from high diversity plots than in soils from monocultures, regardless of the type of root litter added. Soil microbial PLFA biomass and composition at the onset of the experiment was unaffected by plant species richness, whereas soil potential nitrogen (N) mineralization rate increased with plant species richness. Our results indicate that the soil legacy effect may be explained by changes in soil N availability. There was no effect of plant species richness on decomposition of a recalcitrant substrate (compost). This suggests that the soil legacy effect predominantly acted on the decomposition of labile organic matter. We thus demonstrated that plant species richness enhances root litter-induced soil respiration via a soil legacy effect but not via a litter-mixing effect. This implies that the positive impacts of species richness on soil C sequestration may be weakened by accelerated organic matter decomposition.