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Long-term gravel–sand mulch affects soil physicochemical properties, microbial biomass and enzyme activities in the semi-arid Loess Plateau of North-western China

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The use of gravel–sand mulch is a traditional water-conservation technique in the semi-arid Loess Plateau of North-western China. In this study, we investigated the 16-year effects of this mulch on soil physicochemical properties (total organic C, N and P; bulk density; Ca, Cu, Fe, Mg, Mn and Zn; soil texture; pH), microbial biomass C, N and P and enzymatic activities (peroxidase, dehydrogenase, invertase, β-glucosidase, alkaline phosphomonoesterase and urease) in a field trial in China's Gaolan County. We examined how these parameters changed after 7, 11 and 16 years of mulching. After 16 years, soil bulk density and sand content increased significantly. Soil Ca and Cu contents did not change significantly during the study period, but Fe, Mg, Mn and Zn contents all decreased significantly after 16 years. The total N increased significantly after 11 years, but total C and N both decreased dramatically and significantly after 16 years (by 22% and 13%, respectively, compared to the control). The mulch significantly increased microbial biomass C (by 29% after 11 years), with similar results for N and P, but these positive effects were lost after 16 years. Enzyme activities revealed changes in the soil microbial community over time; the mulch increased enzyme activities until 11 years, followed by a significant decrease that suggested degradation of soil quality after long-term mulching. The positive effects of the mulch (increasing soil temperature) could explain the high microbial biomass and enzyme activities after 11 years. However, long-term increases in soil bulk density and sand content (caused by mixing of the mulch layer with the surface soil) and a lack of inputs of organic matter (caused by the barrier created by the mulch layer) led to degradation of the soil after 16 years.
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Keywords: gravel–sand mulch; mulching; soil enzymatic activity; soil microbial biomass; total nitrogen; total organic carbon

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research Institute, Chinese Academy of Sciences, 320 West Donggang Road, Lanzhou, 730000, China

Publication date: 19 May 2014

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