Asymmetric effects of litter removal and litter addition on the structure and function of soil microbial communities in a managed pine forest

Aims Variation in tree litter inputs and understory vegetation caused by human disturbances and climate change in forest plantations can extend to alter forest stability and productivity over time. Here, we explore how tree litter inputs interact with understory plant management to influence belowground processes in a managed forest plantation. Methods We conducted a two-factor nested experimental manipulation of pine litter and understory vegetation in a nutrient-poor Pinus sylvestris var. mongolica plantation. Three levels of tree litter manipulation (ambient litter, litter removal and litter addition) were nested in two levels of understory manipulation (understory intact and understory removal). After two years of manipulation, mineral soils were analyzed for total and extractable C, N and P concentrations, N mineralization, enzyme activities, as well as the microbial community structure (as indicated by phospholipid fatty acids). Results Litter removal had little impact on C and nutrient cycling as well as microbial biomass and community structure in this low nutrient pine plantation; however, litter addition and the removal of the understory vegetation had large impacts on these processes. Litter addition elevated soil microbial biomass, acid phosphatase and beta-1, 4-glucosidase activities, by a much greater degree when the understory vegetation was intact than when the understory was removed. Litter addition also reduced soil available P by 39% when the understory vegetation was intact, and reduced soil available P by 74% and NO3 (-)-N by 45% when the understory was removed. Litter addition significantly reduced the ratio of Gram-positive to Gram-negative bacteria as well as the ratio between PLFA markers cy17:0 and 16:1 omega 7. Understory removal reduced the ratio of PLFA markers cy17:0 to 16:1 omega 7. Conclusions Our study results show that, in this managed pine plantation, soil microbial community structure and function were more sensitive to an increase rather than to a decrease in pine litter inputs. Further, we found that the presence of understory vegetation can increase soil microbial biomass and alleviate the reduction in available N and P concentrations induced by pine litter addition. Thus, preservation of the understory vegetation is an effective way to maintain the functional stability of managed forests on nutrient-poor soils.