The effects of plants on soil vary greatly between plant species and in mixed plant communities this can lead to spatial variation in plant‐soil feedback (PSF) effects. Such spatial effects are thought to influence plant species coexistence, but the empirical evidence for this hypothesis is limited.
Here, we investigate how spatial heterogeneity in PSFs influences plant growth and competition. The experiment was carried out with high and low nutrient soils to examine how these effects depend on soil fertility. We collected soil from field plots planted for three years with monocultures of Anthoxanthum odoratum and Centaurea jacea and tested the performance of the two species in a greenhouse experiment in heterogeneous soils consisting of patches of “own” and “foreign” soils and in soils where the “own” and “foreign” soils were mixed homogeneously. In the test phase, plants were grown in monocultures and in 1:1 mixtures in live or sterilized soils.
Overall, A. odoratum in monocultures produced less aboveground biomass in heterogeneous soils than in homogeneous soils. Centaurea jacea produced less belowground biomass in live heterogeneous soils than in live homogeneous soils, but there was no difference between sterile heterogeneous and homogeneous soils. The belowground biomass per patch varied more in pots with live heterogeneous soils than in pots with live homogeneous soils for both plant species, but there was no difference between pots with sterile heterogeneous and homogeneous soils. In pots with plant mixtures, the difference in aboveground biomass between the two competing species tended to be smaller in heterogeneous than in homogeneous soils. In pots with heterogeneous soils, both plant species grown in mixtures produced more aboveground biomass in “foreign” soil patches than in “own” soil patches. The responses of plants to heterogeneous PSFs were not different between low and high nutrient soils.
Our results show that spatially heterogeneous PSFs can influence plant performance and competition via reducing the growth inequality between the two competing species by allowing selective growth in foreign soil patches, independent of initial soil nutrient availability. Such effect may slow down exclusion processes and thus promote the coexistence of competing species at the local scale in mixed plant communities.